Refugee Week 2021

Man and woman dancing in foreground, background sign reading Manchester Refugee Cultural Festival

We cannot walk alone

Mymona Bibi and Zhihao Zhang, students at the Institute for Cultural Practices, worked with us to look at some of the history of refugees in the UK.

Even though the lockdown policy is not as strict as before, the pandemic still makes us far from the audience that we seek to engage with and have very limited access to our archives; But we still hope to be able to echo Refugee Week 2021, making refugees and asylum seekers who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic know that they are not walking alone.

(See for more events.)

Looking back

The communities of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are diverse and long-established, but most of their histories go unrevealed or unrecorded, and we need a better understanding of the role refugees played in the UK’s history.

We took a look at some of the many groups of refugees who have arrived here at different times.

Refugee timeline

Before 1905

  • 1687 onwards: Huguenots Many Huguenots fled France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a result of religious persecution – they were Protestants who followed the teachings of John Calvin and France at that period was a strongly Catholic country. Many of these refugees found sanctuary in England.
  • 1689 -1693: French nobility and clergy The refugees of the French Revolution were treated differently at different times: from cowards who had abandoned their country, to victims who deserved sympathy, to foreigners who could not be trusted. It depended on the national situation between Britain and France.
  • 1847-1855: Irish potato famine The Irish who fled to the major cities of the United States and England due to famine, while not strictly refugees, experienced extreme poverty and slum conditions and an often hostile environment, being characterised by some as “feckless drunks, religiously backward and political agitators“, unable to fit into the new social environment.
  • 1881 onwards: Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia While there had been Jewish immigration as a result of persecution in previous centuries, numbers increased substantially

World Wars

“The period spanning the World Wars saw the creation of the highest number of refugees the world had ever seen.” [Alyssa Girvan]

Listen to a newspaper reaction:

1950 -1983
In this period, “Britain’s attitude to refugees was very much shaped by the refugee’s country of origin, their reason for exile, and the overriding political concerns of the age.” [Alyssa Girvan]


(See for more detailed information)

The history of refugees is not only wrenching, it is often buried under the jubilation of “social progress”. However, we are glad that the helpers of every era are constantly making efforts for the survival and living of refugees. Although they may have different purposes, their contributions should not be ignored.

Listen to a letter from one of the helpers:

Refugees in Manchester

In Manchester, some of the newer, larger refugee and immigrant communities include:

  • Eritrean community The Eritrean community in Manchester is approximately 4,000-5,000, many of whom are political refugees.
  • Roma community There are approximately 3,000 Romani people in Manchester. Due to their isolation from the community outside of their own, this number is hard to determine.
  • Kurdish (Iran & Iraq) community The large Kurdish population in Manchester is a result of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
  • Francophone African community
  • Anglophone African (Zimbabwean) community
  • Syrian community Syrian refugees have mostly fled their homeland as a result of a civil war – the UK pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees who are fleeing their country.
  • Somali community There are approximately 3,000-4.000 members of the Somali community in Manchester – this was a result of the Somali civil war.

The refugee stories are an important part of history of Great Manchester. Many of the buildings or areas that had strong links with refugees in the past are now part of the Manchester community. They are both narrators of past injustices suffered by refugees and witnesses to those who helped them.

Cheetham, a community of multi-ethnic immigrants, for example, records a wealth of cherished refugee memories. Nathan Brothers’ House, as “one of the first places where the itinerant Jewish pedlars first settled in Manchester”, is located at 144 Long Millgate.

You can see the story and historical pictures here: (

And this is how it looks now:

Location of Nathan Brothers House – present day (video by Mymona Bibi)

The notoriously horrific prison internment camp during WWII in Manchester, Warth Mills, brought indelible tragedies in the past and now stands quietly in our community.

(See for more information about Warth Mills, including historical pictures)

“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom,” Martin Luther King said. “We cannot walk alone.” Only through mutual understanding, solidarity and support for other groups can we form a community that will move forward without fear.

What we expect

We have always looked forward to being able to hold relevant events for our audiences at the Central Library, as in previous years. Although Covid-19 prevents us from doing so, we still want to communicate and stay in touch with you through our online blog and archives. Our libraries are now more accessible, and we’re constantly exploring more of what we can do in the circumstances to fulfill our mission and show our vision and value. You are welcome to share your stories with us. Every story deserves to be recorded.