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Exhibition Text

Could you leave everything behind?

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

This is happening right now. Currently the United Nations estimates that almost 71 million people globally have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution.

In this exhibition you will encounter stories of displacement from the First World War to the present day. Each one is different, but feelings of fear, confusion, loss and hope are universal.

Explore the choices and consequences people face when their worlds are turned upside down.

This exhibition features research projects supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

In this exhibition you will encounter research projects supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. They are both part of UK Research and Innovation which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities and government to ensure research and innovation flourishes across the UK.

These projects investigate conflict-related migration and displacement in many ways; from the personal experiences people have on their journeys through to the experiences of refugees settling in another country.

Migration-related research shows us how vital it is to understand historical and contemporary stories of displacement.

Someone who is outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, is granted international protection.

Displaced Person
Someone who has been forced from their home due to conflict. They can be displaced within their country of origin or internationally.

Asylum Seeker
Someone who has sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined.

Someone who changes their country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for leaving or moving.

Do you take home for granted?

It’s easy to feel safe and secure at home. It’s the place where you grow up, put down roots or the place where you want to grow old.

Home is also a place in your mind. Memories of family and friends, joy and sadness. It’s the place you always go back to.

All of this can change in an instant. Your home, the peace and contentment that you think will last forever, could be ripped apart by conflict.

This is the experience of millions of displaced people.

Memories of home

Sead, Alice, Gulwali, Annie, and Aleksanda all had to leave their homes at different moments over the past 100 years. Here they talk about their memories of home.

UNTV interview with Sead Dzafic filmed in 1994
IWM interview with Alice Brand recorded in 1992
IWM interview with Gulwali Passarlay filmed in 2019
IWM interview with Annie Bankier recorded in 1998
IWM interview with Aleksanda Ptak recorded in 1997


In 1990 Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was a prosperous, multiethnic country with a rich cultural history. Its largest city, Sarajevo, was chosen to host the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Power in Bosnia-Herzegovina was shared between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). But nationalist and ethnic tensions between these groups, once held in check by communist rule, were never far away.

1) Mostar, a town with a mixed Christian and Muslim population, 1990. The Old Bridge over the Neretva River was built by the Ottomans in the 16th Century.
Martin Mayer / Alamy Stock Photo

2) A square popular with locals and tourists in the old city area of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990. The 16th Century Muslihudin Čekrekčija Mosque can be seen in the background.
Martin Mayer / Alamy Stock Photo

3) The UNITIC towers in Sarajevo in 1986, shortly after completion. The twin towers were nicknamed ‘Momo and Uzeir’ after two popular radio characters, a Bosnian and a Serb.
Peter Forsberg / Alamy Stock Photo

Shoppers in a busy street in the old city area of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina
Martin Mayer / Alamy Stock Photo


Gulwali Passarlay was born in the eastern province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan in 1994. His father was a doctor and the family had a comfortable life. As a young child, Gulwali lived for several years with his grandparents, who were nomadic, spending summers in the mountains and moving to warmer climes in winter.

At this time, Afghanistan was governed by the fundamentalist Taliban regime. Though the regime was brutal, this was a period of relative stability for Gulwali and his family.

1) Gulwali with his uncle, cousins and brother Noor in Afghanistan, 2002.
Courtesy Gulwali Passarlay

2) Gulwali, aged 8, selling tailoring supplies at the bazaar. His uncles ran a profitable tailoring /> Courtesy Gulwali Passarlay

3) Gulwali (right), aged ten, with his little brother Nasir. Gulwali was an apprentice tailor and is wearing clothes he made /> Courtesy Gulwali Passarlay

Towels drying in a street in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan
Adrian Weston / Alamy Stock Photo

Child’s painting
c. 2002

This painting was made by an Afghan who came to the UK as a refugee. It shows elements of the home they left behind, including a chicken hut. Afghanistan has a large farming population and many people led rural lives before they were forced to leave their home due to conflict.

Teddy Bear

Three-year-old Anne Simpson’s family lived in Paris. In June 1940, Anne and her parents were forced to flee their home to escape the German invasion of France. They had to leave all of their possessions behind. Anne was upset that she would have to leave her toys. She cried so much that her parents allowed her to bring only her favourite toy, this teddy bear.

IWM Collection

Café society on the Champs-Élysées in Paris October

Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Sheet music and postcard

Annette ‘Annie’ Bankier took this sheet music with her on her journey to Britain. She remembers how she used to enjoy playing the piano at home in Vienna and her dreams of becoming a concert pianist. She has marked the home she left behind on this postcard.

Her parents were Polish Jews. In 1938 Hitler annexed Austria, leading to violent attacks on Jews. Annie was accepted on a Kindertransport and left for Britain. Her parents were able to travel to Shanghai.

Tefillin bag and phylacteries

This tefillin bag was given to 13 year old Manfred Moses for his Bar Mitzvah in September 1935. What would normally have been a lavish event had had to be scaled back because of restrictions brought in by the Nazis. The bag had been carefully embroidered by his mother. Manfred brought these items when he escaped from Germany and sought refuge in Britain.

IWM Collection

Rostock, on Germany’s Baltic coast
July 1937

By this time most of Rostock’s 57 Jewish-owned shops, medical practices and businesses had been closed down by the Nazis.

Eugeen Bosteels’ Journal

Eugeen Marie Bosteels was born in 1883, and studied at the University of Leuven in Belgium. First establishing himself as a lawyer in Aalst he soon became a city councillor. He was married and by 1914 had three children. In August 1914 he was on holiday with his family at La Panne when the Germans invaded. They escaped to Britain in October, and Eugeen wrote about his experiences in this diary.

IWM Collection

Ypres in Belgium, on the eve of the First World War. The city would be completely destroyed.

IWM Collection

Grace Schwindt

In this room, artist Grace Schwindt explores themes of home and displacement. Each sculpture is based on a conversation with an individual refugee, in which they recalled their home before conflict. The sculptures are each accompanied by an audio piece, which is inspired by the sounds and events each refugee remembered. Revealing the way memories and emotions can change or distort over time, Schwindt explores the complex feelings which surround the idea of ‘home’ for displaced people.

Grace Schwindt is a German artist based in London. Her work frequently addresses historical events and questions concepts of narrative, truth, and fiction.

Mrs Schumacher and the Gordons
Clay, glaze and audio

In the 1930s Gerhard Süssman, the artist’s grandfather, lived in a Berlin apartment building occupied by several other German Jewish families. Gerhard remembers hearing fighting in the street, the scratching of his father’s pencil on paper, silent parties, whispered conversations, and the sound of steps on the stairs. He fled the Nazis in 1938. Some of the families in the building also escaped, but others were murdered.

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Music by Tobias Vethake

A rose and four windows
Clay, glaze and audio

At the start of the Bosnian War, Jasna and her family lived in a second-floor flat in Sarajevo. The city came under siege and, within days, the windows of the flat were broken and had to be replaced with plastic sheets. Only the kitchen window remained. Jasna stayed and continued to work in Sarajevo for over a year before she fled. Though she survived, many of her friends and family died.

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Music by Tobias Vethake

Two birds and a horse
Clay, glaze and audio

Javed fled his home in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was still a child. His family had sold some of their land so that he could escape. Shortly after Javed left, his family lost their home, their land and their animals. Years later, Javed returned to Afghanistan to try and find his loved ones.

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Music by Tobias Vethake

A swing and a window
Clay, glaze and audio

Sahar’s mother lived in Palestine. Near the entrance of the house was a swing, where she would sit and greet people as they came and went. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict forced her to escape to Syria, where Sahar was born and raised. The family lived in a multi-storey building in Damascus and Sahar was in her kitchen when the first bombs fell on the neighbourhood. They eventually fled the country. The artist has incorporated drawings by Sahar and her daughter Nour in this sculpture.

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Music by Tobias Vethake

An entrance and a bird
Clay, glaze and audio

Xenia lived with her family in a house by the sea in northern Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invaded. Xenia, who was a child at the time, remembers sitting on the veranda and spotting the first Turkish ships arriving. The family waited until morning and then fled to the mountains. Schwindt travelled with Xenia to see her childhood home, which is now occupied by a Turkish family.

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Music by Tobias Vethake

What would make you go?

Throughout history, people have been displaced by conflict.

Persecution, the destruction of property and social breakdown all cause people to make the difficult decision to leave their homes.

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.

Stay or leave. Can you imagine having to make that decision?

Memories of home

Sead, Alice, Gulwali, Annie, and Aleksanda all had to leave their homes at different moments over the past 100 years. Here they talk about why they left their homes.

UNTV interview with Sead Dzafic filmed in 1994
IWM interview with Alice Brand recorded in 1992
IWM interview with Gulwali Passarlay filmed in 2019
IWM interview with Annie Bankier recorded in 1998
IWM interview with Aleksanda Ptak recorded in 1997

This timeline shows some of the many conflicts that have taken place over the past 100 years or so and the approximate number of people displaced.

Counting the numbers of people displaced by conflict is difficult. The unpredictability of the situation limits the ability to ensure definitive statistics.

These numbers are contested in some cases. They have been sourced to indicate the sheer scale of displacement.

A century of displacement by conflict

First World War

In 1914 Germany invades neutral Belgium, hoping to defeat France before turning on Russia. Over a million Belgian civilians are forced to flee their homes. Britain intervenes and the fighting stagnates into trench warfare.

The war becomes global with fighting in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Germany defeats Russia, now in the hands of a revolutionary Bolshevik government. America joins the war in 1917. The Allies triumph in 1918.

Number of people displaced: c. 10 million

Dates: 1914-1918


In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazis gain power in Germany. Antisemitism is central to their ideology and persecution of Jewish people escalates.

In response Britain offers sanctuary to groups of Jewish children. The first Kindertransport trains leave Germany and Austria in December 1938 soon to be followed by trains from Czechoslovakia and Poland. The last transport arrives in Britain in May 1940 as the programme is ended by the advancing German army.

Number of people displaced: c. 10,000 children

Dates: 1938 – 1940

Second World War

In 1939 Nazi Germany invades Poland. France is defeated the following year, and Britain and its Empire stand alone.

In 1941 Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and Japan conquers territory in the Far East and Pacific. Huge numbers of civilians are displaced. But the tide of war soon turns. From 1943 the industrial might of the United States and the power of the Soviet Army prove overwhelming. In 1945 Germany and Japan are defeated.

Number of people displaced: c. 165 million

Dates: 1939 – 1945

Bosnian War

In 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina declares independence from Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs and Croats resist the new government and fight to carve out their own separate territories. 

The war is characterised by ‘ethnic cleansing’ (mass killings and expulsions), mainly perpetrated by Serbs against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). In 1993 the Croats and Bosniaks fight a ‘war within a war’, but later unite against the Serbs, with support from NATO. In 1995 a peace treaty formally divides the country into two parts, one for Serbs the other for Bosniaks and Croats.

Number of people displaced: c. 2.2 million

Dates: 1992–1995

War in Afghanistan

On September 11 2001, Al Qaeda launches a series of terrorist attacks in the United States. Two months later, British forces join a coalition tasked with intervening in Afghanistan and locating Al Qaeda leaders.

The Taliban regime is removed from power and a new government installed, but the country remains unstable. US and NATO forces spend years in combat with a resurgent Taliban. British combat operations cease in 2014, but fighting continues, contributing to continued and further displacement of Afghan people.

Number of people displaced: c. 2.7 million

Dates: 2001 - 2014


When conflict drives communities apart, groups can be subject to violence, abuse and humiliation.

The hostility of governments or local communities can shatter feelings of security and force people to leave.

The Nazis persecuted Jewish people. They closed their businesses. They barred them from parks, cinemas and restaurants. They burned their synagogues.

In Bosnia people were threatened, abused and violated by opposing ethnic groups.

In the face of persecution, people often have no option but to leave everything and seek refuge elsewhere.

Star of David Badge

This yellow Star of David came from a jacket worn by Emmanuel Seinfeld, a German Jew. From 1941 the Nazis ordered Jewish people to wear badges like this on the left breast of their clothing. The intention was to humiliate and single them out. Emmanuel’s daughter Eva escaped to Britain on a Kindertransport, and Emmanuel himself survived the war.

IWM Collection

Poster for Der Ewige Jude

This poster advertises Der Ewige Jude, a Nazi antisemitic film ordered by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and released in 1940. It contained footage taken of Jewish people living in ghettos after the Germans had invaded Poland, aiming to inflame hatred towards them in Germany and occupied Europe. It was seen by a million cinemagoers.

IWM Collection

Ethnic cleansing

At the height of the war in Bosnia paramilitary groups forced people from opposing ethnic groups to leave their homes, often making them pay large sums or hand over all their property before they were driven out. In 1995 more than 8,000 male Bosniaks were murdered in Srebrenica. Their wives and families were thrown out, many arriving at a refugee camp in Tuzla in Bosniak territory where UNTV interviewed survivors. These images were filmed in Tuzla in 1994 and 1995.

IWM Collection

1) Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, burned out by the Nazis during the November Pogrom in 1938

IWM Collection

2) A member of the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) bars the entrance to a Jewish shop, April 1933. The notices behind read: ‘Germans! Watch out! Don’t buy from Jews!’

IWM Collection

3) A Polish Jew forced to work as a labourer in Warsaw, 1940. He is wearing a Star of David badge as required by the Nazis.

IWM Collection

4) Austrian Jews are made to scrub the streets following the German occupation of Vienna in 1938

IWM Collection

5) An elderly Bosnian Muslim woman weeps after her home in a Zagreb refugee camp was burned down by Croat forces, 1993

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

6) Nazi anti-Jewish graffiti on a shop in prewar Vienna

IWM Collection

‘Jews not wanted here!’ A banner strung across the entrance to the village of Rosenheim in Bavaria

IWM Collection


When countries, cities and neighbourhoods become battlefields, and when bombs fall and buildings burn, sometimes the only option is to leave.

The introduction of aerial bombing in the First World War put all civilians in the firing line for the first time.

Towns and cities were left in ruins as Allied forces fought to liberate Europe in the Second World War.

Sarajevo was struck by an average of 300 artillery and mortar rounds a day during the war in Bosnia. Most of the city was destroyed.

Destruction has forced people to flee in every conflict.

Shell fragments
Belgium, 1914

These shell fragments were collected by Adrienne van der Bergh from the garden of the Dutch Consulate in Antwerp, Belgium, after the first German bombardment of the city in October 1914. Damage from shelling and the threat to life from flying shards of metal like these are a key reason why many people have to leave their homes.

IWM Collection

British Army recruitment poster

Reports of violence and destruction in Belgium, particularly against vulnerable civilians, were used to urge British men to enlist in the army. Refugees, usually women with young children, were often used in propaganda to encourage compassion, shock and outrage. In this recruitment poster a mother and child are depicted fleeing a burning village.

IWM Collection

1) People search the ruins of a house in Ostend, destroyed by a German Zeppelin airship raid, September 1914

IWM Collection

2) A mother and her children in front of a house destroyed in a German air raid on Enghien in Belgium, May 1940

IWM Collection

3) A street in Hamburg burns during one of the major RAF bombing raids in July 1943. Over a million people fled the city.

IWM Collection

4) A British soldier helps an elderly woman in the devastated city of Caen in Normandy, July 1944. Caen was heavily bombed by the RAF as the Allies advanced.

IWM Collection

5) A mother cries as she prepares to evacuate her child out of Sarajevo on a bus promised safe passage by Serb forces during the siege in 1992

Paul Lowe VII

Photo 6) A Bosniak woman in the ruins of eastern Mostar, after Serb forces had been expelled by the Croats, June 1992

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

The ruins of heavily shelled villages near Kabul, Afghanistan
February 2002

IWM Collection (© Crown copyright)

Forced out

Forcing people from their homes is a strategic tool of war.

Modern war has seen countries, states and ethnic groups impose their will by terrorising people, burning their homes and driving them out.

People have been forced into concentration camps, or taken from their homes to work as slave labour.

In some cases, people have been systematically tortured, raped and murdered in order to overwhelm and dominate them. Sometimes just so that new lines can be drawn on maps, and nations can expand.

Badges: Serb Volunteer Guard (Arkan’s Tigers); 502nd Knights Mountain Brigade, Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina; 44th Independent Homeland Battalion of the Croatian Army

The Yugoslav Wars saw the creation of many new army, paramilitary, and volunteer militia forces along national and ethnic lines. One of their aims was the creation of an ethnically homogenous area or nation through ethnic cleansing.

The leader of the Arkan’s Tigers and commander of the Corps which contained the Knights Mountain Brigade were both charged with crimes against humanity. The battalion of the Croatian army was named after Jure Francetić who was responsible for the massacre of Bosnian Serbs and Jews during the Second World War.

IWM Collection

1) Belgian villagers examine the ruins of a farmhouse set on fire by the advancing Germans at Melle, near Ghent, September 1914

IWM Collection

2) Croat soldiers greet each other after having forced the Serbs to evacuate Mostar, June 1992. In 1993 the town was again divided along ethnic lines when fighting broke out between Croatian and Bosnian forces.

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

3) German troops burn a village during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Millions of civilian refugees fled eastwards in the face of the Nazi advance.

IWM Collection

4) Houses and a café burnt out by Croat forces in Bosnia, April 1993. Both Serbs and Croats forcibly expelled people from their homes to create ethnically pure territories.

Johnny Saunderson / Alamy Stock Photo

5) A destroyed Afghan home after confrontations between Pashtun and Hazara people, 2010. Ethnic unrest has contributed to violent land disputes between different groups in Afghanistan.


6) Jewish slave workers being lined up in the Belzec labour camp, 1940

IWM Collection

Refugees, carrying whatever possessions they can, are escorted out of the Muslim old town area of Mostar in Bosnia after heavy fighting between Croat and Serb forces
June 1992

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

Social breakdown

Conflict turns people’s worlds upside down.

Streets which were once safe become dangerous. The countryside, once peaceful, is now a hostile place. Schools are closed and the buses don’t run. The hospital is full but has no drugs, and the electricity lines are down.

It’s a struggle to find enough food. In the rubble of cities, many have to risk snipers when fetching water.

When society has broken down, when there is no government, no utilities and no food distribution, dangers and deprivation prove overwhelming.

Sometimes the only choice is to get out.

Afghan ‘War Rug’

Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict and this is reflected in the country’s crafts. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, carpet makers created rugs which combined modern war imagery with traditional weaving techniques. These are known as ‘war rugs’ and continue to be made today. This example, depicting a Russian Kalashnikov rifle, is believed to have been made by Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

IWM Collection

c. 2002

This picture was made by an Afghan teenager after coming to the UK as a refugee. It references the long history of conflict and violence in their homeland. Afghanistan is depicted as a country surrounded by aggressors, targeted by arrows from Russia, Pakistan, the USA and UK. In the bottom right they have written, ‘BUSH & BLAIR PLEASE STOP IT, IT HURTS.’

IWM Collection

1) A family outside their makeshift home in a garage in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, October 1993.

Agencja Fotograficzna Caro / Alamy Stock Photo

2) The exterior of the Sarajevo City Hall, known as Vijećnica. Home to the National and University Library of BosniaHerzegovina, it was destroyed by incendiary shells in 1992.

Paul Lowe VII Photo

3) A derelict school building in Kabul, c.2004 - 2005. The ongoing insecurity and conflict in Afghanistan has interrupted many children’s education.

IWM Collection

4) A woman carries water along Marshal Tito Street in Sarajevo, June 1992. Many civilians were killed by shells or snipers as they ventured out in search of supplies.

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

A young boy scavenges on a rubbish tip for anything that can salvaged and sold, Sarajevo
December 1994

IWM Collection (© Kevin Weaver)

What would you take?

Some people have time to prepare. Others just moments to decide what to take with them. Noone knows how long they will be away or if they will ever return.

Should they bring practical things to help them on their journey or treasured items with emotional value? What is important to take knowing everything else must be left behind?

Choices may vary but the question of what to take - and what can be carried - remains the same for people across diverse conflicts.

Briefcase, spectacles and case, ice skates, slips

These are some of the items Annie Bankier brought with her from Vienna. The German authorities only allowed one suitcase and one item of hand luggage for children fleeing Nazi controlled Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia on a Kindertransport.

Some of these items show the practical objects she needed to take with her. She also managed to find room for her ice skates. She had memories of ice skating at home and hoped to use them when she got to Britain.

IWM Collection


‘My mother, Hella, must have packed my suitcase with a heavy heart… but she saved my life. The only items I recall from my arrival in England are the hairbrush, a rather jaunty tweed cap and short brown boots.’

Ilse Hönigsberg brought this hairbrush with her when she was evacuated from Austria on one of the Kindertransporte in August 1939. Her mother and sister died at Auschwitz.

IWM Collection

Serving Spoon

‘Among my clothes they packed a box full of precious family photos, my own cutlery set to which I still cling, and as a remembrance of them, the toilet case, cloth and soap which my father had taken with him to the First World War.’

Dorrith Oppenheim brought this serving spoon with her when she was evacuated from Germany on a Kindertransport in July 1939.

IWM Collection

Silver Cup

‘Drinking from this cup when I was away from home calmed me down and made me hopeful.’

Edita Dedi-Kelmendi was a 25-year old Albanian living in Kosovo when war broke out in 1998. This cup was a favourite possession of hers and she took it with her when she and her family were forced to leave their home. Edita now lives in the UK.

Edita Dedi-Kelmendi

Toy Umbrella with cover

‘As soon as we went to school nobody knew anything about my possessions or anything, that I spoke German… I just wanted to be an ordinary English girl.’

Inge Pollak brought this umbrella and cover with her when she was evacuated with her sister from Vienna, Austria, on one of the Kindertransporte in 1939. They were sent to Falmouth, Cornwall.

IWM Collection


‘I remember my father writing the fabric label for the rucksack. He took such immense care as if he wanted to ensure my safety by writing meticulously. My mother then sewed it in and it is still there.’

Lore Heimann arrived at Liverpool Street Station with this rucksack on a Kindertransport from Germany in June 1939.

IWM Collection

Where do you go to find safety?

You have left everything behind. Now where do you go?

Throughout history people have made journeys to escape conflict. Some have a destination in mind, others set out in the hope of finding one.

Harsh environments, threats from enemies, borders and bureaucracy stand before you. Friends, aid agencies and organisations may help you, policies and red tape may hinder you.

No journey is the same. Whether crossing the Mediterranean in a boat, being smuggled across borders or walking through a war zone, the goal remains: find a safe place.

Memories of the journey

Sead, Alice, Gulwali, Annie, and Aleksanda all had to leave their homes at different moments over the past 100 years. Here they talk about their memories of some of the journeys they were forced to make.

UNTV interview with Sead Dzafic filmed in 1994
IWM interview with Alice Brand recorded in 1992
IWM interview with Gulwali Passarlay filmed in 2019
IWM interview with Annie Bankier recorded in 1998
IWM interview with Aleksanda Ptak recorded in 1997

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat

Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat was an international project led by Professor Vicki Squire with colleagues at the University of Warwick, University of Malta and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

The project team interviewed a total of 271 people, most of whom had already crossed the Mediterranean by boat, and others who were planning to do so. By assessing the socalled ‘migration crisis’ of 2015-2016 from the perspective of people making this dangerous journey, the project shed critical light on the European Union’s migration policy agenda.

This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Routes travelled

Some journeys take days and some can take years.

People have travelled through many different environments to escape conflict. All of them have faced uncertainty about where they will end up and how long it will take.

Journeys have been made in horse-drawn carts, motor vehicles, boats and trains. Some people have had no other option but to walk over huge distances in search of safety.

Journeys like these can take a huge physical and mental toll on those undertaking them.

Walking Stick

C Morgan-Jones was an accountant at Rangoon Zoo in Burma (now Myanmar). From February to March 1942 he used this walking stick during his 600 mile journey to Imphal in India after the Japanese invasion. Over half a million refugees joined the British retreat, mostly Indian workers and their families. With no ships available, most were forced to walk. He, and others, trekked through jungle and steep mountains where thousands died of starvation and disease.

IWM Collection

1) A column of Muslim refugees from Serbcontrolled Banja Luka trudge through the snow to reach the village of Turbe, in Bosnian-held territory, 26 February 1993

IWM Collection

2) Belgian families head westwards along a railway line towards Ghent, following the German capture of Antwerp, October 1914

IWM Collection

3) A family and their overloaded car at a refugee centre on the Iraq-Kuwait border, during the First Gulf War, 1991

IWM Collection © John Keane

4) Belgian refugees prepare to sail from Ostend to Britain, October 1914

IWM Collection

5) Civilians battle through the snow, December 1944

IWM Collection

6) Afghan refugees embark on the dangerous journey across the Baluchi desert, which will take them through Pakistan and into Iran, 2016

© Jim Huylebroek

From right to left

1) Refugees fleeing fighting in Iraqi army trucks during operations to liberate Mosul, Iraq

Andy Bush / Alamy Stock Photo

2) Rwanda Hutu refugees flee to Zaire, August 1994

Mike Goldwater / Alamy Stock Photo

3) Refugees fleeing fighting in Iraqi army trucks during operations to liberate Mosul, Iraq

Andy Bush / Alamy Stock Photo

4) Refugees cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, June 2015

Michael Honegger / Alamy Stock Photo

5) A column of Muslim refugees from Serbcontrolled Banja Luka reach the village of Turbe, in Bosnian-held territory, 26 February 1993

IWM Collection

6) Polish refugees trekking across the mountains from the Soviet Union into Persia (Iran), November 1942

IWM Collection

7) A column of Muslim refugees from Serbcontrolled Banja Luka reach the village of Turbe, in Bosnian-held territory, 26 February 1993

IWM Collection

8) Refugees cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, June 2015

Michael Honegger / Alamy Stock Photo

9) A German boy pulls a handcart as civilians leave Uerdingen, March 1945

Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

10) Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion, 12 May 1940

IWM Collection


How do you keep safe on your journey?

The journeys made by displaced people are major undertakings, and often hazardous. Extreme environments pose a natural threat, but there are man-made dangers too.

Trying to escape conflict can sometimes be as dangerous as staying put.

Displaced people seeking safety are sometimes actively targeted by hostile forces. Or they may simply be caught in the crossfire between warring factions.

Hostile environments and terrain, lack of food, water and medicine, and the uncertainty of not knowing where safety might lie make those most in need even more vulnerable.

1) A Croat man throws stones at Serb refugees fleeing Krajina, the self-proclaimed Serb proto-state set up within newlyindependent Croatia, August 1995

Mike Goldwater / Alamy Stock Photo

2) Iraqi people come under fire as they flee Basra during the battle by British forces to occupy the city, 2003

IWM Collection ©Crown copyright.

3) Belgian refugees take cover as German aircraft fly over the road, May 1940

IWM Collection

4) A displaced Belgian woman killed during a German air raid, May 1940

IWM Collection

5) The remains of a column of French refugee wagons, attacked by German aircraft, May 1940

IWM Collection

6) German civilians, fleeing the Soviet advance, pick their way across the River Elbe on a partially destroyed railway bridge at Tangermünde, May 1945

IWM Collection


Displaced people face help and hostility when crossing borders and trying to make progress towards safety.

The military, aid workers and charitable organisations can offer vital assistance, helping to meet basic needs: something to eat, somewhere to sleep and clothes to wear.

But displaced people are strangers in a strange land, and often vulnerable to coercion and exploitation from those with ulterior motives. Their desperation makes them a target for criminals seeking to profit from their circumstances. Smugglers may offer to help people escape conflict, but at a high price, and at great risk.

MSF helmet
c. 2016

The journey across the Mediterranean Sea can be deadly. This helmet was worn by crew building a hospital aboard the Aquarius, a search-and-rescue vessel operated by the aid organisations Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée. In two years of operations, the Aquarius assisted over 27,000 people. Faced with mounting political pressure, and denied access to Italian ports, the Aquarius ceased operations in 2018.

Médecins Sans Frontières

1) A Muslim woman, one of many refugees expelled from Srebrenica by the Serbs, arrives at the UN camp set up at Tuzla airbase in Bosnia, 20 July 1995

IWM Collection

2) Refugees from the Middle East receive help from CARE volunteers on the Serbia-Croatia border, 23 October 2015

Danijela Korac-Mandic/ NSHC/ CARE

3) Belgian civilians fleeing the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, show their papers to US military police, December 1944

IWM Collection

4) A British soldier provides milk for Belgian refugees in Louvain, May 1940

IWM Collection

5) British troops feed displaced French people in Normandy, June 1944

IWM Collection

6) Refugees from Syria meet a smuggler in Izmir, Turkey, in an area of the city known as ‘Mafia Square’, 2015

LE PICTORIUM/ Alamy Stock Photo

7) The Aquarius assists a boat in distress in the Mediterranean, September 2018

Maud Veith / SOS Méditeranée

8) Aquarius team members throw life jackets to men, women and children aboard an overloaded rubber boat, November 2017

Maud Veith / SOS Méditeranée

Indrė Šerpytytė

Artist Indrė Šerpytytė has created this new installation responding to ideas of journeying, agency and communication. Interpreting the routes of individual refugees as they travel to Europe, Šerpytytė examines the practical challenge of navigating these journeys, and the hope that might be found on the way.

Šerpytytė was born in Lithuania and is now based in London. Her art explores themes including conflict, trauma, history and loss. In previous projects, she has drawn on her own experience of growing up in Soviet Lithuania.


In this artwork, Indrė Šerpytytė has represented seven refugee’s journeys across the Mediterranean as neon ‘constellations.’ The collections of lines and circles denote the stops and starts along the way, but also allude to a universal language of astronomy.

Digital technology has changed the way we travel and communicate, but the stars remain a key navigation tool on refugee journeys. In 2016, CNN filmed a people smuggler telling refugees, ‘See those stars. They mean North. Follow them.’ For Šerpytytė, the stars represent both a practical tool and a symbol of hope.

Each route is taken from Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat, a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

A temporary home?

Finding refuge is the primary aim for people displaced by conflict.

Camps and shelters offer temporary relief. Yet many people are forced to stay for months or even years in such places, while waiting for their rights and status to be decided.

Camps are often improvised by displaced people themselves or they are built up from structures provided by aid organisations and governments. They can be harsh places to live and prone to overcrowding. But no matter how long the stay, people make a home and forge communities in them before resuming their journeys.


Can you go where you want to?

The search for rights, recognition and status is not an easy and straightforward process for people fleeing conflict. Crossing borders is hard to achieve. Securing rights to stay in another country is even harder.

What are the procedures for gaining refugee status? Do you have the right paperwork? Do you tick the right boxes? Will you be believed?

Government bureaucracy, international laws, and an ever-changing political landscape make navigating the legal routes to safety particularly difficult.

Child guarantee form

Guarantee forms like this were issued by the ‘Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Ltd’ in London. Without a guarantor to fund and offer accommodation it was difficult to get a place on the programme. The decision to accept a limited number of child refugees, without their parents and with financial assurance from British citizens, was announced in the House of Commons on 21 November 1938, ten days after the November Pogrom.

IWM Collection

Identity card and immigration card belonging to Felix Szwedo

Felix Szwedo was a Polish political prisoner who had been held in various German concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen.

This identity card, issued in 1945, provided proof of his details and origin when other papers had been destroyed. This immigration card, issued in 1947 identifies him as ‘accepted as suitable for employment in Great Britain.’ Both of these were necessary in order to get to the Britain and start building a new life.

IWM Collection

Displaced persons identity card and travel document belonging to Władysława Wiśniewska

Władysława Wiśniewska was brought to Germany from Poland and found herself in a Displaced Person camp in Solingen at the end of the Second World War.

DPs like Władysława required identity cards such as this to live and work in Britain. Following the war generally only fit, healthy and skilled people were considered for resettling in Britain.

This travel document, issued in 1973, served in place of a passport. It allowed her to travel to any other country apart from Poland.

IWM Collection

Reckoning with Refugeedom, 1919-75, Refugee Voices in Modern History

Reckoning with Refugeedom is an ongoing project conducted by the University of Manchester.

The project aims to put refugees more firmly and centrally into modern history by accessing the perspectives of refugees from different backgrounds, through petitions and letters to those in positions of authority, but also personal correspondence and other source material. It looks at how refugees engaged with the history and circumstances of their displacement. It also assesses how they understood and negotiated the personal and political consequences of ‘being a refugee’.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

This is the convention that enshrines asylum and the rights of refugees in international law. The UK’s ratification was signed on 11 March 1954.

The 1967 Protocol to this convention expanded the definition of a refugee to refer not just to Europeans affected by the Second World War but to anyone fleeing persecution worldwide. The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Act further defined and extended the UK’s obligations towards refugees. The right to asylum is protected in UK law.

IWM Collection

Applying for refugee status in the UK is not straightforward. It is a time consuming and complex legal process, involving many stages and potential barriers.

This graphic shows a simplified version of the process experienced by displaced people hoping to be recognised as a refugee and settle in the UK.

What this does not portray is the strain and stress this puts on individuals within the system. For many, this process can take years.

Displaced Person camps

In May 1945 the Second World War in Europe was over.

The Allies provided care for millions of refugees, liberated forced labourers and concentration camps survivors.

Hundreds of temporary camps were set up in Germany, Austria and Italy. Some were repurposed from disused army barracks, factories or former prisons. All of them housed people awaiting return to their home countries or help to move to a new life somewhere else.

DP camps were only for the victims of Nazi aggression, including Russian, Polish and French civilians. Millions of displaced Germans had to fend for themselves.

DDT Delousing gun

It is vital to protect people living in temporary shelters from outbreaks of disease. DDT insecticide spray guns such as this one were used to spray people housed in Displaced Persons Camps at the end of the Second World War. The DDT killed lice carrying typhus, an infectious disease which can be fatal. Some of the camps, like Bergen Belsen, were repurposed concentration camps.

IWM Collection

Map of Displacement Camps in Germany

This map, drawn for an issue of UNRRA Team News, shows the situation in Allied-occupied Germany on 8 May 1946.

UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) was the first UN aid agency and was responsible for the care of some 11 million Displaced Persons in hundreds of camps across Germany, as well as in Austria and Italy. Crucially their remit did not cover displaced Germans.

IWM Collection

Doll in Hungarian fortune-teller dress made in Bergen-Belsen DP Camp, Doll in Estonian national dress and Doll in Latvian national dress made in Hanau DP Camp

These dolls were made in Displaced Persons camps from recycled or donated clothes. Crafts such as doll-making kept skills active, passed the time and kept cultural identity alive. The dolls could also be sold for income or used in exhibitions or competitions.

IWM Collection

Photograph Album of DP Camp 554, Hanau, Germany

People living in camps for any length of time require more than just the basic necessities of food and shelter.

This album belonged to Dorothy May, an aid worker with UNRRA, at Hanau. These pages show some of the entertainments at the camp, with theatrical performances, music recitals and art exhibitions, created by those living there to bring enrichment to their lives.

IWM Collection

Photograph Album of Wedel Camp, Hamburg

This album belonged to Barbara McDouall, an aid worker attached to UNRRA, working with Displaced Persons in Hamburg, Germany. As in many other DP camps people wished to carry on with their professions, or learn new skills for their return home or settling elsewhere. These photos show DPs making dolls for sale in Britain, with hopes that they too would soon be able to move there.

IWM Collection

Displaced persons are received at the 2nd Army Displaced Persons Centre at “The Winkelhaus” barracks, Osnabrück, Germany
April 1945

Tens of thousands of DPs passed through this converted former German Army barracks. Run by the British Second Army, DPs of dozens of nationalities liberated from forced labour or concentration camps were given food, access to shelter and medical treatment before repatriation or resettlement could begin.

IWM Collection

No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre

No. 17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre was located in the grounds of Hamburg Zoo. It was originally built by the Germans to house forced labourers but was taken over by the British Army to process DPs and send them on for repatriation.

There were approximately 120,000 DPs in the city when the British arrived.

1) A group of DPs await entry to the camp. In May 1945 alone, the camp authorities dealt with nearly 70,000 people from 26 countries.

IWM Collection

2) A Polish child, Leon Waszczuk, is sprayed with DDT to kill any lice in his clothes.

IWM Collection

3) A group of Russian women and girls, once slave-labourers. Some are still wearing their striped concentration camp clothes.

IWM Collection

4) Leon and Janina Waszczuk receive their ration of soup. DPs in the camp were given 2,000 calories a day, the food taken from German supplies.

IWM Collection

5) Aleksy Waszczuk and his family at the window of their assigned hut. After several days, most of the DPs were moved on to their own national camps.

IWM Collection

6) Polish DPs wait to be transported to another camp for repatriation. Not all were willing to return home, as their country was now under Soviet control.

IWM Collection

The Calais Camp

Between 2015 and 2016, thousands of displaced people lived in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France. The population included people fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. Most were hoping to travel to the UK, where they would seek asylum.

Commonly known as the ‘Jungle’, the camp was one in a series of refugee encampments in the region. Since the late 1990s various settlements have been established in the north of France, close to the Channel crossing.

The French authorities began demolition of the camp in October 2016.

The ‘Calais Cross’
c. 2015

The Calais Camp was a place of religious diversity, with the population including Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. As faith played an important role in many residents’ lives, multiple sites of worship were constructed. This cross was salvaged from the Eritrean Orthodox Church of St Michael, one of the largest and longest standing structures in the camp. The Church was demolished in November 2016.

Bishop of Bangor

1) A busy charging station in the camp. Mobile phones are a vital means of communication and allow refugees to contact loved ones in their home country.

© Rob Pinney

2) Converted shipping containers provided warm and dry shelter for some, but hand prints were required to secure a space. One resident said the containers were, ‘like a prison camp.’

© Rob Pinney

3) Mario’s, one of many makeshift restaurants set up by camp residents. In addition to serving food, restaurants offered a warm place to socialise.

© Rob Pinney

4) Tent belonging to Saifullah, a refugee from Afghanistan. Living conditions in the camp were very poor, with limited access to clean water and other vital supplies.

© Rob Pinney

5) A shelter decorated with toys, flowers and drawings. Murals and hand-painted signs were found throughout the camp.

© Rob Pinney

6) A group of men play cricket in an area known as ‘Afghan Square.’ Different areas of the camp became associated with particular communities.

© Rob Pinney

Architectures of Displacement

Architectures of Displacement is an ongoing research project exploring temporary accommodation for refugees in the Middle East and Europe. It is a partnership between the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

As part of the project, researchers have created the Refugee Shelter Inventory, which documents different types of refugee shelters. Some diagrams from the Inventory are reproduced here on this wall. The Inventory demonstrates the diversity of these structures and the environments in which they exist. They illustrate many different ways that humanitarian agencies have responded to the basic needs of refugee populations - with both positive and negative results.

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Afghanistan Winterised Shelter

Location Northern Afghanistan
Situation Refugees returning from conflict
Intended lifespan 1 year

This bamboo and plastic structure combats the harsh winter conditions in Afghanistan. Winterised Shelters are constructed around a tent, further shielding occupants from the elements. They are built by local labourers.

Papawarin Pinij/University of Oxford

Azraq T-Shelter

Location Azraq Camp, Jordan
Situation Syria Conflict
Intended lifespan 2-4 years

This steel and aluminium structure is designed to house thousands of refugees at Azraq Camp. T-Shelters provide privacy and protect against severe weather conditions. The parts are prefabricated and arrive at the camp as a ‘kit.’

Papawarin Pinij/University of Oxford

Tukul Shelter

Location South Sudan
Situation South Sudanese Civil War
Intended lifespan 2-4 years

This traditional wooden-framed structure provides shelter for displaced people across South Sudan. Tukul Shelters insulate against heat and resist strong winds. They are built with locally available materials.

Papawarin Pinij/University of Oxford

Life in camps

Temporary shelters are not just places where people wait before continuing their journey. Sometimes they are places where people have to live for months or even years.

Camps can provide for people’s basic needs. Food, water and medicine are essential. However, people look for more than this.

Throughout history, displaced people have had to settle for a time in temporary camps and communities. Life there can be difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. But it is also in these places that people create and connect with each other.

Refugee Hosts

Refugee Hosts is an ongoing research project based at University College London.

More than five million refugees from the Syria Conflict have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Refugee Hosts project explores local responses to displacement in the Middle East, considering the experiences of both refugees from Syria and the communities which host them.

In this film, Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh discusses the Refugee Hosts project and shares some of its findings.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) individual food parcel for Former Yugoslavia

This food parcel contains tins and dried food from all over Europe. It was intended for refugees made homeless by the Yugoslav Wars.

British Red Cross Museum and Archives

The Red Cross emblem is a special protective sign used during armed conflicts, and its use is restricted by law.

CARE Package

CARE was founded in 1945 to send packages from people in the USA to people in Europe recovering from the Second World War. The first CARE packages were unused US Army rations, each intended to provide one meal for ten soldiers. They were purchased and distributed by CARE after the war. Those left homeless or in need in the Britain were also sent these packages.

CARE International UK

Hygiene pack donated to Red Cross by UNHCR

Disease can rapidly overwhelm crowded camps where access to clean water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities is compromised.

Hygiene packs like this one, containing soap, washing powder, sanitary pads and toothpaste, were donated by the UNHCR and distributed by the British Red Cross in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

British Red Cross Museum and Archives.

The Red Cross emblem is a special protective sign used during armed conflicts, and its use is restricted by law.

1) Women and young children collecting water from tanks set up at the UN refugee camp at Tuzla in Bosnia, 20 July 1995

IWM Collection

2) Captain Laura Clark of the US Army looks after Polish children in a DP camp at Bensheim, near Frankfurt in Germany, 1945

IWM Collection

3) Belgian refugees cooking at a camp in Ostend in Belgium, October 1914

IWM Collection

4) Russian women DPs at work making ammunition pouches for the US Army at a camp in France, 1945

IWM Collection

Is a home just a place where you live?

Settling in a new place is challenging. How will you make friends? How will you make a living? Will people welcome you?

Host countries can be a refuge from the chaos and despair many have escaped. They can also be intimidating, unwelcoming and unpleasant places to live.

Over the past 100 years people have fled conflict and tried to settle in new countries with the hope of living in comparative safety. For many, this is still just a hope.

A different home

Sead, Alice, Gulwali, Annie, and Aleksanda all had to leave their homes at different moments over the past 100 years. Here they talk about their memories of settling in a new community.

UNTV interview with Sead Dzafic filmed in 1994
IWM interview with Alice Brand recorded in 1992
IWM interview with Gulwali Passarlay filmed in 2019
IWM interview with Annie Bankier recorded in 1998
IWM interview with Aleksanda Ptak recorded in 1997

Refugees Welcome?

Refugees have had a mixed reception in Britain over the last hundred years.

The government has welcomed people with initiatives intended to help them settle and find work. Feelings of solidarity bring individuals, charities and local organisations to form support networks to help people find their place in a new community.

Others believe they are taking jobs, housing, and financial support from local families.

The media reinforces these conflicting views, either encouraging empathy or seeking to demonise. With some groups embracing them and others stirring up hatred, the experience of refugees in their new homes varies dramatically.

Mayor’s appeal for war refugees in Westminster

Charitable appeals, often at local level, have been launched to help people arriving in Britain after escaping conflict. This appeal by the Mayor of Westminster asked for offers of places to stay and items of clothing, equipment and furnishings for Dutch and Belgian refugees who had been unable to bring anything with them.

IWM Collection

Notice to Refugees

The lack of a shared language can be an obstacle for those needing help or advice. This notice, written in English, French, German, Czech, Polish and Norwegian, gives contact details of the closest volunteer helpers for refugees in special difficulties in Warwickshire during the Second World War.

IWM Collection

While you are in England: helpful information and guidance for every refugee

‘Spend your spare time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation… Do not make yourself conspicuous by speaking loudly, nor by your manner or dress.’

This booklet published by the German Jewish Aid Committee was one of many intended to help refugees integrate.

It includes information about useful organisations, how to register with the local police, and what work was allowed. Assimilation and blending in was encouraged.

IWM Collection

Welcome to Britain: how to welcome refugees and asylum seekers in 11 easy steps

This booklet is one of a series published by the charity Refugee Action. It was designed to dispel myths about refugees and asylum seekers and to encourage communities to welcome and engage with new arrivals.

IWM Collection

Peckham Sponsors Refugees leaflet

Set up in 2016 the government’s community sponsorship scheme is a way that community groups can support the resettlement of vulnerable people fleeing conflict.

Peckham Sponsors Refugees used the scheme to bring a Syrian refugee family to Peckham. They used this leaflet and social media to locate accommodation and money for the family, as well as to find people willing to help the family learn English. As a result of this, in March 2019 a Syrian family moved into Peckham.

IWM Collection

Two Million Refugees

Written just a month before the outbreak of the Second World War this British pamphlet published by the Nationalist Association complains that there are too many Jewish refugees in the country and claims that most are in fact economic migrants. The figure they give is inflated and the content largely antisemitic. The language comparing asylum seekers and economic migrants is still used by politicians and the media today.

IWM Collection

‘Refugees Not Welcome’ sticker

The large influx of refugees and migrants entering Europe in 2015 led to claims of a refugee ‘crisis’ and the growth of antiimmigration sentiment. Stickers including statements such as ‘Refugees Not Welcome’ started appearing in public areas across Europe, in a parody of the ‘Refugees Welcome’ stickers showing the same family group. This example was found in a phone box near IWM London.

IWM Collection

The Voice of Freedom newspaper

The Voice of Freedom was the monthly newspaper of the far-right British National Party (BNP). This issue, published in June 2001, claims that the government is giving asylum seekers fully-furnished homes at the taxpayers’ expense. At this time the party was led by Nick Griffin, who had previously been convicted of ‘publishing or distributing racially inflammatory written material.’

Welcome for a while

250,000 Belgians fled to Britain during the First World War. It was the largest influx of refugees in British history.

At first they were welcomed. Some lived in hostels and boarding houses, but most found homes with local people.

The majority were keen to work and contribute to the war economy, but public sympathy soon waned. Cultural differences, financial pressures on local authorities and the impact of heavy British casualties all played a part.

At the end of the war, the British government was keen to see the Belgians return home. Within a year, nearly all of them had gone.

A home for Belgian refugee children in England

IWM Collection

Tracing the Belgian Refugees

Tracing the Belgian Refugees is a public history project run by colleagues at the Universities of Leeds, Leuven and UCL.

The project records Belgian refugees who came to the UK during the First World War. A key output of this research project is a freeto-use online database that allows people to input information that they have found about a Belgian refugee and view what other people have shared.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Birtley Belgians

In 1915 the British government funded a new National Projectile Factory near Birtley in Durham. Staffed by wounded Belgian soldiers and civilian refugees a unique, self-contained township formed, named Elisabethville after the Queen of the Belgians.

It was administered by the Belgian government under strict military law. Contact with the local community was officially discouraged, but the workers and their families enjoyed better living conditions than most of their British neighbours.

After the war, the Belgians returned home and Elisabethville was given over to local families.

1) A family work the vegetable plot outside their pre-fabricated wooden home. By 1918 some 6,000 Belgians were living in Elisabethville.

IWM Collection

2) A worker at home with his family. The houses had hot and cold running water, electricity and indoor toilets.

IWM Collection

3) Most of the 3,700 workers at Birtley were Belgian soldiers. They were required to wear their uniforms at all times. Unlike their British counterparts, the women were not permitted to work.

IWM Collection

4) A ward in the 100-bed hospital in Elisabethville. Work in the factory at Birtley was dangerous, and serious injuries were commonplace.

IWM Collection

5) Finished 8-inch shell cases await transport to a shell-filling factory. At its height the factory was making 18,000 shells of all calibres every week. By the end of 1918 Birtley had produced 2.8 million projectiles.

IWM Collection

6) Customers in the grocer’s store. There were several shops in Elizabethville, as well as a church, post office, two schools and a cinema.

IWM Collection

Letter from the Folkestone War Refugees Committee

The Folkestone War Refugees Committee sent letters to thank donors for giving up their time, money, and possessions to Belgian refugees. This letter went to Miss B Moller who donated clothing to those in need.

Over 100,000 Belgians passed through Folkestone in only a few months and as many as 15,000 had taken up residence. Over 2,500 refugee committees were set up around the country to co-ordinate the aid effort.

IWM Collection

Provisional certificate of Belgian nationality

With the end of the First World War in sight, Belgian citizens requiring proof of citizenship could obtain certificates such as these from the Belgian consulate in London.

Laure Vanderstichele had come to London with her eldest daughters in February 1915 to allow them to continue their university education. She and her daughters settled in Britain after the war.

IWM Collection

Refuge for some

Britain, like other countries, made some effort to accept Jewish refugees in the run-up to the Second World War.

But British government policy remained strict. While 70,000 people fleeing the Nazis were allowed to stay, almost half a million were refused.

Many people from Germany and Austria who sought refuge in Britain were interned in 1940 along with other ‘enemy aliens’ considered a threat. Some were deported to Australia and Canada.

After the war, Britain accepted 86,000 Displaced Persons, primarily for labour. But it refused to accept most Holocaust survivors or non-white ethnic groups.

Children playing outside Pauntley Court, a school and home for French and Belgian refugees and British evacuees in 1943

IWM Collection

The Le Du family return to Buron, near Caen in France
18 July 1944

Their village, turned into a strongpoint by German troops, had been almost destroyed as Allied forces fought their way inland after D-Day.

IWM Collection

The Enemy Within?

At the outbreak of the Second World War around 80,000 people living in Britain were considered a potential threat to national security. They were classified as ‘enemy aliens’.

From May 1940 thousands of Germans, Austrians and Italians were interned, the majority on the Isle of Man. They included people who had been in Britain for years or who had fled their own countries to avoid persecution.

The move was deeply unpopular and following a public outcry most were released by 1942.

Certificate of Registration (Aliens Order)

All aliens in Britain had to carry a Certificate of Registration. This certificate belonged to Ernest Pollak, a Czechoslovakian Jewish refugee who came to England in 1939 and worked on a farm. In July 1940 he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ and was one of 7,000 enemy aliens who were sent to Canada and Australia. He did not return to England until February 1941.

IWM Collection

Certificate of Registration (Aliens Order)

The Aliens Order required all foreigners seeking employment or residence to register with the police, as well as notify of every change of address and employment.

This certificate issued in 1947 belonging to Władysława Wiśniewska, a Polish DP, contains official stamps by the Police and gives details of her employment as a ring spinner in cotton mills in Greater Manchester. It was only in 1961 that she became exempt from registration.

IWM Collection

Aliens Order

This order contained rules for foreigners permitted to enter Britain to work in service in private households. Many of those seeking safety in Britain after fleeing from the Nazis were only admitted to meet the shortage of domestic servants rather than for compassionate reasons. Even then there were strict rules about employment, supposedly to protect British employees.

IWM Collection

Letter written by Annette Bankier

Kindertransport refugee Annie Bankier’s parents managed to escape Austria and had settled in Shanghai. Here Annie writes to them showing pictures of her new school uniform.

Now aged 16 she had recently passed an ‘enemy alien’ tribunal and been classed as category ‘C’ – no security risk. More than 55,000 people in this category were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.

IWM Collection

Europe on the Move

As the Second World War drew to a close millions of Displaced Persons were trying to get home.

Following Germany’s surrender, the western Allies quickly set about repatriating displaced people. But many DPs had no homes to return to. Others, fearing for their lives, didn’t want to go back.

The political landscape of central and eastern Europe had changed dramatically. National borders had been redrawn. For many, being sent home meant facing further persecution.

1) Liberated Italian forced-labourers return from Austria over the Brenner Pass, May 1945

IWM Collection

2) Russian DPs wait for take-off aboard an American aircraft at Mourmelon-le-Grand in France, June 1945. They were flown to Germany, from where they travelled home to the Soviet Union.

IWM Collection

3) French displaced people, including a mother and child, in a railway wagon at Borna, Germany at the start of their journey home to France, May 1945

IWM Collection

4) Mari-Anne Le Du clasps a treasured book in the ruins of her house in the village of Buron, Normandy, July 1944

IWM Collection

5) French DPs boarding USAAF Flying Fortress bombers at Linz in Austria at the start of their journey home, 1945

IWM Collection

6) Polish DPs on the deck of the cargo ship Rotenfels which would take them to Danzig (Gdańsk), 17 March 1946

IWM Collection © Norman Weaver

Poster, Czas Powrotu Sie Zbliza [The Time of Return is Coming]

The expectation towards the end of the Second World War was that Polish soldiers and refugees in Britain would return home.

This poster from the Post Office reminds them to continue saving to help rebuild their lives when they return - “What have you saved so far?” In reality Poland was to be invaded by the Soviet Union, and many Poles feared the Russians as much as the Germans.

IWM Collection

UNRRA Repatriation Questionnaire

This questionnaire was issued to all Displaced Persons in Germany. It asked them for their nationality, but not their names, and whether or not they wanted to be repatriated.

Returning home was not always an easy decision. Many eastern European countries had been taken over by the Soviet Union. People didn’t want to return to a totalitarian state and feared persecution if they went home.

IWM Collection

A legacy of displacement

2.2 million people were displaced by the Bosnian War, the largest number in Europe since the Second World War.

More than half a million were granted asylum in western European countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Today, 100,000 Bosnians remain internally displaced.

The country has also been impacted by the recent refugee crisis. With neighbouring countries closing their borders, it has become a bottleneck on the main migrant route into western Europe.

34,000 people have arrived in Bosnia since 2018, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

UNTV Interviews

Once the fighting is over and a place has been deemed safe, can people return home? If so, do they even want to?

In these UNTV films two women from BosniaHerzegovina have differing thoughts. Draga explains why she does not want to return to Mostar, and Najim Jujic explains why she can’t imagine not returning to her home in Jajce.

IWM Collections

Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) return to their home in Foca, some of the first to return to the town since it was ethnically cleansed by Serb forces in 1992.

Paul Lowe VII Photo

Translating Asylum: Translation, interpreting and the British humanitarian response to asylum seeker and refugee arrivals since the 1940s

Translating Asylum is an ongoing research project based at the University of Manchester.

Its aims are to enhance public understanding of language and communication challenges common to individuals displaced by conflict. It also investigates historical and contemporary approaches to language support provisions such as translation and interpreting services.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Building a new life

Today, about 2.7 million Afghan people are refugees. Most have fled to Iran and Pakistan, but some have come to the UK.

Building a life in a different country is challenging. Refugees must navigate complex official procedures, and host communities may not always be welcoming. Even when asylum is granted, many face the threat of future deportation. Though refugees and asylum seekers are frequently in the headlines, the UK’s response to refugees is more muted than it has been in the past. Proportionate to its population, the UK receives fewer refugees than many other European countries.

Despite these difficulties, many refugees settle, find purpose, and thrive in new communities.

The UK currently hosts approximately 127,000 refugees, but the number of applications for refugee status changes year on year. This graphic shows the numbers of asylum applications granted and refused each year since 1984.

It also shows the number of refugees in the UK compared to other countries, both in Europe and globally. Compared to many other European countries, the UK receives fewer refugees.

Becoming Adult

Becoming Adult was a three-year research project based at University College London, University of Birmingham and Oxford University.

The project investigated the experiences and wellbeing outcomes of young people who had travelled to the UK as unaccompanied child migrants as they made the transition into adulthood. Researchers explored how refugees and asylum seekers envisioned their futures, and what cultural and political factors shaped their outcomes.

This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dear Habib

This short animation tells the true story of Habib, an Afghan refugee who came to the UK as an unaccompanied child asylum seeker. The film follows Habib’s difficult journey from Afghanistan and his experiences, both positive and negative, of settling in a new community. Dear Habib was produced as part of the Becoming Adult project.

Created by PositiveNegatives with Majid Adin and Feed Me Light Productions for Becoming Adult (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).

Emergency destitution pack

Many refugees and asylum seekers in the UK experience poverty. Packs like this one are distributed by the British Red Cross to those who are struggling. This pack contains essential items, including tinned soup, a jar of baby food, disposable razors, and a baby grow.

British Red Cross Museum and Archives

The red cross emblem is a special protective sign used during armed conflicts, and its use is restricted by law.

A group of Afghan men stage a protest against deportation outside Downing Street

Today, the UK continues to deport people to Afghanistan, although it is still a dangerous country. Between 2015 and 2016, 734 adults who had been granted asylum as children were removed and returned to Afghanistan.

Photofusion Picture Library/ Alamy Stock Photo

Gulwali Passarlay carries the Olympic torch

Gulwali came to the UK from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied child refugee in 2007. Today, he is an activist advocating and campaigning for refugee rights.

Courtesy Gulwali Passarlay

Shorsh Saleh

In this room, artist Shorsh Saleh explores themes of identity, home and displacement, drawing on his own experience of being a refugee from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Working in traditional crafts, Saleh reflects on the way displacement has affected Kurdish culture and disrupted his own sense of identity.

Saleh is now based in London. He says ‘Art kept my soul alive during the process of leaving my homeland, the two years of travelling across borders, and the eight years of waiting for asylum in the UK.’

Naturally dyed wool and cotton

Saleh and his family were forced to flee to the mountains. In this carpet, the diamondshaped motif symbolises the mountains and fading colours represent the disappearance of traditional Kurdish culture through displacement.

This carpet was hand-woven by Kurdish women in Iraq as part of Saleh’s Chenin project. Chenin aims to revive traditional Kurdish carpet weaving and provide income for local people.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Naturally dyed wool and cotton

The fragmented patterns in this carpet represent the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages and towns in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Saleh’s own home town was destroyed in 1988. This carpet was hand-woven by Kurdish women in Iraq as part of Saleh’s Chenin project. Chenin aims to revive traditional Kurdish carpet weaving and provide income for local people.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Natural pigment and walnut ink on paper

After the First World War, the Treaty of Sèvres, an agreement between the Allies and defeated Central Powers made provisions for an independent state of Kurdistan. This was never realised. Instead, under the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the Allies agreed that the Kurdish region would be split between nations. In this painting, Saleh depicts British planes flying over a divided Kurdistan, symbolising the British implementation of the treaty.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Natural pigment, barbed wire and iron on paper

In 1988, Saleh’s home town was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. He and his family lived in a camp for the next three years. In this painting, Saleh evokes the texture of burned flesh, a reference to the regime’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish people and the ongoing persecution of Kurdish people today.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Natural pigment, stone and clay on paper

In 2001, Saleh left Iraq. For two years, he travelled across the Middle East and Europe. Making illegal border crossings, his homes were mountains, camps, streets and squats. He dreamed of being able to cross borders on a flying carpet.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Natural pigment, iron and copper on paper

On his journey from the Middle East to Europe, Saleh crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat. This journey is fraught with danger. Refugees often travel on overcrowded boats run by smugglers. Fuel and supplies are limited and the boats, many of which are not seaworthy, risk capsizing at sea.

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh

Natural pigment and mirror on paper

Saleh applied for asylum in the UK, but it took years for this claim to be granted. During this time he was unable to work and was moved between hostels in five different cities. The fragmented mirror represents Saleh’s divided sense of identity, caught between the UK and his home country. ‘To me,’ he says, ‘home is not a place, it is people. The Kurdish term for a ‘dear friend’ or loved one is malakam, which translates as ‘my home.”

Courtesy of Shorsh Saleh