A Brief History of Refugees in Scotland

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

by Elana Wong

Though the refugee crisis may seem a fairly recent phenomenon, Scotland has a long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from across the world. While not all of them can be formally classified as ‘refugees’, since immigration into Scotland started well before the 1951 Geneva Convention, many of them, seeking shelter from famine, war, persecution, and poverty, have moved here and helped build the Scotland we know today.

It is likely that refugees have sought shelter in Scotland before this, but the first significant wave of immigration can be traced back to the 1840s, when Irish people fled the Potato Famine and settled in Scotland. Many settled around points of disembarkation on the west coast, but large communities also formed in Dundee and Glasgow, with a smaller group also establishing themselves in Edinburgh.

Notably, the Irish Catholics, who predominantly sought out low-paid manual labour, were subject to discrimination. Their willingness to work for lower wages created divides with the local Scottish working class, and Catholicism was unpopular in those days. Assaults and harassment of Irish people became a regular occurence. Similar to today’s xenophobic beliefs, the Irish were regarded then as lazy, uncivilised drunks who threatened the moral character of Scottish society, as well as carriers of diseases.

Between 1890 and 1914, approximately 4000 southern Italians, evading growing poverty in their home regions also emigrated here, as well as Jewish immigrants from Russia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and parts of eastern Europe fleeing the ‘pogroms’* that began in the 1800s. Arriving throughout the 19th century, they settled first in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.

During WWI, there was another influx of refugees. Glasgow accepted approximately 19,000 people, with a large number of Belgian refugees arriving between 1914-1915, as well as from refugee camps in France and the Netherlands later in the war.

Many more Jewish immigrants, particularly Germans fleeing Hitler’s persecution, also arrived in the 1930s as well as during WWII. From 1938-1939, 10,000 predominantly Jewish children arrived in Scotland via the 'Kindertransport' rescue scheme from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia. Here, the Jewish community prospered and contributed, especially in legal professions, to Scottish society and the economy.

In 1985, the Scottish Refugee Council was established in Edinburgh, with the help of the British Refugee Council and NGO Refugee Action, in response to a growing need for refugee assistance; moving to Glasgow in 1999 as it became a primary dispersal area. During the early days they primarily worked with refugees from Chile, who had fled the violent 1973 coup d’etat, and Vietnam. In the early 1980s, a number of Iranians and Poles were also settled in the UK, as well as Tamils, Ghanaians, Ugandans, Somalis, Kurds, and Afghans in the mid-late 1980s and early 1990s.

During the 1990s, Scotland also welcomed a number of Balkans fleeing the Yugoslav wars, with the Scottish Refugee Council expanding due to increased demand, setting up reception centres for Bosnians escaping persecution and ethnic cleansing, and Kosovars in 1999. In particular, hundreds of Bosnians were evacuated to Scotland under The Bosnian Programme (1992-1996).

In 1999, the UK government set up its refugee dispersal system, with Glasgow City Council being the first local authority to sign up. By the end of 2001, Glasgow had around 8000 new temporary citizens, the majority being families with children. However, this didn’t come without integration challenges or racial and xenophobic tensions, such as with the fatal stabbing of Firsat Yildiz in August 2001, a young Turkish Kurd, who had moved to Scotland one year prior.

In the 2010s, Syrian refugees started arriving, fleeing the conflict still ongoing today. In 2013 the New Scots programme for 2014-2017 was developed. Asylum seekers in Scotland have since increased from around 2,400 in 2013, to 3,350 in 2016, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa. In the past decade, there has been an increase of arrivals settling in other parts of Scotland, such as a number of Congolese in South Lanarkshire, and Syrian refugees dispersed across many local authorities.

In 2017 Sabir Zazai, who arrived in the UK in 1999 as an Afghan asylum seeker, was appointed as the Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council. In addition to this, the New Scots programme was renewed into the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022.

*pogroms: the persecution, often via mob attack, against the persons and/or property of one or more religious, racial or national minority groups that were approved or condoned by the government


Scottish Refugee Council:



John Gray Centre:


Young Academy of Scotland:





Image Credit: The Holyrood

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