HuguenotsBBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme this morning carried a report about the large-scale arrival of the Huguenots in England, particularly following the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, and about the economic and cultural consquences of such a large presence (some 50,000 Protestant Walloons and Huguenots altogether). Among other things, they gave the English language the word ‘refugee’, which came from the French refugié, a noun use of the past participle of refugier “to take shelter, protect,” from the Old French refuge. The word continued to mean “one seeking asylum,” until 1914, when it evolved to mean “one fleeing home”, being first applied in this sense to Belgian civilians heading west to escape fighting in World War I (Europe’s first modern refugee crisis). Of course, the concept of asylum and the de facto status of being somebody recognised as fleeing persecution long predated the Huguenots, but they gave us the word to embody the concept. The Belgian refugee crisis of 1914 was swiftly followed by the consequences of the Russian civil war (about 800,000 Russian refugees had become stateless when Lenin revoked citizenship for all Russian expatriates in 1921) and the creation of the so-called Nansen passports for refugees (issued by the League of Nations and broadened in 1933 to also include Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Turkish refugees). And then of course came the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which, it is now forgotten, was initially limited to protecting European refugees caused by World War II and the Cold War (a 1967 Protocol removed the geographical and time limits). Large scale floods of refugees in Europe may now be a thing of the past, but we shouldn’t forget that the origins of the concept and the noble principles embodied in the Geneva Convention were pretty much a European creation, from both a positive and a negative point of view.