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Refugees make waves in arts

20 Jan 2010

Refugees living in the UK are taking part in a major upsurge in theatre, music, dance and poetry, according to new research.

African dance workshop
African dance workshop

Dr Alison Jeffers, from The University of Manchester, says the expansion which began 10 years ago is showing no sign of dwindling and gives ‘huge’ benefits to both refugee and host communities.

Her work is part of the 'In Place of War' project at The University of Manchester, which researches theatre and performance in places of crisis and armed conflict both abroad and in the UK.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2005 to 2009, IPOW culminated in a book: 'Performance in Place of War' published last month.

Dr Jeffers will publish a book herself about the growth of refugee arts in the UK next year.

“As the world's refugee crisis continues to grow, we are more and more aware of performance in places where displaced peoples live," said Professor James Thompson, Director of IPOW.

“This includes refugee camps on the borders of countries, edges of cities and in new communities in countries distant from war."

Dr Jeffers said: “Refugees are often said to arrive in waves, especially by those who may not always be sympathetic about their presence.

“However, refugees to the UK are making waves of another kind, creating a huge upsurge in theatre, music, dance and poetry.

“It's something which really took off in 2000 but shows no sign of dwindling.

“Western countries host comparatively small numbers of refugees - as most are displaced within their country of origin.

“So it's heartening they can make such a positive impact despite their relatively small numbers in the UK.”

According to Dr Jeffers, bodies such as Arts Council England and The Baring Foundation have been providing significant investment in arts projects which focus on refugees.

Others include The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Heritage Lottery Fund and other charitable trusts, including the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

She said: “The arts provide opportunities for refugees and their children to keep in touch with their cultural roots.

“And for non-refugee audiences these events offer a fantastic opportunity to experience music, dance, poetry and theatre that they wouldn’t normally be able to see and hear.”

She added: “But there's also a more serious side to this: the arts build positive relationships between refugees and asylum seekers with people in the host communities. It helps social cohesion.

“And for refugees themselves, being involved in the arts allows them to develop their skills and capacity, improving language skills and introducing them to many aspects of life in the UK.

“It also helps to challenge negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers.”

In 1999 the first Refugee Week was launched to become an annual fixture in the cultural calendar of most large cities in the UK.

The events showcase the best in song, music and dance from across the world with large outdoor performances in London, Manchester and Glasgow every year.

Manchester's, hugely popular Exodus Festival - run by Community Arts Northwest - takes place every year.

In Summer 2009, 10,000 people saw more than 140 performers perform at Urbis and Cathedral Gardens.

Notes for editors

Dr Jeffers and Professor  Thompson are available for comment. Cilla Baynes, Director of Community Arts Northwest is available for comment.

56 per cent of refugees come from six areas of the world directly affected by conflict: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi (UNHCR).

Asia and the Middle East host almost half of the world's refugees (approximately 49 per cent), followed by Africa (25 per cent), Europe (18 per cent) and North America (10 per cent) (ibid.: 6).

Performance in place of War is by Professor James Thompson and Jenny Hughes from the University of Manchester and Professor Michael Balfour from Griffith University in Australia. It is published by University of Chicago Press.
Dr Jeffers book, called Performing Global Identities: refugees, theatre, and crisis, will be published by Palgrave in 2011.

In Place of War lives on with the In Place of War network and database of theatre practitioners and academics. Visit

Images are available from the Exodus festival, run by Community Arts Northwest

For media enquiries contact:
Mike Addelman
Media relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567