The following is a brief account of the successive waves of immigration in the city of Birmingham during the course of the twentieth century.


Most of the following information has been extracted from ‘Celebrating Sanctuary: Birmingham and the Refugee Experience 1750-2002' which can be accessed via Birmingham City Council's website.

1800s: Jewish refugees 

Jewish refugees first arrived in Birmingham during the eighteenth century, seeking protection from persecution in Tsarist Russia. The earliest Jewish community dates back to 1730 and the first synagogue was erected in 1780. Despite facing social exclusion and difficulty accessing local markets, the Jewish community went on to play an important role in developing local industries and trade.

1914-1919: Belgian Refugees

A number of Belgian refugees came to settle in Birmingham in 1914 following the German invasion of Belgium, leading to the founding of the Belgium Refugee Committee, which provided food, shelter and employment support. However following the German retreat from Belgium in 1919, most refugees returned to their homeland.

1930s: Basques

During the Spanish Civil War a number of Basque children were sent to the West Midlands for safety, which resulted in three children's homes being established. Most returned home once the war was over and it was safe to be reunited with their families.

1930s: Poles

Birmingham has been home to a Polish community since the Second World War when a number of Poles fought for the British army. In 1939 Polish refugees came to Britain following the partition of Poland, arriving from labour camps. Those who had fought in the British army were supported to retrain and gain new qualifications in Britain. In 1958, a purpose built centre for the Polish Community was built and a school was formed to teach Polish language, history and geography. The Centre still stands today.

1930s: Jews fleeing Nazism

Between 1933 and 1945, there was a second major wave of Jewish settlement, with the arrival of refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Some refugees managed to escape before the holocaust, while others arrived directly from the concentration camps. A few of these refugees still reside in Birmingham today.

1940s: Serbs

There has been a Serbian presence in Birmingham since before Word War I.  During the early 1940s many Serbs were persecuted following the German invasion of the former Yugoslavia and the establishment of a Nazi government in Croatia. When this rule collapsed, the USSR invaded Yugoslavia and many anti-communist Serbs fled. In 1947, Serbs were offered the opportunity to come to Britain and many came to work in Birmingham. A Serbian Orthodox Church was built in 1968.

1960s/1970s: East African

During the 1960s and 1970s a number of East African Asians came to settle in Birmingham, having fled their homes as a result of policies pursued by newly independent governments in Uganda and Kenya. Many of these refugees were British passport holders with a successful tradition of business activity.

1960s/1970s: Vietnamese

Vietnamese refugees initially started arriving in Birmingham in 1975 as a result of the Vietnam War, but have received very little public attention. During the 1980s, Britain accepted around 12,000 Vietnamese quota refugees and a number of these made a home for themselves in Birmingham. Vietnamese refugees arrived with limited community links, which lead to long term social and economic marginalisation. The Vietnamese community today is geographically concentrated in particular areas of Birmingham, namely Handsworth and Soho.

1980s: Sudanese

Due to the colonial links between Britain and Sudan, Sudanese scholars have been arriving in Birmingham since the 1950s. However, in 1989 refugees also started arriving as a result of the military coup in Sudan. Sudanese asylum seekers continue to arrive in Birmingham today under the current dispersal policy.

1990s: Kurds

There are an estimated 5,000 Kurdish refugees in Birmingham, the majority of whom originate from Northern Iraq. Although Kurdish refugees first started arriving in Britain in 1958, the numbers increased dramatically during the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. There are a number of Kurdish community groups in Birmingham which provide support to Kurds seeking housing, healthcare, education and employment.

1990s: Nationals from the Former Yugoslavia

Following the war in 1992 in the Former Yugoslavia, Bosnians arrived in Birmingham through three different channels. Some came under the 1992-93 government evacuation programme known as Government 1000, which bought survivors of concentration camps directly to the UK. There was also a programme that helped bring war casualties to the UK for medical treatment. Bosnian asylum seekers have also arrived of their own accord. In 1996, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Refugee UK Network was established and the headquarters is based in Birmingham. There are also around 2,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo thought to be living in the West Midlands, whose presence dates back to the late 1990s.

Other Nationalities

More recent arrivals include nationals from African states such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi. There are also significant numbers of refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

2000 onwards

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).

By 2001, due to the dispersal policy, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in The West Midlands had risen dramatically. An initial lack of support structures in place to deal with newly arrived asylum seekers meant that the numbers of Refugee Community Organisations (RCOs) also increased. The numbers of asylum seekers in the region reached its peak in 2004, but as new asylum applications have been falling nationally, the number of new arrivals to the area has also been decreasing (Birmingham City Council).

Last Updated: 06/10/09


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