top of page

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 many, many children, held by parents, walking on their own, always moving, until they cannot move as they approach a closed border.

(Not in the film, but a newspaper article told of an Afghan child hit by a train and killed when she was forced back onto the tracks by border guards at an EU crossing.)

The UK has what photographers Rob Stothard and Silvia Mollicchi call " The United Kingdom’s Immigration Detention Estate.” 30,000 people came through immigration in 2016, and 6,000 are detained. In their photographic project, we see the settings of detention in shopping malls or business parks, in rural areas, or in plain sight, such as at Heathrow airport.

Greg Constantine photographs “stateless people” around the world. “Nowhere People,” sponsored by the UNHCR, focuses on people in permanent detention in the UK. They cannot go back to where they came from and they cannot stay in the UK. There are 10 million people around the world who live without a nationality; over 75 percent are from minorities such as the Rohingya, the largest stateless group. Recently we have heard of their suffering as they were forced to leave Myanmar (and some speak in Human Flow).

The experience of migration in the UK is far longer and more complex than in the US. The Migration Museum in London provides a selected overview in “No Turning Back: seven migration moments that changed Britain.” The earliest “moment,” the expulsion of the Jews in 1209 followed on years of discrimination. The next event is 1607 when the East India Company first went to India leading to a long history of colonialism: the exhibition focuses on the stories of Anglo Indians, Gurkhas and Lascars. Huguenots came to Britain in 1685 to seek refuge when they were expelled from France. Next is 1905 when the Alien Act limited immigration with intensely xenophobic campaigns, mainly also targeting Jews who were coming from Eastern Europe to escape pogroms. The year 1952 is when the first passenger jet flight profoundly altered migration from the tradition of slow journeys on ships (although today we have a sad return to sea travel, and even the most ancient migration by foot). Rock against Racism in 1978, celebrates a grassroots resistance movement to racism in the music community. The last “turning point” 2011, when the “census reveals rise of mixed-ethnicity Britain,” which led directly to the vote for Brexit (UK exit from the EU) spurred by fears of immigrants taking jobs.

Angelica Dass, Humanae, 2017 copyright Angelica Dass. Image courtesy Migration Museum, London.

The final segment leaves no doubt as to the situation today. Two photographic art projects, Humanae by Angelica Dass, and Mixed by Andrew Barter both celebrate the diversity of contemporary Britain.

~Susan Noyes Platt

(I have spent the last two months in London.)

bottom of page