The Immigration Crisis: The Limits of Language and the Opportunities of Art

The shocking photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned trying to reach Greece, has dramatically changed the dialogue about the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Overnight the conversation switched from being about immigration policy to how we deal with a major humanitarian crisis.  The outpouring of public support and assistance since the photograph was published has been astounding.

I want to focus, however, on the trigger: the photograph.  How is it that a single image had more power to mobilise the UK public than thousands of lines of newspaper text on the subject?  I would argue that the photograph lifted the issue out of the trap of language.  The word ‘immigrant’ and the ways in which the news media writes and speaks about immigration has become so tainted and so imbued with negativity that it is impossible to view immigration as anything other than an invasion of aliens who will destroy everything we hold true.  Last week I saw the Southbank Centre exhibition ‘Adopting Britain,’ which presents some powerful facts about how language shapes the way we think about the concept of migration.  For example, it highlights a study finding that the word ‘illegal’ is the most common adjective used before the word ‘immigrants’ across all newspaper types and words like ‘stop’ ‘control’ and ‘deter’ are frequently used before the words ‘Romanians and Bulgarians.’ A 2004 study found similar negative language associations in the popular press related to the terms ‘asylum’ and ‘refugee.’  Conversely, a study has found that while 75% of people in Britain favour reducing immigration, only 15% report having problems in their neighbourhood due to migrants. The word ‘immigrant’ is now such a derogatory term that Westerners will not use it to describe their status when living in another country – no, we are ‘expats’.

I could go on about the limitations of language around immigration. However, the larger point is that written and spoken language can lead us into thinking traps that can only be broken through other forms of communication. Artists, be they photographers, playwrights or painters, endeavour to communicate in ways that help us transcend the boundaries of language.  I recently discovered an organisation called Counterpoint Arts, which is dedicated to exploring the refugee and migrant experience through creative arts and cultural projects. The organisation has developed a digital resource called the Traces Project, which tells the story of artists who have sought safety in the UK from violence and persecution in their home country.  The timeline includes artists ranging from Lucien Freud to Rita Ora.  Unsurprisingly, the most recent entries on the timeline are artists from the Middle East and Africa.  Ibrahim Fakari has exhibited graffiti from the Syrian civil war and has created an installation that uses milk bottles to represent each day of the war in order to communicate the magnitude of situation. Emad Altaay is an Iraqi artist who says he ‘paints a world that touches the unimaginable happiness that we need in order to lift ourselves up from the tragic reality of oppression and war.’  The most recent entry onto the timeline is al-Saddiq al-Raddi, a Sudanese poet who I had the privilege of working with at UCL’s Petrie Museum.  When asked what foreign language poets have to offer the UK, he stated that poetry translation projects allow immigrant poets to ‘innovate towards the goal of intercultural communication’ and ‘consolidate the diversity and multiculturalism that characterise[s] the UK.’

The question is: How do we better integrate art as form of communication into our daily lives such that we avoid or dismantle language traps that stop us from understanding and responding appropriately to the world around us?  Yes, I’m reading about the EU’s response to the current immigration crisis in each day’s newspaper, but I’m also going to Star Boy Productions’ play about how far migrants will go to stay in Europe this Friday. I hope you will join me in exploring the issue further through arts.

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