Reluctant Humanitarians: British Policy Toward Refugees in Kenya During the Italo-Ethiopian War 1935-1940

Brett L Shadle. Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History. Volume 47, Issue 1, February 2019.

In July 1937, Asgedech Senbeta Boku became a refugee. A mere four years old, she fled on foot toward Kenya with perhaps ten thousand fellow Ethiopians, chased by Italian bombs and, for those under arms, the very real possibility of execution should they be captured. It was a ragged group who collected at North Horr, one of the more inhospitable places in the British colony. Thousands had died in their long march and, due to disease and exhaustion, more died upon their arrival. Nairobi dispatched administrative officers and health workers who saved those they could, then transported the survivors south to a new refugee camp at Isiolo where they would be tended to and where they were required to remain. Nearly eighty years on, Asgedech still praised the British colonial government for offering them refuge, food, and medical care. The governor at the time, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, might well have revelled in Asgedech’s gratitude. The servants of the British Crown had taken up their white man’s burden. ‘I think that you will agree with me,’ Brooke-Popham wrote to the Colonial Office in September, ‘that the history of the influx of these refugees and their subsequent treatment provides a worthy contribution to the execution of those humanitarian tasks which must ever be the duty of civilised nations.’

For all her praise of the British, Asgedech might be surprised to know that Brooke-Popham and the other colonial officials hoped to be rid of her and her fellow refugees at the earliest possible moment. The refugees were expensive, they caused administrative difficulties, and hosting them engendered tensions with the new Italian rulers to the north. Already in August, Brooke-Popham prayed that ‘the question of the future maintenance and disposal of the refugees … will shortly be concluded and that the Government of Kenya will be relieved of its responsibilities in the matter at an early date.’ J.E.W. Flood in the Colonial Office commiserated with Brooke-Popham. The refugee issue was ‘complicated by considerations of diplomacy and humanity which appear to be inextricably mixed and we are now trying to get some kind of policy laid down.’ The Ethiopians were clearly not wanted, and the sooner Kenya could be rid of them the better. Civilised nations had the duty to save refugee lives, true enough. Beyond that, the white man’s burden should not extend. Humanitarianism had its limits.

This article examines the reasons why officials in Kenya and in London felt it incumbent upon them to accept and continue to shelter certain refugees, and why they tried, repeatedly, to return them to Ethiopia. They were forced to balance a number of competing and often contradictory influences: public opinion in Britain, local political conditions, international relations, limited administrative and financial resources, their own humanitarian sentiments, and the actions of the refugees themselves. Ultimately, officials acknowledged that forcibly returning a person to a situation in which they would face grave danger could not be countenanced. Those simply dissatisfied with Italian rule or civilian hangers-on should, when possible, be refused: only those literally fleeing for their lives could be considered real refugees. This did not imply that refugees had any right to claim refuge; preserving lives was a humanitarian duty.

This article sits at the intersection of two historiographies. First, it adds to the undeservedly small number of works on the history of refugees in Africa, particularly in the colonial period. Moreover, the disparity between the lack of scholarly attention to refugees in Africa prior to the 1950s, and the growing work on the history of European refugees, wrongly suggests that refugee history can be continentally compartmentalised: that the history of refugees in Europe need not be informed by the history of refugees in the colonies. The most significant exception in this regard is the work of Bronwen Everill, who links the presence of the Ethiopians in Kenya with shifts in the target of British humanitarianism from ‘the slave’ to ‘the refugee.’ Similarly, I demonstrate that we cannot understand refugee history through national or continental terms: debates in London, Nairobi, and Isiolo all informed one another; questions of Basque children, Austrian Jews, and Ethiopians were all of the same moment.

Second, recent work on early twentieth century refugees and humanitarianism focuses on the growth of bureaucratic non-governmental institutions, the origin of the modern humanitarian ‘industry’ and ‘refugee regime.’ Modern humanitarianism was increasingly secular and non-governmental. The League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen as the first High Commissioner for Refugees, scholars and activists in Europe began to develop a language of rights that would apply to refugees as well as to children and workers, while non-governmental organisations sought to apply those rights across national boundaries in crisis situations. We know less about how humanitarian crises played out in the colonies, however. In practice, critics in the metropole might exert pressure on the home government but have very limited access to actual crises. The state (whether colonial, settler colonial, or protectorate) could close off whole swaths of territory to missionaries or aid workers, it enacted laws and enforced regulations, it staffed the military, police, public works departments, and so on. When faced with an actual humanitarian crisis, colonial officials operated at a distance from non-governmental organisations and were happily ignorant of legal theorists in Geneva. The histories of humanitarian action and refugee relief in the colonies certainly intersected with those in Europe, yet had their own peculiarities.

I begin by examining colonial policy toward the admission of refugees. At the beginning of the war in Ethiopia in October 1935, officials in Kenya and London adopted a policy of refusing entry to anyone. This policy changed as it became more apparent that refusing entry to, first, Eritrean deserters from the Italian army, then Ethiopians under arms, and finally civilians, would likely result in their deaths. I then discuss the larger imperial and international contexts in which debates over refugees were situated. British officials found themselves caught between a series of conflicting goals and pressures: a number of vocal activists and MPs championed the refugees, while Italians—with whom London and Nairobi needed to remain on good terms—feared the continued residence of their erstwhile enemies so close to their border. The upkeep of the refugees themselves was costly, in man hours and in money. These pressures, in turn, pushed officials to find ways to rid themselves of the humanitarian burden of sheltering refugees. Repatriation seemed the best option, but the very real danger the Ethiopians might face at the hands of the Italian occupiers meant that, much to officials’ chagrin, the refugees would remain in Kenya until liberation. Caught between public opinion, the need to appease Italy, and their own sentiments, officials became reluctant humanitarians.

The Italo-Ethiopian War and the Threat of Refugees

Almost immediately upon the opening of war between Italy and Ethiopia on 3 October 1935, British officials began to worry over the possibility of refugees crossing the frontier. On 8 October, the Colonial Office (CO) telegrammed Nairobi to inform them that the two powers were at war, and that frontiers could be sealed and ‘refugees refused admission.’ Civilians directly in the line of fire might be allowed to cross, at least temporarily. In fact, only a few pastoralists crossed the border at Moyale to evade fighting in the immediate area. Once the danger had passed, British authorities sent them back ‘without any objection by the tribesmen concerned,’ according to the governor. As the fighting moved away from the border, the Italians (seeking to bolster their population for labour, taxes, military auxiliaries, and for the greater glory of the Empire) engaged in a positive campaign to keep people on the northern side of the border, and draw away British subjects.

Soon enough, other people crossed into Kenya. The first were Eritreans who had served in the Italian army. Over the course of a week from 10 January 1936, three hundred Eritrean deserters crossed into Kenya from Italian Somaliland. Officials in northern Kenya appeared to have taken no steps to prevent them coming over. These men were, according to the governor, ‘not refugees who had been driven over the frontier in the course of fighting’—that is, these were not individuals who might be given temporary shelter. As military deserters, they fell in a different category—deserters from any army faced dire penalties, and sending them back to the Italians would likely have placed their lives in danger. Earlier, the Colonial Office had instructed that any military forces that entered Kenya ‘should if practicable be detained (not interned)’ and London be informed. Legal advisers in the foreign and colonial offices eventually determined that there was similarly no requirement to intern deserters; a small number who entered Egypt and British Somaliland were simply disarmed and set free. In Kenya, however, this appeared impracticable. Allowing deserters to range freely in the northern frontier would be unwise, as ‘hostile tribesmen’ might set upon them. More likely, in the words of the secretary of state for the colonies, they ‘might themselves be a danger to good order.’ Disarmed and placed under the control of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), the Eritreans would be transferred to an internment camp in Isiolo.

For the next year, policy toward border-crossers remained the same. Early in 1937, however, the policy of refusing the admission of refugees would be reconsidered. By late 1936, Italians had begun to classify ‘their adversaries as brigands, to be shot immediately and not treated as prisoners of war, a policy that stopped Ethiopian soldiers from surrendering.’ In January, a pair of Ethiopian leaders, Haille Mariam and Zaude Ayella, reached out to District Officer Leslie at Lokitaung, wondering if they might be offered refuge should the Italians be victorious. The Acting Chief Secretary reiterated the policy that all Ethiopians should be discouraged from crossing over. Yet there was a hint that attitudes in Nairobi were softening. Should they insist on crossing, Haille Mariam and Zaude Ayella might be permitted to reside in Turkana District, while all other officers and rank and file would be sent to Isiolo.

More than anything, however, it was the events of February 1937, that forced officials to recognise that the nature of the war had changed. On 19 February, an attempt was made on the life of General Graziani in Addis Ababa. Blackshirts were for three days given free rein to carry out on the civilian population any atrocity that might appeal to them. Italians murdered thousands of civilians over the course of those few days. Across the land, Italian policy toward Ethiopian resistance became more determined, more cruel.

With blood not yet dry on the streets of Addis Ababa, the Colonial Office was reconsidering policy toward refugees. Previously, officials had rejected the idea of offering sanctuary for Ethiopian soldiers and their leaders. If such men surrendered to the Italians, surely they would not be treated harshly, their lives would not be in danger. These Ethiopians simply did not wish to live under Italian rule, and that was hardly a reason for Britain to permit them to enter Kenya. With the example of the Graziani massacres in front of them, British officials could not deny that all those who had resisted the Italian invasion were in peril. This was a new kind of war. Calder in the CO explained this to the Foreign Office in a letter which was forwarded to Kenya:

So far as bodies of refugee Ethiopian combatants are concerned, however, it seems doubtful whether, in the circumstances as they now exist, it would be justifiable to continue this policy of exclusion, since it seems certain that the Italians would treat with the utmost severity any bands of Ethiopians who had offered armed resistance to the occupation of the country by the Italian forces. In fact, to deny such bands asylum in Kenya would be to expose them to the danger of almost certain execution if they should fall into hands of the Italian forces. On humanitarian grounds therefore it would seem necessary that such bands should be treated at least as favourably as the bodies of Italian native deserters who have already been admitted to Kenya and detained there.

Calder articulated a thin humanitarian duty: certain people must be admitted, but only if they would otherwise lose their lives.

And thin this humanitarian duty was, for it applied only to soldiers. As Calder at this point understood the situation, civilians should have nothing to fear from the Italians. Violent retaliation would undoubtedly be the fate of Ethiopians who had been under arms, but their families, hangers-on, and camp followers faced no such danger. There was no duty to admit them into Kenya, and there was certainly no reason for the government of Kenya to be ‘burdened’ financially in the support of people who had no compelling reason to leave their homelands. It was a striking inversion of the typical imagery: the sympathetic refugee has long been a woman or child in flight, the undeserving refugee the adult man who should be able to fend for himself. Despite evidence of savagery during the conquest of Ethiopia, British officials yet convinced themselves that a modern Italian colonial state would rule according to the dictates of the civilised world.


By May, Izard, officer in charge of Turkana District, anticipated that refugees might soon crowd the border. With impeccable logic, he instructed the district officer at Lokitaung on precisely how to deal with refugees, now that government policy was to exclude only those who lives were not in danger: ‘The words “They may be excluded” do not mean, in my opinion that they may be fired upon [to prevent their entry] for they would thereby automatically be placed in immediate danger.’ Within a few days, the district officer found himself faced with 372 individuals under the leadership of Zaude Ayella along the Ethiopian-Kenyan border at Namaroputh. Among the followers were soldiers—’deeply compromised with the Italians’—but also 86 women and 50 children. The provincial commissioner reiterated that no one, unless ‘under the threat of severities,’ should be admitted. The women, as non-combatants, could be turned away.

In total, some 425 people entered northwest Kenya in the first six months of 1937. All -including women and male non-combatants—were ‘refused entry on the first instance,’ Izard reported. Once they had provided ‘satisfactory evidence that if they were not afforded Asylum in Kenya they would be in imminent danger of annihilation or other severities,’ they had been admitted and sent off to Kapenguria. (What evidence they could have provided, Izard did not explain.) Ayella and another leader sent away over five hundred followers whom they did not believe to be in danger. These, Izard was careful to note, had never reached Kenya, and thus could not be considered to have been turned away by the British—an important distinction, presumably, should anyone in Britain ask questions.

As May turned to June, Italians were closing in on the last well-organised Ethiopian government forces under Ras Imru. Faced with the destruction of their homes and property, well aware that poison gas might rain down upon them, and rightfully afraid of being slaughtered if captured, thousands marched off toward Kenya. Among them were military officers and soldiers, civilians, and some young boys picked up along the way as herders. By June, one group began to collect at North Horr, with other parties crossing over nearer Lake Turkana at different times during July. They left many dead behind in forests and deserts, and many died in their land of refuge.

This was the largest incursion of refugees from the Italo-Ethiopian war, and the most desperate, and one that placed British officials in a most difficult position. The immediate task was to address their health. Medical teams were dispatched to tend them at North Horr, and loads of food delivered by lorry. It was indeed a massive undertaking, one that saved many lives. There was again no doubt that the military leaders and soldiers could not be turned back to Ethiopia. The status of the civilians, however, was less clear. From the Colonial Office, Flood wrote that ‘It is doubtful whether servants and followers are in danger of severity from the Italians and if it can be ascertained that they are not it is proposed to endeavour to arrange their return to Ethiopian territory.’ A few days later, Brooke-Popham assured London that ‘No refugees in the proper sense of the term have been refused admission into this Colony.’ The governor’s distinction was clearer the next month, when discussing the possible arrival of 3000 people at the frontier: there were among them one thousand ‘to whom it will not be possible to deny entry’—the remaining two thousand were presumably civilians not in immediate danger, and thus could be refused refuge.

Despite official attempts to distinguish between refugees in ‘the proper sense of the term’ and those simply fleeing out of unwarranted fear or a general distaste for Italian rule, the British could not excuse themselves of their humanitarian burden. Attempts by British officials on the frontier to reach out to their Italian counterparts and return the civilians, Brooke-Popham wrote, failed. Marching the civilians back one hundred kilometers to the border, through desert and across ancient lava fields, with water hard to come by, would ensure more deaths. Brooke-Popham could envision no alternative but to keep them. To ease the distribution of food and medical care, and to keep them under surveillance, the Ethiopians were escorted—some on foot, some by lorry—to a new camp at Isiolo.

Public Opinion, Politics, and the Burden of Refugees

Dating back to the late eighteenth century, British self-identity was based in large measure on the idea that they were the prime defenders of freedom and liberal democracy, and on their willingness to accept refugees. Dedication to these ideals, of course, wavered over time and depending on context. Once they understood how immense would be the task of ruling their new African empire, for example, colonial officials did their best to ignore slavery and turn away slaves seeking refuge. Fear of an influx of ‘not quite white’ poor eastern European Jews spurred Parliament to pass the first visa requirements for entry to Britain with the Aliens Act of 1905. (Even then, it explicitly permitted the admission of those seeking ‘to avoid prosecution or punishment on religious or political grounds.’) In the 1930s, faced with high unemployment and the politics of appeasement, government officials looked askance at calls to accept refugees from the Spanish Civil War and persecuted European Jews. Nonetheless, the ideological commitment to humanitarianism and the offering of refuge was real, among politicians, bureaucrats, churches, charitable groups, and common citizens alike. Britons were people who (they proudly proclaimed) offered refuge to the weary and persecuted.

While officials were fulfilling their humanitarian duty in Turkana, Horr, and Isiolo, they were well aware that they were under surveillance from proud Britons back home. A variety of public figures and private individuals rallied to the larger Ethiopian cause, often giving special attention to the refugees. Sylvia Pankhurst, a veteran of the suffrage struggle, threw herself into pro-Ethiopian, anti-fascist activity. In May, 1936, she founded the New Times and Ethiopia News through which, combined with letters to other papers, public lectures, and meetings with politicians, she advocated for British support for the emperor. The Abyssinia Association of which she was a founding member, though perhaps ‘small and quite ineffective,’ nonetheless served as a focal point for pro-Ethiopian activism. Pan-Africanists Padmore, Wallace Johnson, Kenyatta and Makonnen drew attention of the ‘British friends of colonial peoples and all subject races to the terrible condition of the Abyssinian refugees in Kenya and the danger of their repatriation back to Abyssinia’ in a letter to the Manchester Guardian—a clipping of which found its way into the Colonial Office files. Perhaps less critical of government policy, but no less important in keeping the refugee issue alive, were groups like the Abyssinian Refugee Relief Fund. The ARRF, in common with other humanitarian groups, portrayed itself as fully above politics. It emphasised, however, that there was ‘no question as to the reality of the terror’ the refugees had fled, and thus there should be ‘no question of forcing their repatriation.’

In Parliament the Conservative government was forced to defend its policy toward Ethiopia and the refugees. MPs asked questions on at least ten occasions in 1937 alone, some regarding the refugees’ admission into British territories, others about their general condition, and others over the possibility that they might be forcibly repatriated to Ethiopia. In December, for example, Edward Williams queried Ormsby-Gore, Secretary of State for the Colonies, ‘whether, to avoid any departure from the British traditional practice of granting the right of asylum to refugees, he will take steps to prevent the enforced return of Abyssinians to territory under Italian domination?’ (Ormsby-Gore assured him that none would be forced to return.) The next year, Eleanor Rathbone wondered whether, upon the appeasement agreement between Great Britain and Italy, the refugees would continue to be interned or ‘sent back to be gaoled certainly, most probably killed, and possibly tortured?’

Parliamentary questions and agitation by the likes of Pankhurst weighed heavily on the Colonial Office and Nairobi. It was imperative that these unreasonable critics be made aware of the enormous burden that Kenya faced in dealing with refugees, as well as the great humanitarian task administrators had undertaken. On 3 November 1937, Ormsby-Gore responded to a question about the number and status of refugees in Kenya:

This sudden advent of large numbers of refugees presented a grave problem to the Kenya administrative, police, military, and medical authorities, and I cannot speak too highly of the splendid work which they have performed under conditions of great stress in providing the refugees with supplies and supervising their health. … when presented with the problem [of refugees], they took immediate steps to deal with it in accordance with the dictates of humanity. … I cannot say what the future of the refugees will be. They cannot be accommodated in Kenya, where it would be impossible for them to maintain themselves.

Similarly, Flood thought that a long medical report on the refugees might be sent ‘to one of the opposition M.P.s, who put questions designed to show that Kenya does nothing—but perhaps if that was done they would try to blame Kenya for the diseased state of the refugees.’ Governor Brooke-Popham similarly hoped that the public should be made aware of the great humanitarian efforts being undertaken in Kenya. The message: Kenya had done its duty, it had saved and succored refugees, and it was well past time to be relieved of the burden.

British officials exhibited both a fear of public reaction, as well as a revulsion toward sending people to certain death. Flood in August 1937, worried that ‘there would be a frightful outcry in this country from ill-informed people if we take any action which could be misrepresented as handing over the trusting refugees to the mercy of the Italian conqueror,’ yet he too believed the issue inextricable from questions of diplomacy and ‘humanity.’ Indeed, in another minute he wrote that he was ‘very bothered’ about the refugee question: ‘We have to take these refugees because of policy—also for humanity’s sake because the Italians would kill them.’

Although humanitarian sentiment among officials and sectors of the public emphasised the protection of refugees against Italian savagery, other factors nudged policy toward appeasing Il Duce. Throughout 1935—with Parliamentary elections in May and November—Baldwin and his National Government MPs remained publically committed to the League of Nations and to some level of sanctions against Italy. Yet in the halls of power, retaining Italian friendship overrode any willingness to defend Ethiopian sovereignty. The Admiralty wished to avoid having to reinforce the fleet in the Mediterranean (which would leave the Pacific open to the Japanese). As Germany rearmed, militarised the Rhineland, and bullied Austria into Anschluss, keeping Mussolini and Hitler separated seemed essential to Britain and, especially, France. No active steps were taken to truly prevent the invasion of Italy, sanctions did not include oil, and the Suez Canal remained open to the movement of Italian men and materiel. Long before the Emperor implored the League of Nations in June 1936, to condemn Italy and act forcefully against aggression, Britain had sacrificed Ethiopia in hopes of maintaining a friendly Italy against Germany. This would remain the case until Italy finally entered the war against the Allies.

In Kenya, too, officials felt the need to remain on good terms with the Italians. Vast swaths of northern Kenya were, at best, lightly defended. As early as 1914, it was recognised that only ‘an effective occupation of the entire frontier line’ could ensure a proper defense of Kenya’s northern border, but this was never accomplished. A handful of police patrolled the whole Northern Frontier District, and in 1931 Gerald Reece complained that many of them had previously served time in prison or insane asylums. As war approached, more King’s African Rifles were posted in the north, a few African ‘levies’ were added in 1936, and RAF patrols checked the border as well. Even with increased security forces along the border, raids and incursions (by Africans and possibly Italian troops) were regular features of the Italian era. Officials thus rightfully feared that Italian aggression in the north could not be contained. The only real defense, in fact, was simply geography, vast waterless plains which might slow an invading army before reaching the highlands.

Italian occupation of southern Ethiopia also seemed to open the possibility for a final resolution of numerous long-standing problems along the border. Hoping that a European administration would be more effective and responsive than an Ethiopian one, British officials imagined that negotiations over border demarcation could at long last reach a conclusion. Cross-border raids, which Kenya officers admitted they were powerless to prevent, might be tamed with a stronger Italian administration. Ensuring positive relations with the new rulers could only ease the fitful and often ineffective British rule in the north.

Thus to the extent that the Italians fretted over the existence of refugees, so too did British officials. This included the status of Emperor Halie Selassie himself. When the Emperor fled Addis Ababa for Djibouti, the British government agreed to transport him to Palestine ‘on the clear understanding that he would take no further action to support military operations.’ After some consideration the government decided that it could not refuse the emperor entry to Britain, but he would not be received as anything more than a private citizen. He arrived in Britain on a private ship, and he was not given an official reception. In Europe and in Africa, Italian officials expressed concern that refugees might engage in activities designed to encourage still more active resistance. General Geglielmo Nasi, for example, felt it ‘very probable’ that the smaller group of refugees resident in British Somaliland would try either to create disorder or ‘to stealthily regain their native villages.’ Crolla, the Italian minister to London, protested that the handful of elite Ethiopians in Aden made public speeches urging continued military resistance against the Italians. Ormsby-Gore asked the British commissioner of Aden for further information, explaining that ‘it has been accepted as a general principle that Ethiopian refugees in British Territory should not cause trouble by intriguing or engaging in any activities which would amount to the furthering of hostilities in Ethiopia.’ The Italian occupiers continued to lobby for the return of the refugees in Kenya, perhaps to coopt the leaders into the new regime, perhaps out of a broader need for bodies to labour on public works, carry arms, and boost the imperial census, and to improve the image of the expanding empire.

Aside from wanting to placate Italians, Great Britain also found refugees exceedingly burdensome to care for. There was no question but that they would have to be encamped. If left to their own devices, they might come into conflict with pastoralists who populated northern Kenya. While a handful of the refugees had backgrounds in agriculture, access to land was a perpetual flashpoint in Kenyan politics—they would not be given farms on which to settle. Thus they would be taken, first, to Isiolo. Not unlike contemporary refugee camps on the continent, the ones in Kenya soon became bureaucratised and claimed to provide immediate and longer term needs. Tents served as housing at Isiolo, but when the refugees were moved farther south to Taveta in 1939, more permanent housing was constructed. Aside from some small vegetable gardens tended by refugees, government had to provide food. Dispensaries were set up and staffed. Sanitation experts had to be brought in, proper latrines constructed, mosquito breeding-grounds drained. Children, including many orphans, required schooling and special care. Guards had to be seconded to watch over the refugees, barbed wire stretched around the perimeter, administrative officers stolen from other duties. While organisations like the ARRF sent some cash, and a few missionaries offered social services, the cost of the camps was hardly negligible. (One official estimated that the British government eventually expended over five hundred thousand pounds on the refugees.) The Treasury in London agreed to absorb the costs of sheltering the refugees, but the amount of mental energy required of colonial officials—as evidenced by the reams of paper expended—remained considerable. Refugees were a burden.

And authorities were convinced that the refugees would be nothing more than a burden. From 1928 to 1930, Brooke-Popham had served in Iraq as Air Officer Commanding (and briefly acting high commissioner). While there, he had become acquainted with the Assyrian refugees—tens of thousands of whom had sought shelter from the Turks under the British in 1918, leaving many thousands dead or missing in Azerbaijan. Some 30,000 Assyrians, along with 15,000 Armenians, were placed in a refugee camp in Baquba. Many men joined the Assyrian Levies (and so would have been under Brooke-Popham’s command), working with the British mandate government to counter Iraqi nationalist activity; this spurred Iraqi resistance to Assyrian resettlement in the north, while other plans to permit their incorporation into Iraq similarly fell apart. The achievement of Iraqi independence left the Assyrian refugees in a still more precarious, indeed often fatally dangerous, position. As RAF commander, Brooke-Popham would also have been involved in attacks on Ikhwan, a movement hostile to the rising power of Ibn Saud. Ibn Saud had, under British pressure, violently suppressed the Ikhwan, who in turn fled to Kuwait—where they met greater violence from the RAF. Brooke-Popham’s Iraq experience seems to have weighed heavily on him. ‘In trying to deal with the Assyrian problem,’ he wrote the secretary of state, ‘I became personally acquainted with the difficulties that face any Government once it makes itself responsible for refugees. I have also a lively recollection of the troubles’ resulting from the Ikhwan ‘escape from Ibn Saud.’ The specter of thousands of people (many armed) crashing across the border, unassimilable people, encamped, less employable than the Assyrians, draining the imperial budget—it haunted the governor. He pushed for a quick resolution to the situation in Kenya, lest the ‘matter drift on until we are suddenly faced with another Assyrian problem.’


Almost immediately, then, upon carrying out their humanitarian duty to the refugees, British officials undertook to find ways of relieving themselves of this humanitarian burden. But how? The possibility of forcing deserters and refugees back across the border seems never to have been seriously discussed. In mid-1937, Brooke-Popham and V. G. Glenday (a long-serving administrator in northern Kenya) hoped to cooperate with the new Italian authorities to hand over refugees; Brooke-Popham telegrammed the CO: ‘Consider it essential endeavour should be made earliest possible to secure some arrangement with Italian Government as refugee position in this Colony already serious …’ The plan was dropped when it became clear that repatriation would require force. As Izard had concluded a year before, it would seem that violence endangered people, regardless of who employs it.

Forced repatriation was out of the question, and encampment was burdensome and inconvenient; perhaps if the deserters and refugees could be convinced it was safe in Ethiopia, they would return voluntarily? This proposal ended abruptly in the case of the Eritreans. Early in 1937, the Foreign Office had hoped to come to an agreement with the Italians to allow the deserters to return home ‘without fear of punishment or reprisals.’ Reports from Addis Ababa that Italian authorities had massacred ‘intending deserters’ put these plans on hold; they were dropped entirely the next year when the Italians gave assurances that deserters ‘would be treated with utmost severity.’ Even should the Italians guarantee the safety of the refugees, neither the Colonial Office nor the Foreign Office as yet placed much faith in Fascist promises. ‘You will observe,’ the Secretary of State for the Colonies wrote to Brooke-Popham, ‘that it is considered that so little reliance can be placed on any assurances that might be given by that Government in regard to their treatment, if they were returned to Abyssinia, that doubts were felt as to the utility of seeking such assurances … ’


By April 1938, however, the British ambassador in Rome had re-opened the question of repatriation. The return of the Eritreans was quickly dropped when the Italians again swore that ‘deserters would be treated with utmost severity.’ Chiefs and other notables were not desired by the Italian authorities, for fear that they might become centers of discontent. Discussions continued on what kind of guarantees the Italians would extend for fair treatment of commoners. London suggested that the refugees be asked who among them might be willing to return, but coercion was strictly prohibited: ‘No pressure of any kind should be put on refugees to return and it should be made clear to them that they are free to make their own choice.’ For several months little progress was made. In August, Rome promised that returnees would not face punishment ‘merely on the ground that they had taken refuge beyond the frontiers’—unsatisfactory to London, ‘since it would leave open the possibility of proceedings being taken against the natives concerned in connection with alleged offenses prior to their flight from Ethiopia.’

After a long year of fitful negotiations, the Italian government finally convinced the foreign and colonial offices that the refugees could return home and not lose their lives. By August 1939, two batches of 100 refugees each had been returned to Ethiopia. It is not clear to what extent the refugees believed Italian promises. According to leaders in the camp, the only parties with even slight interest in returning to Ethiopia were those afraid that they would otherwise succumb to disease in dusty, isolated Isiolo. Soon enough the outbreak of war, along with rumours of ill-treatment for those already returned, discouraged any others from volunteering for repatriation. The question was broached with the refugees again in January, subsequent to their transfer to a healthier camp at Taveta. But the refugees understood world politics too well. Despite officials’ attempts to control the flow of information, letters from Kenya reached the emperor in Bath, and copies of Pankhurst’s New Times and Ethiopia News circulated in the camp. The refugees assumed that they had been moved farther from the border because Italy and Britain would soon be at war. Virtually no one expressed interest in repatriation, and the proposal did little but create an ‘unsettling effect.’ As late as April 1940, the Secretary of State continued to explore the possibility of repatriating the refugees, although with the caveat that, considering promises made in Parliament, ‘none of these refugees would be compelled to return and that no pressure would be brought to bear on them.’ The entire plan was dropped when Italy entered the war; the refugees returned to Addis Ababa only after Ethiopia had been liberated.


The story of Asgedetch and her fellow refugees is a larger one than can be presented here. Yet this slice of their story offers two important lessons. First, even as historians continue to explore specific cases studies of refugees, we must at the same time ensure that we do not ignore larger, international, or intra-imperial frames. This is true even when international NGOs were not in play. British politicians and the public followed refugee crises in Spain, Germany, and Ethiopia not as not discrete incidents, but all tied to fascist violence. One citizen worried over the fate of refugees at Isiolo made an explicit comparison with Basque refugees; Sylvia Pankhurst hoped that the Abyssinia Association’s campaign would not draw strength away from those fighting on behalf of Jewish refugees. Although by far most numerous in Kenya, smaller bands of Ethiopian exiles and refugees exercised government officials in Khartoum, Berbera, Aden, Jerusalem, and London. When British and Italian ministers met in Rome and London, Ethiopian exiles and refugees often topped their agendas. Knowledge and practices of refugee issues also circulated among British officials stationed outside the metropole, such as Brooke-Popham’s experiences in Iraq and Kenya. If, as is increasingly clear, the roots of the post-war refugee regime must be located in the inter-war years, we must trace those roots beyond European boundaries.

This work also suggests that we must continue to train a critical eye on expressions of humanitarian sentiment, even while taking into account the very real effects of that sentiment. As numerous recent works have demonstrated, supposedly apolitical humanitarian efforts by the West in the ‘Third World’ can never be separated out from political concerns, racial thinking, and paternalistic attitudes. In very many cases in the colonies, officials regularly failed to live up to the noble humanitarian words that gave ideological cover to the civilising mission. In Kenya the most egregious example was the state’s brutal repression of the Mau Mau rebellion, although there were certainly other cases. During the Gikuyu ‘female circumcision crisis’ in the late 1920s, for example, most district officers studiously avoided endorsing missionaries’ condemnation of the practice as barbaric, and throughout the inter-war period they rejected metropolitan critiques of the ‘enslavement’ of African women by certain marriage customs. In fact, officials used humanitarian arguments to defend their (in)actions: Mau Mau had to be crushed because rebels were inhuman and cruel; meddling in traditions around initiation and marriage would upend the social order, leaving Africans adrift and on the path to rampant immorality and further from the goal of a humane, civilised life.

In the case of refugees from the north, British officials in Kenya and London ultimately felt constrained by humanitarian sentiment. Colonial officials had come of age with a firm belief in the civilising mission. The Colonial Office stocked the empire with men fully confident in their personal, and their nation’s, right and ability to rule, and a duty to do so in the best interest of their charges. Theirs was a paternalism that did, undeniably, rely on racism and violence, and yet could equally be infused by a belief in their higher mission and their duty to their fellow humans being. Though they might flog recalcitrant Africans, and fire into unarmed crowds of protestors, few seemed willing to allow to die people whose lives could be saved. They were fully aware of the bitter metropolitan reaction that might ensue if refugees were turned away or forcibly repatriated; the public’s humanitarian sentiment shaped policy, to be sure. Yet I have found no officials who suggested that, should the Rathbones and Pankhursts fall silent, they would happily push refugees back into the arms of torturers and killers. Officials chafed at the duty to shelter those whose lives would otherwise be in jeopardy—it entailed complications, costs, and controversy—yet it was a duty they felt compelled to shoulder.