Guest Blog: Challenging The Hostile Environment Through Welcoming Acts

By Jenny Allsopp|June 17, 2019|Uncategorized|0 comments

Guest blog by Giovanna Gini and Janina Pescinski. Giovanna Gini and Janina Pescinski are Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholars at Queen Mary University of London. Giovanna is looking into processes of identity negotiation and cultural transformation under climate change and human mobility in ‘traditional’ communities of Brazil. Janina’s research examines how people are performing citizenship by assisting migrant noncitizens, how the state criminalizes such actions, and how citizenship transforms as a consequence.

As Refugee Week begins, scholars, artists and the general public have the opportunity to experience artistic and educational events addressing experiences of refuge and migration. How newly arrived people are treated is a central question: while certain states are implementing policies of increasing hostility, some individuals are instead offering hospitality. This blog reflects on two recent events held at Queen Mary University of London that considered the so-called ‘hostile environment’ on the one hand; and welcoming migrants and refugees on the other.

The event A ‘Hostile Environment’ for Migration Research? Debates Past and Present (now available as a podcast) featured an interdisciplinary panel of experts on migration from different fields, from academia to policy.

The different interventions shed light on the history of migration research, from the work of Hannah Arendt to our days. One central idea is that the ‘migration crisis’ is not new at all. In fact, according to the panel discussion, we have been dealing with a ‘migration crisis’ for a long time now, but not necessarily because a massive quantity of people are arriving somewhere, or because these people are threatening the composition of the Nation State. In fact, the ‘migration crisis’ is better understood as the ‘crisis’ created by the movement of people from one place to another, regardless of the context. Yet to understand what is today called the ‘migration crisis’, context and history are crucial to understand how certain people are produced as migrants and how that is transformed into a threat.

This perpetual and repetitive use of the discourse of ‘migration crisis’ fuels the emergence of a hostile environment, but for who? First, the hostile environment targets migrants, to remind them that they do not belong and are therefore unwelcome. However, the less visible ‘unwelcome’ are those who believe that when people come it is not a crisis, that those who arrive should stay, and that we need to further understand the processes of mobility.

Interrogating the concept of crisis

What remains when the creation of knowledge around migration becomes in itself a crisis to be eradicated?

In order for academia to further engage in understanding human mobility and all its implications, we need to acknowledge the risks pertaining to individual researchers and reflect on how far one can go when it comes to values of solidarity. The hostile environment influences the way in which academics are able to conduct research, narrowing the field of investigation, yet academics are pushing back with creative forms of research and transnational partnerships. One example is the recent project ‘Anti-Smuggling Policies and their Intersection with Humanitarian Assistance and Social Trust‘, which included researchers from Queen Mary University London and the Centre for European Policy Studies, in cooperation with the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants. Another creative research endeavour is the Forensic Oceanography, which tracks migrant deaths and rescues in the Mediterranean; it is based on rigorous research, has a strong advocacy component and has also been seen as an artistic contribution, with its partner organisation Forensic Architecture nominated for the 2018 Turner Prize.

One way of challenging the hostile environment is through welcoming migrants and refugees. Welcome can be form of activism, as discussed at the workshop Welcoming Acts for Hostile Times, which brought together academics, creative arts practitioners, and members of civil society to discuss meanings and practices of welcome.

Welcome is not an easily definable concept: its meanings are contested and in practice it takes many shapes. The complexities of welcome include who offers it, who receives it, for how long it extends, and how it is politicized. Acts of welcome are not only performed by Europeans; refugees themselves are offering welcome to newly arrived displaced people in the Global South, as demonstrated in the important new research from Refugee Hosts led by Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. Yet much as welcome is lauded as a positive response, when we “Welcome Refugees” it may unintentionally exclude other migrants who do not neatly fit the refugee definition.

From members of civil society we have learned of the practical challenges of offering welcome, from providing housing to offering hope through music in detention to enabling refugees to share their stories by coming together with citizens around food. Additionally, as the arts practitioners made clear, migrants and refugees are not simply passive recipients of welcome, but are active participants co-constructing new practices.

Considering migration through the lenses of hostility and hospitality reinforces the need to challenge dominant narratives about migration that are prevalent in politics and the media, and also to challenge ourselves to engage in new, interdisciplinary forms of research that engage with mobility as a way of life.

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