Refugee studies rarely address historical matters; yet understanding ideas about sanctuary, refuge and asylum have long roots in both Western and Eastern history and philosophy. Occasionally the Nansen era of the 1920s is examined or the opening years of, say, the Palestinian refugee crisis are addressed. But by and large the circumstances, experiences and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored. This article attempts to contribute to an exploration of the past and to examine the responses of one State – the late Ottoman Empire – to the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from its contested borderland shared with Tsarist Russia into its southern provinces. The seminar focuses on one particular meta-ethnic group, the Circassians, and explores the humanitarian response to their movement both nationally and locally as well as their concerted drive for assisted self-settlement. The Circassians are one of many groups that were on the move at the end of the 19th century and their reception and eventual integration without assimilation in the region provide important lessons for contemporary humanitarianism.