Blog post by Idil Akinci, University of Edinburgh, UK
When I visited Angela Mesiti’s exhibition in Talbot Rice Gallery in December, 2021 for a potential collaboration, my immediate thoughts were how this exhibition could provide a platform to critically think about key questions on migration, and difference. The exhibition celebrates varied forms of communication across borders, cultures and languages. I was inspired by some of the installations where ethnic and migrant communities took public spaces, such as pools, metro and streets, to demonstrate their beautiful musical traditions. I read these as active quests for being – not through the language of integration and reception, but as being in a place on their own terms. Yet, in my head, as I planned what I would talk about what I saw and felt in this exhibition, I wanted take the focus away from those doing the migration, and to consider how migration reconfigure the ways in which people on the receiving end talk about nation, and national belonging. I thought her work allowed a space to revisit taken for granted ideas about nation-ness, sameness and difference, and to think about past and present migrations.
Fast forward to 3rd of March when I gave my talk as a creative response to Mesiti’s exhibition along with other colleagues from the university, it was a week on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was impossible not to locate this talk within the current political context we have been witnessing, and most importantly using this platform to critically think about selective practices of (de) bordering, reception of refugees, as well as responses to occupation, armed conflict and resistance. These issues also directly spoke to the initial thoughts I had in mind when I visited the gallery, in particular to the ways in which we speak about belonging, who is seen as such, and in legitimate terms.
Since 2015, Europe has declared a ‘refugee crisis’, in which Mediterranean and English Channel have become a graveyard for hundreds and thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa. While the experiences of these groups were framed as a crisis predominantly for the threat they posed to the protection of European borders and communities, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we witnessed a very different political and media response with regards to armed conflict, and reception of refugees. Rightly so, borders have been opened, safe passages have been created, and visas were waived for Ukrainians fleeing from the terror in their country- with the exception of, or resistance to African, Asian and Middle Eastern groups working and living in Ukraine. A clear message from politicians and others given platforms in mainstream media channels, stressed the urgency of humanitarian intervention and justified selective protection in the following language. And I quote:
“These people are Europeans, they are educated. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, who could have been terrorists.”
(Bulgarian Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov)
“They seem so like us, that is what makes it so shocking. It’s people who watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, who vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”
(Daniel Hannan, The Telegraph)
“Ukrainians are European and Christian. Therefore they are closer to us than refugees coming from Arab and Muslim countries. This is why I know they will be less trouble when it comes to assimilating them.”
(Eric Zemmour, Presidential candidate of France)
“These are real refugees: women, children, and elderly should be welcomed in Europe. Now everyone should understand the difference between these refugees and the invasion of Muslim youth of military age who have crossed our borders trying to destabilize and colonize Europe.”
(Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spanish national-conservative political party Vox)
“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”
(Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze heard on BBC)
“This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan…This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city”.
(CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata)
Explicit bias in political and media discourse created anger for many. Most shockingly, these scripts were given airtime not in peripheral but mainstream outlets, thus they have a very strong ability to condition cognitively and discursively what is speak-able of when it comes to responding to conflicts affecting different geographies and humans. But what do these discourses do?
First, they side-line Europe’s long history of wartime atrocities within its borders, such as the Holocaust, and Bosnian genocide, as well as its role on off-shore wars across the world which instigated ‘refugee crisis’. This feeds into an amnesia where war, war crimes, and human wrongs are understood as a relic of the past in Europe, where lessons are learnt and chapter is closed. In so doing, it also naturalises the idea that there is something inherent in populations outside of Europe that makes them prone to conflict and violence. Second, it sets the tone for who is seen as (not) deserving conflict, and protection, with very real consequences on border controls. Third, these discourses, albeit belonging to and speaking for particular national communities in Europe, allow us to understand contemporary processes that reify and maintain European-ness, as an entity with a shared culture and civilisation, in contrast, if not in complete alienation, from those outside as well as within its borders.
A central thread on discourses of non-European immigration to the West is the question of integration. Can migrants adapt to European ways of being, their forms of social and cultural life, are their religious practices compatible with secular and liberal forms of living in Europe? Put it differently, the issue with immigration is often seen as an issue to be dealt by the migrants, who are seen as resisting to fit into what is understood as our society. Rather than thinking about who we are as a nation, or what defines us as Europeans, the question often revolves around why migrants don’t they speak our language both literally and figuratively. It is these questions that frame immigration and refugeehood from particular geographies as a crisis for Europe and its inhabitants.