Forced to flee

Since the First World War, countless lives have been shattered by conflict. Refugees across the globe have had to leave their homes and make journeys to settle somewhere else.

This is still happening today. Currently, the United Nations estimates that over 79 million people globally have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution.

But what drives this displacement? Why do people leave their homes?

Since the First World War, countless lives have been shattered by conflict. People across the globe have had to leave their homes and make journeys to settle somewhere else. This is still happening today. Currently, the United Nations estimates that over 79 million people globally have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution. But what drives this displacement? Why do people leave their homes?

IWM has always looked at the causes, course, and consequences of conflict, and one of the most devastating consequences is the mass displacement of people from their homes.

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One of the main reasons people are forced to leave their homes is the destruction, the devastation and threat to life caused by modern warfare. Cities, amenities and homes are destroyed and when this happens so are people’s livelihoods, their memories, their sense of security. So when countries, cities and neighbourhoods become battlefields, sometimes the only real option is to leave and seek safety elsewhere.

During the First World War and Second World Wars many parts of Belgium and France were completely destroyed in the fighting and that created a huge amount of refugees. In fact during the First World War, over 250,000 Belgians refugees came to Britain the largest influx of refugees in British history. In some instances, this destruction can be used as propaganda to encourage shock, compassion and outrage.

During the First World War recruitment posters like these would often show mothers and children fleeing burning villages, encouraging men to enlist to save them.

One of the most common causes of displacement is persecution. In fact, the modern definition of a refugee, devised by the United Nations after the Second World War, is a person who has fled their home country " through a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion".

The sheer fact that your next-door neighbours are suddenly hurling abuse at you, when people won't serve you in the shops, you go to the police and they do is hurl abuse at you as well. This threat of violence, or the understanding  that it's going to be dangerous in the future, it's enough to force the decision to leave.

Before and during the Second World War the Nazis persecuted Jewish people. They closed their businesses, they barred them from parks, cinemas and restaurants and they burned their synagogues. This is a pattern repeated again and again over time.

In Bosnia, people were threatened, abused and violated by opposing ethnic groups. Paramilitary groups forced people to leave their homes, often making them pay large sums of money or hand over all their property before they were driven out or worse. In 1995 more than 8,000 male Bosniaks were murdered at Srebrenica.

Archive Clip: "Tens of thousands fled Srebrenica ahead of a Serb advance, leaving everything they owned behind them".

Social breakdown resulting from conflict leads lots of people to leave. When society has broken down, there's no government, there's no police. You haven't got any utilities, so no electricity, gas or water. The hospitals are full, there is no medicine. All these mount up and the dangers and the deprivation prove overwhelming. Sometimes the only course of action is to get out and seek safety somewhere else.

Conflicts can not only destroy homes but societies, and that can change the culture too. Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict and that is reflected in the country’s crafts. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, carpet makers created ‘war rugs’ which combined modern war imagery with traditional weaving techniques. This one shows a Russian Kalashnikov rifle and is believed to have been made by Afghan refugees who were living in Pakistan.

Likewise, this picture was made a little more recently by an Afghan teenager who moved to the UK as a refugee. Afghanistan is in the middle surrounded by aggressors, with these arrows coming from Russia, Pakistan, the US and UK. In the bottom right they have written, ‘BUSH & BLAIR PLEASE STOP IT, IT HURTS.’

Sometimes people are simply forced out of their homes, they literally don’t get a choice on whether they go or not. And it is seen as a part of a strategic tool of modern war. Whether it's a country, or a state or just ethnic groups within a country, they try and impose their will on people by terrorising them or limiting their rights, burning their homes and driving them out. But it's also ethnic cleansing, so anyone who doesn't fit because of their religion or their race get forced from their home.

During the Second World War people were forced into concentration camps or taken from their homes to work as slave labour in Japanese and German occupied areas. For those fortunate enough to escape the gas chambers, working conditions were still appalling. In fact, more slave labourers died building Germany’s V1 and V2 rockets than were ever actually killed by the warhead.

Across history, people have been systematically tortured, raped and murdered in order to overwhelm and dominate them. During the war in Bosnia, paramilitary groups were formed for the express purpose of creating ethnically homogenous areas or nations through ethnic cleansing.

So the destruction of property, persecution, and social breakdown all cause people to make the very difficult decision to leave their homes. Other times people don’t even get the choice. The tools of war and oppression change, the places where it happens vary, people may choose to take different things with them. But the impact is always the same - the catastrophic upheaval of ordinary lives, and the loss of home.

Thank you for watching. If you'd like to watch more of our videos then click and subscribe below. If you want to learn more about the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition or the wider Refugees Season at IWM then go to

Taking place at IWM London and IWM North, our Refugees season explored refugee experiences throughout history and ongoing issues faced by those affected through two major exhibitions, a series of events and a new site-specific art commission at IWM London from world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei.

Unlocking the personal stories of people who have been forced to flee their homes and those who work to support and care for them, Refugees gave us the space to consider our own responses to similar experiences and dilemmas.

More from Refugees Season

Portrait of Ai Weiwei
Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photography by Gao Yuan.
Colony of Belgian workers in Britain. The bond store at the National Projectile Factory, showing stacks of 8 inch shells. Birtley-Elisabethville, Co. Durham, 1918.
© IWM Q 27735
First World War

How Belgian Refugees Kept the British Army Going During the First World War

During the First World War, 250,000 Belgians came to Britain fleeing the conflict that had taken over their country. Some of those who came would end up playing an important role in the war effort. 


Second World War

Edith Jacobowitz and Millisle Refugee Farm

Among those Jewish children brought to safety by the `Kindertransport’ was 14-year old Edith Jacobowitz. Edith arrived in Northern Ireland with her younger brother Gert in June 1939, having left her home in Berlin shortly after both parents were arrested by the Nazis.

Drawing by kindertransport refugee
© IWM (EPH 3902)

6 Stories Of The Kindertransport

In 1938 and 1939, nearly 10,000 children fleeing the persecution of Jews in Greater Germany (Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), were brought to Britain on the Kindertransport ('children’s transports').

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat graphic
Contemporary conflict

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat

What is it like to attempt to travel across the Mediterranean Sea by boat? What do those who do so face on their journeys?

Researchers for the Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat project interviewed 271 people, most of whom had already crossed the Mediterranean by boat,