Belfast has a long history of providing shelter to those fleeing in fear; from Huguenots fleeing religious persecution during the 16th century to Vietnamese ‘boat people' fleeing their communist-controlled homeland during the 1970s. 


Yet Belfast has also been a city which has been fled from. The violence, fear and crime caused by Northern Ireland's internal Troubles caused huge population movement. Since the conflict ignited in the 1970s, extreme poverty and economic decline have forced many Irish to flee overseas and begin a new life elsewhere.


The last significant in-migration to Ireland, however, occurred three to four centuries ago when in the latter half of the 17th century over 100,000 Scots migrated to Ireland. By 1606, Scots settlers had begun to stream across the sea into Ulster. The growth of Belfast during the seventeenth century as a marketplace and port servicing the successful plantation of Ulster ensured that its Scots population continued to increase.


The influx of Scots came to an end with the accession of George I. Faced with restrictive leases on lands in and around Belfast, and with renewed Anglican hostility to Presbyterianism, thousands of Scots-Irish left for the American colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century. Since then, emigration has been the predominant demographic experience of Ireland for the past two centuries. Especially in the late 18th century, after the end of the war of independence in 1783, the expanding colonies in America began to entice many migrants from Ireland.


The single most important demographic event of nineteenth century Ireland was the famine of the late 1840s and its accompanying wave of emigration. Belfast acted as a ‘dam' or barrier to further movement on the part of those leaving the Ulster countryside by offering industrial employment. Belfast's population continued to grow, and its importance relative to the rest of Ulster increased. In 1821, perhaps 2% of Ulster's population lived in the town. By 1911, the city held almost a quarter of Ulster's total population.


By the twentieth century emigration to America and other parts of Britain still continued, but rural-urban migration from the Ulster countryside to Belfast did create a degree of internal immigration for the city. Belfast at the end of the twentieth century, like most large towns and cities in Ireland and Great Britain, plays host to numerous small immigrant communities. Figures from the Multi-Cultural Resource Centre suggest that Belfast is an important centre for Northern Ireland's 8000 strong Chinese community, for up to 2500 people of Asian origin, for 1500 of African origin, and some 1600 Arabic speakers.


The dispersal of asylum seekers away from London and the South East to other regions of the UK was introduced under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act in order to reduce the demand on areas where there is a lack of housing. The dispersal process was overseen by a new agency called the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), which provided support and accommodation to adult asylum seekers via contracts with various councils around the country. As part of Home Office restructuring, NASS ceased to exist as a directorate in 2006 and all asylum support issues are now dealt with by the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA).


Last Updated: 14/12/09


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