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Birmingham City Council

Celebrating Sanctuary: Birmingham and the Refugee Experience 1750-2002

by Malcolm Dick
Photographs by Kinson Chan and Russell Gill.
Other photographs and images courtesy of Birmingham Central Library


Introduction

"In a multi-cultural society, the various individual cultures have all got something to give to the whole. I would like to be part of that." (Birmingham computer technician and son of Polish refugees)


Asylum seekers and refugees provide headline news. They are portrayed in sections of the media as a threat to Britain or a drain on the country's resources. But criticism is misplaced. It draws attention away from the persecution that people have experienced and the contributions that newcomers make to Britain. Those who arrive in Birmingham may have experienced traumatic events or discrimination as members of minorities or supporters of democracy and individual freedoms. As settlers in the city they have contributed to its economic, social and cultural fabric.

The city has been home to those fleeing from hostility and violence for over two hundred years. Reflecting on the history and contemporary experience of refugees and people seeking asylum provides an insight into the shaping of Birmingham.

Several observations can be made about local refugees:

  • Their presence is a testimony to Birmingham's significance as an international city with a reputation for diversity and tolerance.
  • Refugee communities and individuals have contributed, and continue to contribute to Birmingham's economic and professional life as workers in industry, the service economy or the public sector. They also add to the city's religious pluralism and social and artistic diversity.
  • Despite evidence of some hostility, refugees have received and continue to receive support from businesses, religious organisations, politicians and ordinary citizens.

Who are Birmingham's refugees?

Jewish people fleeing from religious discrimination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries settled in the city. In the twentieth century, war and political upheaval resulted in much human suffering. Refugees from Serbia and Belgium were temporary residents during World War I. Later, Basques escaping the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s came to the West Midlands, as did victims of Nazi or Communist persecution. The latter included Jews, Polish Catholics and Serbs.

Conflicts and persecution in East Africa, Chile and Indo-China in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s resulted in the arrival of new refugees. In the last decade people from Afghanistan, Africa, Bosnia, Iran, Kosovo, Kurdistan and elsewhere have escaped war, genocide and tyranny to seek sanctuary in the UK. In different ways these newcomers are making their mark in Birmingham.