UK Scouting has a long history of supporting displaced people dating back to the earliest days of the Movement and continuing to this day.

First World War

In August 1914 thousands of Belgians came to Britain to seek refuge from the First World War. Scouts were instrumental in supporting other civilian organisations with this influx of people. Scouts in Folkestone, one of the main arrival points, acted as guides for the newcomers leading them to centres where they could seek support.

Kindertransport, 1938 – 1940.

Scouting supported Jewish children who escaped Nazi Germany through the Kindertransport scheme. Settling these uprooted children into their new homes was a difficult process, but Scouting was there to help. Some children were welcomed into existing Scout Groups, and in areas where a large number of Kinderstransport children were rehomed specific groups were set up for them.

Robert Baden-Powell was moved to capture the kindness of Scouts in one of his characteristic drawings. The picture, which was then turned into a thank you card, hauntingly shows refugees fleeing the brutality of Nazi Germany, identified by the face of Adolf Hitler on the nose of a plane.

Second World War; Hitler; Blitz; Scouts; refugees; Robert Baden-Powell;
A drawing by Robert Baden-Powell showing Scouts welcoming refugees from war torn Europe.

Second World War, 1939 – 1945


In 1939 the threat of air raids and gas attacks on British cities led to over one million children being sent to the countryside for safety.

Many Packs and Troops moved with the children as they were evacuated. Scouts also helped with the evacuation process by helping to organise groups of children, carry luggage and offer comfort.

Scouts International Relief Service 

Various organisations such as the Red Cross set up relief teams during the Second World War, which became members of the Government body, the Council of British Societies for Relief Abroad. The relief teams were sent to assist refugees and displaced people in areas of conflict. The Scouts established The Scout International Relief Service (SIRS) in 1942 in response to this crisis. Already experienced in setting up and organising large camps, teamwork and first aid they were well placed to help. Scout Leaders registered their interest in volunteering overseas with SIRS. Women volunteers had to be 25 and over, and men 30 and over.

All members of the Scout Movement make a promise on joining. This includes a pledge to help other people. Living by this drove Members to join the Scout International Relief Service, and continues to motivate Scouts today.

“Every Scout ought to prepare himself to be a good citizen of his country and of the world”.

Robert Baden-Powell from Scouting for Boys, 1908.

All relief work was coordinated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). UNRRA was an international relief agency (like the Red Cross), representing 44 nations. Founded on 9 November 1943, it became part of the United Nations in 1945, finally ceasing operations in 1947.

The purpose of UNRRA was to

“plan, co-ordinate, administer or arrange for the administration of measures for the relief of victims of war in any area under the control of any of the United Nations through the provision of food, fuel, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities, medical and other essential services.”

It also provided camps, personnel, and food for the care and repatriation of millions of displaced persons and refugees after the war.

The Red Cross requested teams be sent to North-West Europe. The first group of Scout Leaders landed in Normandy in September 1944. Leaders were sent to North-West Europe, Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Hong Kong, all places of conflict during the Second World War.

There were three phases of work for the groups sent to North-West Europe;

First Aid

  • Help given to a sick or injured person (i.e. bleeding, fractures, shock, heart attacks, burns and scalds).

Emergency relief

  • Providing emergency relief in the transit camps. Places where refugees stay in tents, or other temporary structures when they have nowhere to live permanently.
  • Evacuation


  • Rebuild mental and physical strength
  • The return of someone to their own country. Some people were repatriated and sent back to their homes, or at least their country of origin.

Prisoners of War

Scouting also played an important role in prisoner of war camps. It provided support for both adults and children.

In the Japanese civilian prisoner of war (POW) camps in Singapore, Cub Packs and Scout Troops were set up to give children a sense of structure and purpose. The programme was delivered using the scant resources available and the ingenuity of pre-war leaders.

In both German and Japanese POW camps men from the allied armed forces set up Rover Scout Crews, spending meetings learning from each other and even completing leader training courses.

Rover Scouts; Scouts; Changi; Prisoner of War; Second World War;
The cover of the Changi Rover Crew Logbook, in it they recorded their activities and observations on life in a POW camp.

Activities had to be conducted with complete secrecy, as all organised meetings of these types were banned and participants would be punished if discovered. The men made their own pieces of uniform, such as this wristband from pieces of stolen canvas and scrap metal.


Scouting is working with diverse communities to support cohesion through projects such as “Better Prepared”. Provision such as that set up in Page Hall, Sheffield, has supported young people, providing them with structured out of school activities which integrate individuals from differing communities, helping them develop commonalities to overcome differences.

On the 27 October 2016 The Scouts released a blog entitled, Living our Promise: responding to the refugee crisiswhich summarised the ways UK Scouting could support the refugee crisis and the young people and families arriving in the UK. It was one of the most popular blog posts ever published by The Scouts.


Moving Connections: Scouting and displaced people

The Scouts Heritage Service has received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  This will enable us to share our story with new audiences and better care for this unique collection.  Find our more one our blog.  The project also funded the creation of a new Resource Pack to support leaders with exploring this important issue from both a historical and contemporary perspective.  This is available to download from the Scouts Community Connections page.