What's It Like To Flee Your Home? Find Out In Three Free Exhibitions At Imperial War Museum

Refugees, IWM ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 39 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Last Updated 08 April 2021

What's It Like To Flee Your Home? Find Out In Three Free Exhibitions At Imperial War Museum Refugees, IWM 5
Read about and watch first hand accounts from refugees of their experiences.

What would it take to cause you to flee your home? What would you take if you only had 12 hours to pack? Would you be welcome at your destination? Would it ever feel like home? And would you return to your original home if it became safe again?

Thankfully for many Londoners these are only hypothetical questions, but many others have had to live through it. It’s these lives of refugees that are the focus of three free and hard-hitting exhibitions at Imperial War Museum.

Refugee accounts of what their home were like before they fled.

The largest of the three, ‘Refugees: Forced to Flee’, focuses on the journey of asylum seekers and refugees. While this exhibition does deal with the horrors of being forced to flee their homes, it starts off with refugees reminiscing about their home towns before war arrived — photographs of Bosnia in the early 1990s show its similarities to other European cities, before the devastations of war.

There is plenty of video footage of refugees recounting their experiences, and it’s hard to watch how they lost their families. We see the conflicted feelings of an Austrian Jewish schoolgirl who came to the UK as a child via the Kindertransport, only to see Mein Kampf stocked in shelves at WH Smith. An Afghan refugee who lost his family struggles with knowing that he is alive because of those who smuggled him out of the country, but simultaneously hates how those same smugglers treated desperate refugees as commodities.

See what life is like in a refugee camp in a three screen installation.

Particularly harrowing is the chart on the wall showing the numbers of groups of refugees who have been forced to flee over the last hundred years, many of whom may not have seen their homes again. Even harder to stomach is see that proportionately the UK has taken in very few refugees in comparison to others such as Turkey and Germany.

There are memorable animations by Positive Negatives that show the varied outcomes that await refugees. In one, four Eritreans flee war, cross seas even though they can’t swim and still get rejected by UK immigration and sent home. In Dear Habib an Afghan teenager flees to the West Midlands and recounts how random strangers fought to give him a better life.

A Dystopian experience where a computer decides where you should be settled and if you should be given leave to remain.

The two smaller exhibitions that sit alongside this are a short video on three screens showing how difficult life is in a refugee camp, and a brilliantly Orwellian artificial intelligence that processes every visitor on whether they should be granted leave to remain. Using facial recognition, this automated process could be a terrifying portent of how future decisions on granting asylum may be decided.

These three exhibitions don’t pull their punches, and nor should they, when the global refugee crisis is likely to define this time in history. It's important we see how hard the lives of refugees are before they get to our shores, let alone the barriers they face when they get here.

Refugees: Forced to Flee, Life in a Camp & A Face to Open Doors are all on at IWM London from 24 September to 13 June 2021. Entrance to all three exhibitions is free though booking in advance is recommended.