States and refugee advocates often insist that ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are separate distinct categories, despite ample evidence that these labels blur in practice. However, little attention is paid to the fact that in the past refugees were considered as migrants, with international attention focusing on securing their access to existing migration channels. This article traces this tangled history of refugee and migrant identities through the 1920s to the 1950s, when ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ categories were separated. The article argues that treating refugees as migrants in the 1920s and 1930s failed to ensure their protection from persecution because their admission was entirely dependent upon economic criteria. Separating refugees from migrants in the 1950s—by providing refugees with an exceptional right to cross borders and claim asylum—helped to address this protection gap. However, the article shows that in creating a special route for admission deliberately set apart from migration, the humanitarian discourse that protects refugees from harm actually prevents refugees from finding durable solutions, which depend upon securing an economic livelihood and not just receiving humanitarian assistance. The article concludes that, in the interests of refugee solutions, the extent of separation between refugee protection and access to migration should be reversed. Refugee advocates should reconsider the many innovative lessons both from the Nansen era and the decade of experimentation that preceded the establishment of today’s contemporary refugee protection framework in 1951. While asylum and the ‘refugee’ category perform essential roles in admitting those in need of international protection, asylum alone—unlike migration—cannot meet long-term needs. Reconfiguring understandings of on-going refugee protection to facilitate movement and prioritize the securing of sustainable livelihoods would both better reflect the reality of people’s movements in conflict and crisis and offer more opportunities for durable solutions to protracted crises.