The asylum seekers who reshaped the world

New frontiers: From music to physics to philosophy, these refugees have had a huge impact.

Does the world need a new approach to refugees? The UK has announced changes to its asylum law, hoping to discourage displaced people from reaching the country illegally.

Farrokh Bulsara’s home was shattered by violence. In 1964, a revolution in Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa overthrew the ruling sultan. In the ensuing chaos, 17,000 people died.

Farrokh’s family fled to Britain, where they were resettled in Feltham, to the west of London. Less than ten years after his family had left Zanzibar, he was on his way to global fame. His rock band, Queen, was taking off, and so was Farrokh, who had renamed himself Freddy Mercury.

Mercury’s is just one among countless stories of people throughout history who have been forced to leave their homes because of violence, disaster or persecution. The UNHCR estimates that more than 1% of the world’s population is currently displaced — this includes 26 million refugees.

Of these, 126,720 have been accepted as refugees by the UK, with a further 45,244 people awaiting decisions on their claim for asylum.

This group made headlines yesterday when the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, laid out government plans to overhaul the rules for asylum. “Our system is collapsing”, the minister told parliament.

Patel defended the controversial changes, which would penalise those who entered the UK illegally. She argued that they would deter people-smuggling, while making it easier for those who came legally to be settled swiftly.

Many refugees have gone on to great things. Mercury was not the last pop star to be resettled. Rita Ora was resettled in Britain after her family fled Yugoslavia in 1991, while the rapper MIA and her parents fled the Sri Lankan civil war to come to the UK.

Refugees have found success in every walk of life as artists, athletes, scholars and captains of industry.

Earlier in the 20th Century, some of Europe’s most important thinkers became refugees. These were Jews who escaped from Germany. From Albert Einstein, who revolutionised modern physics, to Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, refugees changed the course of history.

Of these, only Freud settled in the UK, but Britain also took in 10,000 Jewish children who escaped Nazi Germany thanks to the Kindertransport.

After World War Two, however, many in Europe, the UK and the USA saw that they had not done nearly enough. It was then that the UN began to establish the modern rights of refugees, first laid out in a convention in 1951.

Some critics, including the UNHCR, claim that the UK’s proposed asylum changes violate these standards.

Not every refugee is a star, but every displaced person has a story. While governments and agencies argue about the scale of forced migration, these stories help us consider the human scale of individual lives.

Does the world need a new approach to refugees?


Yes, say some. The crisis triggered by the ongoing Syrian civil war is proof that the current approach has failed. It is a huge injustice that 84% of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries. Not enough has been done to ensure that refugees have safe routes to flee persecution. There should be a new globally binding framework to ensure fairness between countries and security for refugees.

No, say others. The pressures that the politics of migration place on countries make it difficult to imagine how a new collaborative approach would benefit refugees. Germany’s decision to take in one million refugees in 2015 created political turmoil – and the EU later struck a deal with Turkey to keep refugees out. Many argue that welcoming policies create a greater draw, encouraging people to move along unsafe routes and increase suffering.

You Decide

  1. Some people break the law to rescue migrants. Would you risk going to prison in order to rescue someone from danger?
  2. If richer countries pay poorer ones to house refugees, are they avoiding their responsibilities?


  1. Using the list of famous refugees in the links, pick one and write a short story about what they have experienced and achieved.
  2. Write a three-minute speech for or against the enforcement of national borders.

Some People Say...

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Warsan Shire (1988 – ), Somali-British Poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that refugees have been a presence in British culture for hundreds of years. Many Huguenots, French Protestants, fled religious persecution and came to England in 1562. Anti-immigration sentiment has been around just as long. William Shakespeare wrote a speech for the play Sir Thomas More, which features an anti-immigrant riot. The speech pleads for pity for “wretched strangers, their babies at their backs… plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is over how best to talk about refugees when making policy. A recent UN campaign, the Compact on Refugees, stresses the benefits refugees can bring to the economy. It argues for expanded private support – such as scholarships – to encourage rich countries to take more refugees. Others suggest that an economic framing will encourage governments to neglect the most disadvantaged and cherry-pick based on their need for workers.

Word Watch

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is an agency founded in 1950 to ensure the safety of refugees around the world.
In UK law, a refugee is someone who is granted asylum, the right to stay in the country, after leaving their homeland. Prior to being granted refugee status, a person who has claimed asylum is designated an asylum seeker.
Priti Patel
The home secretary’s parents came to the UK in the 1960s, from Uganda. This was a journey many people would later make as refugees, when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled the Asian community living there in 1972.
Many displaced people depend on organised gangs to help them reach their destination country. Sometimes this places them at risk of exploitation and abuse.
A forever Balkan state composed of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. After the collapse of communism, the country gradually broke apart, resulting in deadly conflicts.
Sri Lankan civil war
A war fought between factions drawn from the Tamil ethnic minority and the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lanka. The war lasted from 1983 – 2008.
The study of the unconscious mind for the purpose of understanding human behaviour and treating mental illness.
The German word for child transport. This was a scheme to rescue children from Germany and territories it occupied.

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