Refugees are often considered as a source of disorder if not fundamental threat to international society. In contrast, and drawing from an English School approach, this article argues that the figure of the refugee is foundational to the constitution of both modern international society and its agent, the sovereign territorial state; hence refugee protection represents a primary institution of international society. Starting with conceptual and methodological considerations for studying primary institutions, the article then highlights the longstanding and widespread state practice of granting asylum. It is shown that on the one hand, the figure of the refugee serves to consolidate and naturalise the nation/state/territory trinity underpinning the modern state system; and on the other hand, protecting refugees plays a central role in the construction of statist self-identities as liberal, humanitarian, and altruistic agents. The last section of the article turns to the politics of contestation of refugee protection, examining domestic, regional, and international reactions to ‘anti-refugee’ policies in the United States, Hungary, and Australia. The considerable amount of criticism generated by these restrictive policies, it is argued, evidence the enduring importance and relevance of refugee protection in (and for) international society.