Refugees: Forced to Flee opens at the Imperial War Museum

Last updated 25 April 2023

The British Red Cross's curator Mehzebin Adam talks us through the new exhibition, which tells the stories of refugees and displaced people across the world

Refugees: Forced to Flee, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, explores a century of displacement from the First World War to the present day.
Throughout history, countless lives have been shattered by conflict. Today, at least 71 million people are displaced globally.
The exhibition showcases objects, photographs, documents and oral histories to tell the stories of refugees and displaced people across the world.  


The exhibition highlights the personal experiences of people who have been forced to flee, the challenges they face on their journey to safety, those who support them and the UK’s response to refugee crises over the last 100 years. 
For over a century, the British Red Cross has helped protect and support people who are forced to flee their homes. Today, the organisation is the UK’s largest provider of refugee services. Objects from our museum collection are on display, showing some of our vital relief work in the UK and overseas. 


Life in camps 

Throughout history, many displaced people have been forced to live in camps for months or even years before they can continue their journey. Although life here can be difficult and sometimes dangerous, these are also the places people connect with each other. 
The British Red Cross plays a vital role in providing equipment for basic needs in these refugee camps. As the conflict in former Yugoslavia intensified in 1992, significant numbers of people fled their homes. In 1993, the British Red Cross organised millions of pounds' worth of relief, which included food and hygiene parcel distribution.

Food parcels like the one seen below contain tins of dried food from all over Europe. They were intended for refugees in Serbia and Montenegro, made homeless by the Yugoslav Wars. 

Access to clean water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities is compromised in overcrowded camps, and diseases can spread quickly. Hygiene packs like the one seen below (right), containing soap, washing powder, sanitary pads and toothpaste, were donated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and distributed by the Red Cross in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created further challenges for people living in refugee camps in places like Yemen, Syria and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Access to clean water, soap and healthcare is scarce, and social distancing is difficult or impossible.

The British Red Cross is working with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to help people stranded in these camps to protect themselves against the virus.


Building a new life 

Refugees face lots of challenges when rebuilding their lives away from their homes. They have to work their way through complex official procedures, and many face the threat of deportation. Contrary to common belief, the UK receives fewer refugees than many other European countries. 


Gone but not forgotten, a report launched by the British Red Cross in 2010, highlighted the difficulties people seeking asylum face in the UK. The report highlighted the need for a more humane asylum system.

Still an ordeal, a report published by the British Red Cross in 2018, looked at the problems people face when moving from asylum support to mainstream benefits and employment within 28 days. A recommendation was made to extend the move-on period to at least 56 days. 


Today, the British Red Cross provides refugee services in 58 towns and cities across the UK. At our centre in Hackney, east London, we provide things like travel vouchers, food, clothing, toiletries, blankets and baby items. We also support people with career advice, health care advice, emotional support and family reunion.
During the first Covid-19 lockdown, the centre managed to remain open at reduced capacity, operating on a 'one-in, one-out' basis.

Since March 2020, the British Red Cross has provided accommodation advice to nearly 3,000 vulnerable refugees and people seeking asylum, as well as having delivered more than 6,000 food parcels. 

On display now 

During the Second World War, Anne Simpson and her family fled their home in Paris. They were forced to leave all their possessions behind, and Anne was only allowed to bring one favourite toy: this teddy, which now forms part of the Refugees: Forced to Flee exhibition.  
During and after the Second World War, the British Red Cross played a significant role in the reunion of families


Another moving item in the exhibition is a painting (below) based on the artist Shorsh Saleh’s journey as a refugee from the Middle East to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat.

Refugees are often forced to travel on overcrowded boats run by smugglers. The boats are not always seaworthy and risk capsizing at sea.
The British Red Cross is working with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to help displaced people find safe and legal routes to new countries.


The objects on display in the exhibition speak to us about the extraordinary decisions that ordinary people are forced to make on their journey to safety.

They also symbolise the strength and resilience of refugees who overcome many challenges and resettle and thrive in their new communities.






The British Red Cross is committed to supporting and protecting displaced people at all stages of their journey. Find out more about our refugee support work in the UK and abroad:


Refugees: Forced to Flee is a free exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and runs until 24th May 2021. 



Every refugee matters to us

We work with refugees and people seeking asylum to help them feel safe, live with dignity and build a new life. If, like us, you believe that every refugee matters, get involved by donating below.