By A.D. McKenzie
PARIS | LONDON (IDN) – Concerned by widespread public confusion and the lack of clear political action on migration, many non-governmental groups have been launching initiatives to raise awareness about the issue, and about the current situation of refugees in Europe.
One of these projects is an exhibition currently under way in London, titled Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond, which comes as countries prepare to observe World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week from June 20 to 26.
The exhibition features the inhabitants of the infamous Calais camp in France, which the show’s organisers say has become “a potent symbol of Europe’s migration crisis”. There, some 4,000 to 5,000 migrants have been living in squalid conditions as they try to reach Britain, although the French authorities this year set up shelters made from shipping containers to house about 1,500 people.
The exhibition, which runs until June 22, is presented as a multi-media experience, aimed at exploring the “complexity and human stories behind the current migration crisis,” with a particular focus on Calais, according to the organisers.
“Public opinion on this ever-evolving shanty-town and its inhabitants is polarised: to some a threatening swarm seeking entry to our already overstretched island-nation, to others a shameful symbol of our failed foreign policy,” they state.
“Amid such debate, it is easy to lose sight of the thousands of individuals who have found themselves in limbo in Calais, each with their own story and reasons for wanting to reach Britain.”
The exhibition is taking place in a “momentous month”, when there is both the EU referendum in Britain as well as Refugee Week. It comes after the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in May in Istanbul, and after the controversial agreement between the EU and Turkey on how to stem the flow of people fleeing war and poverty.
“Migration is probably one of the most talked-about issues of the day, but it’s often just seen as an issue or a problem,” says Sophie Henderson, director of an organisation called the Migration Museum Project, which organized the exhibition and is working to have a permanent migration museum for the UK.
“Yet if you look back, there’s a great story of migration both to and from Britain, and it goes back hundreds of years. So a way of contextualizing and considering the current issue of migration, in an intelligent, calm, well-informed way, is just to take a step back and look at the big picture. And to consider that actually even the Angles and Saxons were immigrants. And so were the Vikings. And the Normans, and the Huguenots [French protestants who fled persecution in their homeland].”
Henderson, a former lawyer who now works with a group of part-time staff and volunteers on the Migration Museum Project, pointed out that Britain was itself a country of net emigration until 1982, with some 20 million citizens going to live abroad between 1650 and 1950.
Call me by my name features works by established and emerging artists, refugees, camp residents and volunteers. The installations include art by a group called ALPHA using materials from the camp.
There is also art and photography by camp residents, and an installation of lifejackets embedded with the stories of their wearers. The organizers say it will serve as a forum for discussions – involving poets, authors, academics and the public – while side events will comprise films and performances as well.
According to the curator Sue McAlpine, “Visitors will journey physically and emotionally through the space, seeing refugees and migrants emerging from a nameless bunch to named individuals, neither victims nor angels but each with their own story to tell.”
She hopes that “visitors will come away with a heightened sense of empathy for the individuals behind the headlines, an enhanced understanding of the history and evolution of the Calais camp and broader migration developments, and questioning their response and responsibilities towards current refugee and migration developments.”
One of the works on display is by a young British artist named Hannah Thomas who painted a portrait of a former Calais-camp resident named Ahmad – a refugee from Syria, who’s now rebuilding his life in the United Kingdom. Ahmad spoke at the exhibition’s launch celebration on June 9.
In other events, artists will also be involved in Refugee Week in Britain, where cultural programmes are one means of celebrating the contribution of refugees and fostering greater understanding between communities.
Refugee Week started in 1998 as a “direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers” and it is now one of the “leading national initiatives working to counter this negative climate, defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities,” say the British coordinators.
In France, Refugee Week events are being planned by a group called SINGA, formed in 2012 to “mobilise [French society] around projects developed by refugees – be they cultural, social, artistic, civic or entrepreneurial”.
They and other groups have lined up a series of concerts, exhibitions and debates to highlight both the contributions of refugees as well as the problems faced by the nearly 60 million people that the United Nations says are forcibly displaced in the world.
In Calais and elsewhere, however, long-term answers remain elusive. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 June 2016]
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo: North African immigrants in Sicily. Credit: Vito Manzari from Martina Franca (TA), Italy CC BY 2.0
Follow the writer on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale