Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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Crossing the Mediterranean sea by boat: human dignity and biophysical violence

This blog was written by Haley Curran, a PhD candidate in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck.

MigrationDr Vicki Squire gave a talk at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research on 29 March, on how the treatment of people on the move in Europe has provided a new lens through which we can understand why there has been no sustainable and humane policy implementation from European leaders, or more pressure from the wider public to address the current migration crisis.

What is biophysical violence?
Biophysical violence relates to the governing of migration through death and derives from Foucault’s notion of biopower and biopolitical racism ‘to make live and let die’. It is a particular governmental regime that separates people into groups- those that are ‘productive’ and those that are ‘unproductive’ and therefore values some groups over others. Biophysical violence can help to mask certain wider policies and practices.

This takes on a racialised form when looking at the refugee crisis in Europe and challenges the notion of Europe as a safe and welcoming space. It also brings the notion of privilege to light and the stark differences between certain groups of people making a journey across Europe compared to others. It is not the same for everyone and certain groups in society will occupy a much more precarious space when they are on the move.

There has also been an emergence of death as a ‘normalised’ concept for certain groups of people migrating and making the journey across Europe. People have been left to die in the name of security.

Biophysical violence also takes into account the significance of physical elements (deserts, seas, inclement weather conditions) which cause the deaths of countless people attempting their journey to and across Europe.

Culpability can also have a role to play in analysing biophysical violence and can perpetuate the ‘normalisation’ of death for certain groups of people on the move:

    • the evasion of culpability- natural forces as a cause of death at borders and along the routes
    • the displacement culpability- shifting the responsibility on to the person making the journey – it’s their fault as they were unable or unwilling to recognise the perils in making that journey
    • the rejection of culpability- the presence of a third actor, such as the people/ person smuggler as the cause of death.

The role of humanitarian responses:
While Search and Rescue missions may be helping to save lives at sea, what happens to those migrants if they are handed over to the authorities and detention centres?

Messaging around pity, sympathy and victimisation can be counter-productive in countering the fear and suspicion in populist sentiment towards people on the move. Humanitarian messaging is dependent on the innocence of the victim and is based on fleeting emotions. Instead they should be looking to create more sustainable interactions based on a relational model of empathy, mutual respect and dignity (politics of empathy & mutual respect). Politics of pity/sympathy can also be present in compensatory reactions to biophysical violence, such as large displays of grief.

Interventions challenging biophysical violence:
Where there is darkness there is also light and hope. The true spirit of humanity counteracts this grim and harrowing picture of violence and aggression with interventions grounded in empathy, dignity and respect.

‘Corridoi Umanitari’ (Humanitarian Corridors) is an initiative that is run by faith groups in Italy. Their focus is on safe and legal routes through assessing people in Lebanon in ‘vulnerable conditions’ (victims of persecution, torture and violence, as well as families with children, elderly people, sick people and people with disabilities) for legal entry to Italian territory with a humanitarian visa and the possibility to apply for asylum. They are flown to Italy and are helped with integrating, housing and learning the language upon arrival.

City Plaza Squat, a squat based in Athens in a disused hotel, houses refugees and activists together. There is a balance of backgrounds, gender, those who may require some support, and those who can provide it. This community does not define people by their ‘vulnerability’ and is a good example of integration and mutual respect.

Final thoughts:
This talk was lively and interesting, throwing up as many questions as it did solutions. There is no easy answer to this complex and politically charged situation and it is going to take creativity and innovation to implement solutions.

What is clear is that a new politics of empathy and respect needs to emerge to address this crisis in a humane way. Human mobility has always been a part of our history and has shaped Europe today, but the right to mobility is currently very unequal.

Safe and legal routes could be one way to address the chaotic and dangerous journeys and may also help to provide some confidence in European decision makers. It will take courage and bravery to take these steps however and it remains to be seen who will take that first step.

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