Five years ago, based upon more than two decades of research with people seeking asylum, Maggie O’Neill wrote Asylum Migration and Community. In today’s blog post O’Neill reviews, in light of the reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis, how little has changed in terms of attitudes and approaches towards asylum despite the evidence of what can be achieved through the use of participatory action research, visual research/the image and creativity.
“What is the legal way to immigrate? Why don’t they give me this option? I am illegal because there is no legal route.” (Matthias Kispert , 2015, ‘No More Beyond‘)
Jeremy Corbyn’s acceptance speech as leader of the Labour party on Saturday 12th September connected for me, with much research and scholarly work on the current asylum-migration crisis. With shades of Zygmun Bauman’s (2004) use of ‘negative’ or ‘uneven’ globalization, Corbyn stated that going to war creates problems for humanity and we not only need peace but we need to recognise we cannot go on like this with grotesque levels of global inequality; that the richer governments must step up to the plate; and that people should not end up in refugee camps instead of contributing to the good of all.
Corbyn’s approach and commitment to welcoming refugees to the UK and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s in Germany, is a loud and clear message mirrored in the vigils and demonstrations across western Europe calling for refugees to be allowed in and for open borders.
Yet at one and the same time Hungary has erected a 4m high fence along its border with Serbia, the Hungarian police are described as treating migrants like animals (the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has drawn parallels between Hungary’s treatment of refugees and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews) and the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia are so far refusing to take any of the migrants; and counter vigils and protests are also taking place across Europe.
The movement of people across borders is a key defining feature of the twentieth and twenty first century (as it has been, to a lesser degree ,throughout recorded history). It is now five years since I published Asylum Migration and Community (Policy press) and yet the book could have been published yesterday, so little has changed.
Based upon more than two decades of research with people seeking asylum funded by the AHRB and AHRC I argued that migration in the context of ‘negative’ or ‘uneven’ globalisation is on the increase; that increasingly restrictive asylum policy measures impact upon the humiliation and social marginalisation of people seeking asylum, refuge and the hope for a better life; and that that there is an urgent need to challenge and transform social inequalities in relation to the asylum-migration-community nexus.
I argued that there was a withdrawal of humanising practices, a lack of welcome to people seeking asylum, and a heightening of the adversarial approach to those who seek to make their lives in the UK and the North. At the same time there is a significant lack of accountability and responsibility by governments and states for their part in the production of the worlds refugees.
I also stated, and still believe, that we need to face up to our global responsibilities towards the displaced, address the causes of ‘the misery of growing refugee movements’ and foster dignity and egalization in the institutions, laws, policies and practices towards people seeking safety in the asylum-migration-community nexus. International agreements on settlement are vital. Further, that creative, cultural and participatory research can support this process, as part of a public sociology or criminology, that can helps build communities of practice to challenge and change such gross inequalities and open and keep open spaces for critical thinking, help mobilise resistance, recognition and respect for people migrating – moving beyond war, violence, poverty and environmental disasters.
Arts based research
For Walter Benjamin (and also John Berger ), the imaginary is central to utopian political thinking, and in order to counter the petrification of the imagination Benjamin stresses the need to revolutionize our image worlds. Thus, arts-based research that prioritises thinking in images can bring into being a politics of representation informed by a politics of subalternity that offers ways of seeing and understanding that may feed into public policy and ultimately help to shift the dominant knowledge/power axis embedded in current governance around ‘immigrants’, migration and in the case of the research documented here the asylum-migration and community nexus, in this case, for women migrants in Barcelona, women seeking asylum in the UK and artists documenting displacement and migration.
Moreover, the benefits of working in participatory ways using arts based research with people seeking asylum to represent lived experiences, claim a voice, raise awareness of relations of humiliation, exclusion as well as inclusion and challenge exclusionary processes and practices, can support the articulation of identity and belonging for those situated in the asylum-migration nexus. This is vitally important to the development of dialogue, a recognitive theory of community, cultural citizenship and social justice, particularly when the voices of migrants are mediated by others, notably the mainstream press and media; as can be seen in ‘Women, wellbeing and community‘ participatory research conducted with women seeking asylum in collaboration with a regional refugee organisation and film maker Janice Haaken.
Global Governance: what next?
In a world of constant movement, of glocalisation, global mobility, migration and what Castles (2003) calls the asylum-migration nexus an enormous amount of energy, time and money is spent on securing the borders of Northern states, of erecting stronger and stronger barriers to entry. This is the current case in Hungary and in Melilla (a Spanish city located on the north coast of Africa, sharing a border with Morocco) where 11.5km of heavily patrolled triple wire fence prevents migrants trying to enter; the current closing of the borders in Austria, Germany and Hungary on the 14th September 2015 as a result of ‘gridlock’; alongside increasingly restrictive asylum policies preventing entry and speeding up removals.
In an open letter to world leaders, Parvati Nair (2015) writes that Greece and Italy are on the frontline in responding to the mass movement and arrival of people and the photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore, has mobilised international responses to the ongoing migration crisis in the Mediterranean. For Nair “this signals two inter-related tragedies: firstly, that of the human loss and suffering that is ongoing in this context, and secondly, that of the dire shortcomings of global and regional good governance of migration”.
Similarly, David Held (2015) recently argued that “only when people live securely in a world where sustainable development is promoted in all regions, where severe inequalities between countries are tempered and reduced, and where a universal constitutional order guarantees the rights of all peoples…can cosmopolitan ideals be realised”.
I believe we need to revolutionize our image worlds to think and do creative governance in relation to migration and develop a radical democratic imaginary around borders, migration and belonging .
In taking this project forward I will be working with photographer John Perivolaris, Counterpoint Arts and other collaborators to extend Asylum Migration and Community both theoretically, methodologically and practically in Methods on the move: borders, risk and belonging funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship that brings together walking methods with biographical methods to interrogate the concept of borders, risk and belonging in collaboration with artists and film makers. This will, I hope, in some small way feed into and envision ‘more inclusive, more just, more democratic politics’ and we must work together to create change.
‘No More Beyond‘ is a video essay that was part of Counterpoints Arts Dis/Placed exhibition, June 2015. Filmed in the city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, where 11.5 km of heavily patrolled triple wire fence separate EU territory from migrants trying to enter. The project takes its title from the city’s motto: Non Plus Ultra’. – See more here
Zygmunt Bauman (2004) Wasted lives: modernity and its outcasts Cambridge, Polity Press.
Stephen Castle (2003), ‘Towards a sociology of Forced Migration and Social Transformation’ in Sociology Vol. 37, No 1, (edited by O’Neill and Spybey) February 2003 London: Sage.
David Held (2015) The Migration Crisis In The EU: Between 9/11 And Climate Change
Parvati Nair (2015) The Mediterranean Crisis: An Open Letter to World Leaders
Maggie O’Neill (2010) Asylum, Migration and Community Bristol: Policy Press
John Perivolaris work including Migrados can be found here
John Perivolaris and Maggie O’Neill (2014) (2014). ‘A Sense of Belonging: Walking with Thaer through migration, memories and space’. Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture 5(2-3): 327-33
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