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Migration: A Perspective from London

A small red sweatshirt reads “My first Christmas ever,” one of hundreds of pieces of children’s clothing hanging above my head in the Church of St. James Piccadilly in London. The artist Arabella Dorman brought the clothing discarded by refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, after they had crossed the sea from Turkey in a rubber raft. The Moria camp there houses 5000 refugees in horrendous conditions.

Dorman created the installation in order to call attention to the ongoing refugee crisis, particularly for children. Perhaps because they were installed above the nave of a church, my first thought was that the clothing suggested angels flying in the air. But the clothing is not necessarily from children who have died (although some probably have), but from children forced to travel forever without an end, thanks to the EU policy of shutting its borders to refugees. It is almost like dying.

Arabella Dorman, Suspended, detail. Image courtesy Henry Matthews

I see a single shoe, an African dress, a striped shirt. As I look, the suspended clothing begins to evoke children running, falling, playing, holding hands, perhaps dancing. “Suspended” as a title refers to both the fact of the installation hanging from the ceiling like a massive chandelier, the status of the children who cannot go home or find a new way forward, as well as the state of the government policy towards these children. The UK government had agreed to take 400 unaccompanied children when the Calais camps were dismantled last April. They took only 200. And of course, the total number of refugee children is staggering.

The scale of the tragedy is conveyed in Ai Weiwei’s monumental film Human Flow released in London last week. He visited 23 countries, and filmed the refugee crisis from the sea, the land, up close with refugees speaking for themselves (with dozens of translators helping him). We hear from fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, youth and children, NGO and government officials, and the Princess of Jordan. Ai Weiwei used drones hovering over a vast expanse of wet tents on the border of Northern Greece or to survey the sterile boxes assigned to refugees in a Berlin airport. Ai Weiwei himself often appears, he talked with them, he helped them get out of boats; he witnessed the blowing sand in Africa and the insides of destroyed apartments in western Turkey as people tried to salvage something.

We saw