Dr. Bird of the University of Liverpool’s Politics department has recently been involved in an exhibition at Tate Liverpool, presenting the findings of her own research and that of her colleagues who make up ‘IR Aesthetics’. IR Aesthetics is an ongoing research project centred on the experiences of refugees in the current mass migration context, with specific focus on Serbia, Macedonia and Greece.

The highly interactive exhibition, entitled ‘Refugee Journeys through the Balkan Route: A Crisis No More?’ attracted 1,500 visitors throughout the week it ran. Innovative workshops such as conflict embroidery, quilting and children’s storytelling ran alongside the exhibition, providing a tangible link to the lived experiences of the thousands of migrants who traverse these popular migration routes. This was facilitated through collaboration with the Stitched Voices project run by Aberystwyth University. The project is designed to challenge the way knowledge about conflict, peace and security is produced. Academic canons often discard qualitative and artistic expression of lived experience, which is arguably what should be discussed in policymaking and academia rather than abstract theory and hypotheticals. Dr. Bird believes that art and politics are often inextricably linked and that academia ought to recognise the importance of expressive forms that allow other voices into the discussion which would otherwise be marginalised.

Often, portrayal of the migrant crisis is Eurocentric; coverage is all about the ‘European’ migrant crisis and its inconvenience to reluctant host states. In reality, more than 40m of the 68.5m displaced people worldwide are internally displaced. Only 31% of all refugees in 2015/16 were hosted in Europe – with 85% of displaced peoples hosted in developing countries which are as war-torn or chaotic as the countries they flee from.

The research that Dr. Bird and her colleagues presented is concerned with the journey and not necessarily the goal destination. Intended transit countries become destinations; border closures mean that up to 80,000 migrants have become ‘stuck’ in countries such as Greece. Facing its own significant socioeconomic issues in the aftermath of the financial crisis, there is an overwhelming lack of infrastructure to deal with the numbers of migrants that do make it to mainland Greece or to its islands by perilous ocean crossings. Stuck migrants such as these can wait up to a year for even a preliminary asylum meeting or hearing, with no meaningful access to their application process. When asked about her interest in these journeys, Dr. Bird expressed her interest in the dynamic nature of the routes and the impact that this has upon environments. These routes change to adapt to closures and migration flows simply divert. Environments are also altered as the numbers of migrants increase; as reception centres and camps grow, conditions and priorities alter, having a profound impact on everyday life.

Reception centres for migrants are often in obscure locations; out of sight, out of mind. In countries like Greece, this is especially prevalent in the Aegean islands and on the outskirts of the mainland so as not to detract from the tourism industry. It is not unusual for camps to be built in or around military bases; both active and derelict. This is purported to be for the security and protection of migrants and the enforcement of order; however, it often serves only to further criminalise the vulnerable. Another subject of persecution for migrants is their use of technology. Technology can be an invaluable tool for keeping in touch with family in other countries or at different stages of migration. It may also be used to communicate route closures, to spread warnings or to alert help if needed. Yet Dr. Bird highlighted the common perception that someone who has a phone is somehow incapable of having experienced suffering. This basic lifeline is often wrongly portrayed in popular media as a symbol of affluence when in reality it may be the only hope people have of ever connecting their families again. Some border control guards will even smash phones to further isolate migrants from those who they have left behind or may be trying to reach. In the course of her research, Dr. Bird has encountered many migrants who say that despite the absence of war in Europe, they feel they would have had a more dignified death in Syria than being concealed as a mark of shame in the criminalising squalor of European camps.

This begs the question of whether the European Union ought to be doing more to mitigate the situation in Europe. So far, the Union’s response has primarily been to outsource migrants to Turkey by creating a deal. Turkey has hosted the largest number of migrants worldwide for four consecutive years thus highlighting the inefficacy of the deal, which ultimately aimed to return migrants to their country of origin. It would be reductionist to suggest that the EU could simply harmonise policy and all problems would be solved. Policy rhetoric does not provide the substantive infrastructure needed to meet the needs of the millions of displaced people flowing through these routes. Furthermore, even where there are reception centres and camps in place, the conditions often exacerbate issues of gender, along with other intersections of vulnerability such as age or disability. As a result, the existent system does little to better human security or to provide meaningful access to services and help to those who need it most.

The ‘crisis’ of migration through the Balkan routes is definitely ongoing, but cannot be easily defined. The routes change, environments change and attitudes to migrants are ever changing to become more hostile than ever. What is clear is that to claim the crisis is somehow ‘European’ is little more than an exercise in hubris – this is a global humanitarian crisis much larger than Europe and those civilians caught up in it. They need our help – not our ego.

Featured Image Credit: IR Aesthetics