Can the Public Conversation on the Refugee Crisis be Changed?

Can the Public Conversation on the Refugee Crisis be Changed?

Photograph by Dr Kirsten Forkert

By Prof Gargi Bhattacharyya, Dr Kirsten Forkert, Janna Graham and Dr Federico Oliveri

[Full article originally published here]

On 25 April 2016 the Commons rejected an amendment to the new Immigration Bill which attempted to force the government to allow 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian child refugees into the UK. The rejection of the amendment tabled by Lord Dubs, a survivor of the Holocaust, produced an unexpected reaction of The Daily Mail, normally hostile to asylum seekers: while reaffirming the lack of legal obligations to do so, the newspaper appealed to give sanctuary to those “lost children”, as a matter of “moral and humanitarian duty”. This reaction was part of a larger public support to the amendment, followed by indignation against its rejection.

Humanitarian shifts like this have occurred frequently in the last two years, both in the UK and Italy. Within generally alarming debates on the “refugee crisis”, these shifts seem to suspend securitarian and utilitarian discourses framing mobility and presence of displaced people as a problem at best, and at worst as related to dubious if not criminal activities.

Our research project was inspired by a crucial humanitarian shift occurred in the summer of 2015. The summer began in UK with a series of newspaper headlines and speeches calling asylum seekers “swarms”, “floods” and “marauders”, with  controversial Sun columnist Katie Hopkins even comparing them to “cockroaches”. This then changed with the iconic photographs of the Syrian child Alan Kurdi: one of his lifeless body washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach, and another with him being carried away in the arms of a policeman. For a brief moment, the European refugee crisis was framed as a humanitarian crisis and stories about the people made media headlines.

Attitudes have hardened again since that summer of 2015. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have taken place since then, as well as the sexual assaults in Cologne. All have been blamed on immigrants and refugees to a certain extent, despite evidence showing that all of the named suspects in the Brussels and the Paris attacks were European citizens, and that only 3 out of the 58 suspects in the Cologne sexual assaults were refugees. This has also fuelled an increasingly hegemonic “clash of civilisations” narrative from some commentators about immigration, especially from Islamic countries, as a threat to European liberal democracy, in order to push states to reinforce border controls.

Taking a closer look, humanitarian and securitarian concerns may be seen as deeply imbricated rather than as alternative narratives. This imbrication was evident in the Italian debates on migrant deaths at sea. On one hand, shipwrecks such as that occurred on 3 October 2013 half a mile from the island of Lampedusa, when 366 people lost their lives in the deadliest tragedy ever occurred in the Mediterranean after World War II. This highly emotional context pushed the Italian government to launch a major search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, called Mare Nostrum, which ran for a year.

On the other hand, the humanitarian approach constructs people as victims to be rescued and presents deaths at sea as simultaneously sensational and almost natural events. It legitimises the militarisation and the externalisation of border controls in order to prevent new fatal incidents. Refugees are thus constructed as vulnerable bodies naturally exposed to the risk of death, yet generously rescued by governmental action.

Finally, the handling of the refugee crisis by European governments and institutions becomes seen as representative of a failure of governance. This is currently playing out in the UK in the referendum on membership of the European Union which is, in many ways, a referendum on immigration.

Our research project  tries to disentangle these complex developments through exploring in particular how people in the UK and Italy make sense of global conflicts and of their nexus with contemporary migrations towards Europe, and how this understanding shapes attitudes to those displaced by war and armed violence, and to public authorities dealing with these issues. We are interested in looking at how the different dimensions of the refugee crisis highlighted above are covered in the mainstream media, but also in mapping initiatives set up by citizens.

The perspectives and experiences of refugees themselves are also crucial to our project as those voices are generally silenced or under-represented in the mainstream debate. Through carrying out interviews and memory workshops, we hope to find out what these perspectives and experiences have to offer in understanding conflict and imagining the future of Euro-Mediterranean societies.

Research Team – Conflict Memory Displacement

Dr. Kirsten Forkert. As lead researcher, Kirsten is responsible for co-ordinating the project. She will also be carrying out the UK fieldwork and dissemination. Kirsten’s research interests are the cultural politics of austerity, immigration, and experiences and representations of contemporary work. She is currently working on ‘Austerity as Public Mood’ (Rowman & Littlefield International, forthcoming 2017), is the author of ‘Artistic Lives’ (Ashgate 2013) and was one of the researchers on the collaborative Mapping Immigration Controversy project. Kirsten is interested in innovative methodologies and interdisciplinary approaches to research, and in particular how approaches from the arts can be used to explore sociological issues and questions.

Professor Gargi Bhattacharyya. Gargi is in charge of  carrying out UK fieldwork and dissemination. Gargi has written widely in the fields of racism, sexuality, global cultures and the ‘war on terror’. Her books include: Tales of dark-skinned women (UCL Press, 1998), Race and Power, with John Gabriel and Stephen Small (Routledge, 2001), Sexuality and Society (Routledge, 2002), Traffick, the illicit movement of people and things (Pluto, 2005), Dangerous Brown Men (Zed, 2008), Ethnicities and Values in a Changing World (Ashgate, 2009).  Gargi was also on the reearch team on the Mapping Immigration Controversy project. Her book Crisis, Austerity and Everyday Life: Living in a Time of Diminishing Expectations (2015) was recently published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Dr. Federico Oliveri. Federico is responsible for the fieldwork and dissemination of the research in Italy. Federico received his PhD in philosophy from Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. His main research interests are migration, race, citizenship and social movements, with a special focus on migrant struggles. He is research fellow at the Sciences for Peace Interdisciplinary Centre, University of Pisa, where he coordinates the editorial board of the journal online ScienzaePace.

Janna Graham. Janna is responsible for advising on the early stages of the research and on the dissemination of the project to a range of audiences and communities. Janna is a researcher, organiser, educator and curator who has initiated community, pedagogical, artistic and research projects in and outside of the arts for many years. Until recently, Graham was a curator at Serpentine Gallery, where she worked with others to create The Centre for Possible Studies, an arts-based research and popular education programme in the Edgware Road neighbourhood of London. She is currently Head of Public Programmes and Research at Nottingham Contemporary and a member of the 12 person international sound art and political collective Ultra-red.