From contribution to collaboration: Refugee Week and the value of seeing like a city

by Jonathan Darling, Geography, University of Manchester

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Image from Refugee Week 2013

Today sees the start of Refugee Week 2013, an annual celebration of the contribution of refugees to the UK that seeks to promote better understanding of why people seek sanctuary. Refugee Week has been held annually since 1998 as a response to negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and hostile media coverage of asylum in particular (Refugee Week 2013). Refugee Week promotes a series of events across the UK, from football tournaments and theatre productions to exhibitions and film screenings, all designed to promote understanding between different communities.

Whilst Refugee Week is a national event it finds expression in local activities organised in a range of cities. In part, this is in response to the dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK, meaning that refugees and asylum seekers have been increasing visible in a range of towns and cities over the last decade. Asylum decision-making and policy take place at a national level, but the implications of such policy and the demands of integration and service provision are experienced at the level of urban authorities and communities. But what is the relationship between asylum seekers and cities, and how might we understand this relationship through the lens of Refugee Week? In this commentary, I want to suggest that by focusing on cities we might destabilise some of the problematic assumptions of national discussions of asylum and refugee politics, through drawing on the resources of cities as sites of social and political creativity, contestation and collaboration. Doing so shifts our view of asylum and refugees from a state-centred account of national hospitality, to a more complex account of the lived realities of urban refuge. 

National celebrations such as Refugee Week are in many ways positive interventions into public discussions over asylum. They have played a central role in challenging stereotypes, contesting myths over benefit claims and bringing to the fore the heritage of sanctuary that has shaped contemporary Britain. Refugee Week has also offered a platform for politically contentious campaigns for rights to work, access to education and anti-deportation campaigns, all of which have benefited from the shifts in public opinion and political will that Refugee Week has produced.  

However, as many of those working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK note, Refugee Week alone is not enough. Rather, there are risks attached to ‘celebrating the contributions of refugees to our history and heritage’. These words, the slogan for Refugee Week 2013, suggest three of the central challenges of refugee politics in contemporary Britain. Firstly, the emphasis placed on ‘our’ history establishes a fixed group defined by distinction from refugees, a ‘we’ whose history refugees may contribute to but always a ‘we’ at a distance from refugees themselves. Secondly, a concern with ‘history and heritage’ positions the contributions of refugees in the past. Refugee issues thus become concerns to look back on through visions of a hospitable past, without necessarily providing a means to address issues of contemporary asylum. Most strikingly though, Refugee Week foregrounds a logic of contribution in celebrating refugees. While a claim about contributions can appear to be a strong argument in the face of those who assert that refugees and asylum seekers ‘abuse’ welfare entitlements, it risks reinforcing perceptions of worth and worthiness that make refugee status into an economic commodity. Whilst we should recognise the skills, knowledge and dynamism that those seeking sanctuary bring, a logic of contribution places asylum into an economic frame of reference similar to the points-based system that determines immigration status.

Taken together, these three concerns suggest that Refugee Week might be taken as a governmental tool for the production of benevolent responses to those deemed to have ‘contributed’ enough to be worthy of refugee status and humanitarian compassion. Akin to forms of celebratory cosmopolitanism that market cities as sites of diversity, whilst tightly regulating the limits of tolerance, the rhetoric of ‘contribution’ recalls a conditional hospitality that may be open to a select few. Often such hospitality is open only to those past groups who have contributed to ‘our’ history, rather than reflecting an ongoing process in which this history is continuing to be made. A concern with contribution thus makes asylum and refugee discussions part of government efforts to ‘manage migration’ for the ‘good of the nation’, rather than in the interests of those seeking sanctuary and fleeing persecution.

How then might we envisage a different view of refugees and asylum seekers, one detached from a concern with their potential contributions to the nation and with representing a benevolent history? It is here that cities come to the fore. If we take seriously Magnusson’s (2012) demand to ‘see like a city’ rather than ‘seeing like a state’, we might find a different view of asylum seekers and refugees, one less concerned with contributions to an already existing entity and its history, be that the nation or the city, and rather more concerned with the collaborations and collective engagements that shape urbanism as a way of life. For Magnusson, cities are complex constellations of ideas, relations, encounters and institutions, never exhausted by their present form and never subject to a single mode of authority. Rather than a common ‘history and heritage’ to which refugees may contribute, seeing like a city implies multiple histories vying for attention, histories which are being made and remade as the city is itself becoming something new through the actions of those who inhabit it and the material relations that form it. What we might take from this view of the city as a site of incomplete political authority and multiple histories, is a vision of how cities are formed through collaborations, through the coming together of diverse interests and opinions to make urban space.

We might see examples of this form of thought in some of the practices and events of Refugee Week, most notably those that seek to undermine assumptions of asylum as an issue of compassion and humanitarianism. For example, as part of Manchester’s Refugee Week celebrations, artists Anna White and Emily Hayes have been working with the Rainbow Haven centre for displaced people in Manchester and Salford, to discuss the journeys individuals took to the UK and their experiences of life in Manchester and Salford.[i] The project involves asylum seekers and refugees embroidering their journeys to the UK onto a map, using disposable cameras to take images of their everyday lives and of things that are important to them, and collectively making banners to express different aspects of their lives in the UK and to display some of the relationships that emerge through the Rainbow Haven group. These resources are to be displayed at a series of events across Manchester during and after Refugee Week, including a celebration of the city’s ‘Shared Future’ with refugees. [ii] 

Image courtesy of Anna White and Emily Hayes

Image courtesy of Anna White and Emily Hayes

The significance of this work is not simply that it offers a creative means of exploring and expressing the social relations of refugees and asylum seekers. It does this and draws in part on the diversity of people, histories and stories that are brought together in the city. But it is also a project of collaboration. This is not a case of narratives being extracted and displayed by experts or analysts, but a process in which stories are made through working with others, in making banners, sewing journeys onto maps and discussing photographs. The product of such interactions are snapshots of a creative process, owned by all those who played a role in such a process. It is this sense of being part of a creative endeavour and employing this as a means to communicate stories of asylum, that is so valuable as it works to negotiate two sets of barriers. Firstly, those between asylum seekers and other residents of Manchester and Salford – through communicating common concerns, shared spaces and the realities of the asylum process. Secondly, those often unspoken barriers between asylum seekers and those who seek to offer support to them – through a creative engagement that is productive rather than dependent, collaborative rather than charitable. Projects such as this gesture towards the potential that creative approaches have in both communicating multiple understandings of the city and in destabilising assumed notions of how asylum seekers should engage with cities.

More than this however, projects such as this reflect an appreciation of urbanism as a way of life tied to the multiplicity of the city. The banners and maps created in this process are not contributions made by asylum seekers and refugees; rather they reflect collaborations that express the coming together of different journeys, narratives and experiences. They are not individual expressions or timeless versions of events to be placed into an archive of ‘our history and heritage’, but are the products of encounters, relationships and shared collaborations that communicate understandings of the here and now. In this process, the banners and maps of this project become collaborations in shaping, rather than contributions towards, a ‘shared future’. Seeing like a city is to view the politics of asylum in a similar vein, to think of the city as a compositional arrangement of multiple stories and journeys, all in the process of being made, diverted and retraced. As a compositional arrangement, the city is made through such journeys, and whilst such a reading implies a ‘history and heritage’ that is reworked through the presence of diverse stories, this is never a static or fixed narrative, nor is it ever ‘our’ history, the property of any singular group. Rather, the city becomes a banner in the making – a collaboration of those present, always being made yet never finally displayed.

A further resonance for this mode of thought might be found in the ways in which a number of UK cities have made tentative steps to challenge the state over asylum. We might trace a number of examples. Firstly, the manner in which urban authorities can act to support and publicise anti-deportation campaigns for local inhabitants threatened with deportation, such as recent cases in Leicester and Glasgow. Such situations position the authority of the city against the will of the state and seek to oppose deportation on the basis that individuals and families are part of the city, actively engaged in the fabric of local communities. Secondly, city councils in Bristol, Glasgow, Oxford and Sheffield have all recently passed motions that express concern over the destitution of asylum seekers and have begun lobbying national government to allow local authorities to assist destitute and refused asylum seekers. Again such voices stand at a critical distance from the decisions of the Home Office and challenge national policy from the perspective of those living with the consequences of such policies. In Manchester a ‘day of action’ is proposed at the end of June to highlight the situation of destitute asylum seekers in the city and to call upon the city council to both oppose the government’s stance on destitution and to intervene by offering support to destitute asylum seekers. Doing so would challenge a concern with refugees that extended only to those able to ‘contribute’ to the city or the nation, and would instead mark a concern with the needs of all those present in the city, regardless of status, contribution or ‘worthiness’.

These gestures, whilst limited and fractured at present, highlight the importance of viewing asylum from a different lens to that of a state-centred concern with contribution and historical hospitality. The potential of the city, as Derrida (2001) argues, is to take a critical stance relative to the forms of conditional hospitality and welcome offered by the state – to demand more on behalf of all of those who inhabit the city. Seeing like a city implies an awareness of the complex and unfinished nature of urban life, of how cities evolve, change and adapt as newcomers arrive and others leave. This framing of the city is therefore centred on valuing those who inhabit the city, those who make urban space at any given moment and through it perform a claim to a ‘right to the city’ that arises precisely from taking part in the negotiations, tensions and contradictions of urban life (Darling and Squire 2012; Lefebvre 1996). Whilst such a lens is unlikely to ever fully usurp a state-centred account of asylum, its importance may be in proposing a critical alternative, an urban critique of asylum and refugee policy centred on the possibilities that collaboration may bring.

Refugee Week brings with it opportunities, opportunities for dialogue and discussion around asylum seekers and refugees, around current policies and around the histories of sanctuary that have helped to shape many British cities. But such discussions should not be limited to a concern with the contributions that refugees have made or may make to the nation or to the city. This simply expresses a paucity of imagination and a failure to recognise the realities of asylum in contemporary Britain. Refugee Week should be about offering space for the expression of collaborative projects, collaborative politics and collaborative realities. It is in collaboration that contemporary cities are made and remade, as much through the investments, experiences and journeys of those seeking asylum as through any other inhabitants. Taking seriously such collaborations implies a politics of critique towards narratives of refugee contribution, fixed histories of national hospitality and policies that produce the destitution of many asylum seekers. Such a politics starts with the critical potential of seeing like a city.

References

Darling, J. and Squire, V. (2012) Everyday enactments of sanctuary: the UK City of Sanctuary movement in Lippert, R.K. and Rehaag, S. (eds) Sanctuary practices in international perspectives: migration, citizenship and social movements London, Routledge, 191-204

Derrida, J. (2001) On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness translated by Dooley, M. and Hughes, M. London, Routledge

Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writing on cities translated by Kofman, E. and Lebas, E. Oxford, Blackwell

Magnusson, W. (2012) The politics of urbanism: seeing like a city London, Routledge

Refugee Week (2013) Refugee week: different pasts, shared future available at:  www.refugeeweek.org.uk (last accessed 10/06/2013)


[i] Rainbow Haven offers a communal space and drop-in centre for new arrivals in Manchester and Salford and seeks to meet the immediate and longer terms needs of asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers. Anna and Emily have been working on a series of creative embroidery, painting, drawing and photography exercises at the centre for Manchester Refugee Week as part of a project funded by the Arts Council. Further details of their work can be found here: www.podcollective.co.uk
[ii] The banners produced through the project will be on display throughout Refugee Week (17-21 June) at the Peoples History Museum, Manchester and the Lowry Gallery, Salford, alongside forming part of the Shared Future Refugee Celebration on 22nd June at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester. This day of celebrations is organised by The British Red Cross to encourage understanding between and within communities and forms one strand of their work to support vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
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