We live in a visual age. Images shape international events and our understandings of them. Photographs, cinema and television influence how we view and approach phenomena as diverse as war, humanitarian disasters, protest movements, financial crises and election campaigns. The dynamics of visual politics go well beyond traditional media outlets. Digital media, from Twitter to Instagram, play an increasingly important role across the political spectrum, from terrorist recruitment drives to social justice campaigns… This omnipresence of images is political and has changed fundamentally how we live and interact in today’s world.Roland Bleiker, The Power of Images in Global Politics.
As researchers like Roland Bleiker have shown, the images we see and share influence how we understand and interact with the world, and with each other. This is true of other kinds of storytelling too. Since antiquity to today, the stories we have told in poetry, drama, song, speeches, fictional writing and documentary records (among many other media) have profoundly shaped our worldviews, our identities, our decision-making and behaviours – both individually and collectively. The tales we tell and the pictures we paint are all world-building, in both positive and negative ways.
In the UK in recent years, many campaign groups and media organisations have published inflammatory headlines and misleading images about refugees and asylum-seekers, both responding to and helping to whip up anti-immigration discourse amongst politicians and the general public. (This is true in many other parts of the world too, of course.) Talk of ‘floods’ of migrants and an ‘invasion’ of asylum-seekers has incited hatred while misrepresenting the facts – a toxic combination, as this 2012 report by the Refugee Council underlined a decade ago. While some have represented the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ as a problem for Britain, UNHCR data reminds us that the UK receives only a fraction of the asylum requests made world-wide:
- ‘Internally displaced people (IDPs) account for some 60 per cent of all people displaced. At the end of 2021, Syria, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan continued to host the largest IDP populations globally.’ (https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends)
- ‘World-wide around 85% of all refugees live in developing regions , not in wealthy industrialised countries, and 73% of refugees displaced abroad live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin… The vast majority of refugees globally – 4 out of 5 – stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries. Turkey now hosts the highest number of refugees with 3.7 million, followed by Colombia with 1.7 million.’ (https://www.unhcr.org/uk/asylum-in-the-uk.html)
- ‘With millions of Ukrainians displaced and further displacement elsewhere in 2022, total forced displacement now exceeds 100 million people. This means 1 in every 78 people on earth has been forced to flee…’ (https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends)
- ‘According to UNHCR statistics, as of November 2022 there were 231,597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases and 5,483 stateless persons in the UK.’ (https://www.unhcr.org/uk/asylum-in-the-uk.html)
And yet hyperbolic rhetoric about the ‘threat’ posed to the UK by increasing numbers of refugees continues to shape how we visualise forced migration and treat forced migrants. As Amadu Wurie Khan explains in this article, the ‘feedback loop’ between narrative and reality is strong, impacting not just on public opinion but on moral and political policies:
…sustained negative coverage of asylum, mostly in the anti-immigration right-wing media, has generated a ‘moral panic’ among British citizens (Smart et al. 2007; ICAR 2004; Ejarvec 2003; Speers 2001; Hall 1997; Cohen 2002). Defined as a state of impending crisis emanating from a perceived problem that is claimed to be out of control, ‘moral panic’ is a process whose product has a media social agenda: to create ‘folk devils’ (Roth and Muzzati 2004; Ejarvec 2003; Hall 1997; Cohen 2002). Cohen (1987) observed that the ‘folk devils’ could be a group of persons, in this case asylum seekers/refugees, who are perceived as ‘aliens’, ‘bad citizens’, ‘evil’ and a threat to societal values or interests (Delante 2008: 677; Rothe and Muzzatti 2004, p.329; ICAR 2004; Ejarvec 2003; Speers 2001; Bloch 2000; Cohen 1987, p.9). The asylum seeker ‘folk devil’ is mainly depicted through ‘othering’ or as the culturally inferior ‘other’, with liminal social status (Lynn and Lea 2003, p.446; see also Cohen 2002)… Research [has] blamed the media-fuelled ‘moral panic’ for British citizens’ ignorance of asylum as a humanitarian issue and the attendant decline of public empathy for asylum seekers/refugees (Buchanan and Grillo 2003; Barclay et al 2003: Smart et al. 2007). This in turn has been blamed for the UK’s anomalous ethical policy commitment towards asylum because political elites try to pacify the public that asylum-seeking migration is under control.Amadu Wurie Khan (2012) ‘UK Media’s Pathology of the Asylum Seeker & the (mis)Representation of Asylum as a Humanitarian Issue‘, eSharp, Special Issue: The 1951 UN Refugee Convention – 60 Years On (2012), pp. 54-86.
To counter this, NGOs and campaigners working in support of forced migrants have run fundraising and social media campaigns, highlighting the many reasons behind forced migration, the diversity and complexity of different people’s journeys, and the positive impact that refugees have on the communities that welcome them. They have commissioned photojournalists to document refugee stories in ways that humanise rather than demonise. And they have published personal testimonies, autoethnographies and memoirs, in an effort to ‘tell the other side of the story’ and communicate what it is like to become a refugee oneself. (This powerful video by Save the Children, for instance, aims to shock all viewers into recognising that forced migration could happen to any of us, at any moment; these ‘13 Powerful Refugee Stories‘ combine testimony with a plea for donations.) Many refugees have taken ownership of their own storytelling too: for example, two of our recent podcast guests Dr Waheed Arian and Dr Lina Fadel. The need to counter toxic narratives and get their stories heard and understood has become one of the many challenges that forced migrants take on, alongside (and intersecting with) the difficulties of finding accommodation, applying for work, acclimatising to new social, cultural and political systems, and building new networks.
As well as exploring the kinds of stories that forced migrants want to share, our project is interested the different methods and media that storytellers use to represent personal experiences and to communicate the almost unimaginable rupture of forced migration to others. In this section of our website, we explore some of the ways in which different media can help visualise the range of experiences, choices and challenges that forced migrants wrestle with. Which media help amplify which voices and perspectives? Are some more emotionally impactful, while others are more informative? Have any particular media shaped how you visualise forced migration more than others? And if you wanted to share a story of forced migration yourself, what medium would you choose, and why?
As part of our project, we have been working with educational charity Never Such Innocence to bring young people into dialogue with Diana Forster’s artwork and to give them opportunities to express their views on forced displacement and the wider impacts of war. Thanks to funding from the University of St Andrews, we have been… Read More
In this article, award-winning photojournalist Hugh Kinsella Cunningham reflects on his approach to visualising forced migration in DR Congo. Communities flee heavy fighting between M23 rebels and the Congolese Army, May 2022. Image credit: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham. While reporting on the resurgence of the M23 conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and covering the region… Read More
‘With reports suggesting that there could be 25 million to 1 billion climate refugees by 2050, it is critical that this topic is discussed at all levels and in all places – by young people as well as adults. Therefore, I developed a comic story focusing on a young climate refugee in rural Bangladesh, one… Read More
Words are a dangerous game. They don’t just describe a reality; they also create it. At the same time, words are one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to change dominant, dehumanising, migratory narratives. ‘The Language of Migration’, Sitholé, Crawley, et al. (2022), Zanj: The Journal of Critical Global South Studies:… Read More
Art and artivism have become powerful ways of shaping how we visualise forced migration. Take, for example, Little Amal, a 12 foot puppet of a 10 year old Syrian refugee child. The centrepiece of the Walk with Amal project, this ‘little girl on a big journey’ has travelled over 9000km, visiting 13 different countries. As the… Read More
History can unsettle assumptions and help us question our habits of viewing, imagining and representing refugees, asylum-seekers, forced displacement and mobility as an experience. This idea is at the heart of Elena Isayev’s work on ancient and modern migration, discussed in this podcast. At the heart of our Visualising Forced Migration project is a new… Read More
Dijana Muminovic is a Bosnian-American documentary photographer. As she recounts in this podcast episode, she was 9 years old when the Bosnian War broke out in April 1992, and her childhood was dominated by the conflict. She vividly remembers the day it started: out picking flowers, she heard the first siren, followed by a sound that… Read More
It is always good to look at individual stories, and to listen to the details… That is always the answer for creating empathy. I think that storytelling is the most powerful form of persuasion there is.’ Dina Nayeri speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast Dina Nayeri, is an author and lecturer in creative writing… Read More
In 2022, a group of three University of St Andrews students, Chloe Dabbs, India Goodman and Anna Pilgrim, developed The Hospes Project as part of their work on Applied Classics. The project uses the power of storytelling and the ‘draw’ of Classical antiquity to raise awareness about modern migration experiences and to address toxic rhetoric and… Read More
In 2022, a group of University of St Andrews undergraduate students developed a research project looking at different approaches to peace education, as part of some wider research into the forces that shape past and present habits of visualising peace. While team members Joe Walker, Margaux de Seze and Otilia Meden compared school curricula, newspapers… Read More
Imagine what it would be like if a stranger were to tell your story in their own words. Also imagine that this stranger believed their own fantasies about you more than what you had told them about yourself. And imagine that this stranger’s voice was loud enough for all the world to hear, but yours… Read More
Marios Diakourtis (April 2022): The Ash That Travelled, Jasmine, and Lament for Syria In 2022, University of St Andrews undergraduate student Marios Diakourtis took part in a project to develop a virtual Museum of Peace. Having grown up in Cyprus, he has lived in the shadow of conflict and forced migration all his life; so… Read More