Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins investigates how diverse migrant groups (asylum-seekers, refugees, migrant workers and undocumented people) are responding to COVID-19. Those of us who have experienced persecution, war and flight have already had to adapt to radically new circumstances and deal with adversity, marginalization and racism. Detention, long periods of confinement and restricted movement are not new.
This is a participatory project co-created by a group of researchers mostly based in Swansea, South Wales who have direct experience of forced migration and/or have worked and lived with refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people. We got together just before lockdown in the UK in mid-March 2020 out of a growing concern about the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ created by UK immigration and asylum policies. Exploiting the creative potential of smartphone tools, we invited people to share their experiences in poems, songs, music, photos, short videos, written testimonies, diaries, artwork. We invited personal testimonies through long conversations that unfolded over time in multiple languages. As we are a multilingual team we were able to translate texts and testimonies and talk to people in several languages. Where we didn’t have the expertise, we invited local translators and interpreters to join us in order to ensure the inclusion of those who are often excluded from research due to language barriers.
In chronicling experiences COVID-19, we aimed at challenging the UK’s “hostile environment” for migrants by building solidarities, promoting a better understanding of the problems being faced, campaigning for the recognition of rights and social justice, and facilitating self-representation, civic engagement and community participation.
Smartphones and other digital devices are central to this project. Our phones and tables are where most of us go daily to cope with COVID-19 amid lockdown. We store photos, write and/or exchange stories, songs, memes, pictures of the dishes we cook, the plants we grow. We watch homemade videos, save text messages, follow the news and advice about protecting ourselves. Our uses of social media and apps (Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber and Zoom), help us maintain and create social relations and make sense of the situation. This is especially so for those who are far from home – for various migrant and transnational groups digital access and social media use is vital to sustaining transnational family ties and social relations over distances. During this crisis concerns have been raised too about the potential of social media to misinform us (conspiracy theories, mis and disinformation) and these stories are appearing in the chronicles that we are gathering.
As researchers, many of us, alongside our contributors and participants live parallel lives in more than one country. Syrian, Kurdish, Eritrean, Sudanese, Somali, Iraqi, Iranian contributors in this project inhabit global digital diasporas that have generated new forms of creative life under Covid. We have been delighted and surprised at seeing these transnational connections being activated for the project and the creating and sharing of experiences and art works across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries.
The cultural artefacts being shared with us, the photos, texts, music, film, are the raw materials of stories we tell ourselves and each other. We use these raw materials collectively to write history. We will preserve and curate these cultural artefacts in a digital archive for contemporary and future use. We hope to inform policy and practices of support and help understand how this pandemic unfolded over time among people whose lives, voices, talents, hopes and dreams often go unnoticed and undocumented in the mainstream media and academia.
At the start of the Covid19 crisis, the common refrain in media, public and policy discourse was that the virus does not discriminate. But we knew then, and we know even better now, that humans do discriminate. We wanted to investigate the extent to which asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented are vulnerable, not just to the virus but also to the effects of preventive measures. We wanted to understand how poor access to support and health services and digital technologies might impact lives of asylum seekers, refugees, and the undocumented.
This is not a claim of “refugee exceptionalism” – the idea that there is something unique about the experiences of this group, or that all who belong to the group have the same experiences. Of course, there are diverse experiences and many are shared with other marginalised groups: especially people who are BAME, poor, have fragile social networks, insecure or no housing, and so on. We see this project as dovetailing with the protest movements around Black Lives Matter. In this context BAME lives and BAME knowledge matters. One of project’s main aims is to coproduce new knowledge forged through the collaborative experiences of the project.
One of the most fundamental problems that traverses different legal and social categories under the umbrella BAME groups is social inequality and, we make it a priority to investigate how, during Covid19 these are being exacerbated. We explore how the battles against inequalities are being fought and how new forms of solidarity are emerging across differing social categories and groups as well as domains of experience. Work and home have merged for many while some nurses and care workers live in caravans outside their homes to protect their families. We address how such private and public spaces that are being reconfigured and what new forms of inequality are arising.
Our project focuses on how people who are contending with migration regimes at the same time as with the Covid19 crisis. For example, how workers without protective equipment or employment rights are being relied on as cheap labour to support the care system or the NHS, or how the regimes for housing asylum seekers may suddenly uproot someone to a live in a city hundreds of miles away – breaking all the networks and ties established. We investigate its impacts in the wider context of international, European migration and asylum policies, as these affect people who have been scarred by war, conflict, and trauma, but who are also often also highly resourceful in creatively and artfully resist their marginalisation.
Our research findings will contribute to the work of asylum and refugee advocacy and support organisations, and help resist migration policies based around deterrence, destitution, detention and deportation. We will deploy multimedia creations and accompanying analyses in order to seek social justice and recognition of rights for all.
Three overarching inter-related research questions drive this research:
- How are social inequalities being exacerbated as a result of the pandemic?
- What forms of solidarity are emerging and/or being reshaped across differing social groups and domains of experience?
- How are digital technologies being used to reconfigure private and public spaces, work and family life, local and transnational connections, and with what consequences for ineqailties and solidarities?
- What are the specific problems facing those who are marginalised by the ‘hostile environment’ of UK immigration and asylum policies during the pandemic?
- How are asylum seekers contending with migration regimes in the UK and internationally at the same time as with the Covid19 crisis?
- How differentiated are the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented?
- How are local, national, transnational and diasporic networks being mobilised in re-imagining futures?
Questions about Methods
- How can digital ethnography and arts-based creative methods be combined and activated to chronicle the Covid Crisis in ways that promote the recognition of rights and social justice and the facilitate self-representation among migrant groups?
- What are the ethical and political challenges of researching the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups like asylum seekers and the undocumented especially through an arts based digital ethnography?
- What does participation mean in an arts-based digital ethnography?
- How is informed consent attained?
- Is the creative process an end in itself and/or a means to an end?
- How do / can we combine face-to-face and digital research during and after lockdown?
- What are the strengths and limitations of digital ethnography for action and/or activist research?
- What does the coproduction of knowledge entail and what are its implications for academic research?
Aims and Objectives
'Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins' is an arts-based digital ethnography.
Through participatory, creative methods, we are creatively chronicling Covid-19 and will:
- collect digital “cultural artefacts” created and/or exchanged on smartphones among asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented groups and/or posted on social media – photos, videos, diaries, audio, music and podcasts, texts, whatsapp messages, written testimonies and tales, memes and hashtags, poems or songs
- catalogue the cultural artefacts in a safe and private database to protect privacy
- curate these cultural artefacts so that researchers and publics can access this archive both during the present crisis as well as in the future to bring to light the problems facing migrant groups and to inform policy, practice and academic knowledge
- create digital archive and exhibitions – a cultural collection representing responses to the crisis ‘from the margins’ in order to help identify and address gaps in provision and to document how the crisis is unfolding.
- communicate the research findings in our blogs (see blog section) and in briefing papers to support NGOs and charities to raise awareness among publics and policymakers of the many ways in which Covid-19 disproportionately affects not just asylum seekers but all people living in poverty and experiencing multiple forms of insecurity.
- circulate our academic findings in different networks with a focus on active citizenship and a recognition of rights and responsibilities
- coproduce and share knowledge.
Benefits to Participants
We anticipate that the benefits to contributors will be many and varied
We aim to:
- deploy these testimonies when and where possible to identify specific issues and suggest solutions and to communicate these in short briefing papers to support NGOs and charities to raise awareness among publics and policymakers of the many ways in which Covid-19 disproportionately affects all people living in poverty and experiencing multiple forms of insecurity
- communicate our academic findings with a focus on active citizenship and a recognition of rights and responsibilities (for example, the rights of all children enshrined in national and international law to access education and the consequent need to access to technologies)
- ensure the project brings benefits to all involved, especially during confinement and lock down, collectively inspiring a sense of shared purpose and collective achievement in documenting the crisis, co-creating and sharing knowledge.
- curate these cultural artefacts so that researchers and publics can access this archive both during the present crisis as well as in the future to being to light the specific nature of problems facing migrant groups and to inform policy, practice and academic knowledge
- enable a creative research process during which refugee researchers receive additional training and become multipliers in their communities in use of creative methods to promote active and participatory citizenship
- enhance understandings of the potentialities and risks of new technologies for migrants, taking surveillance practices into account, including in relation to geo-location through mobile smartphones, and strategies for remaining both visible and under the radar of governance institutions
As one participant said, “we moved our lives here seeking safety and now under lockdown our lives moved online”. Our research methods also moved online – a challenge and an opportunity at a time when physical distancing is being accompanied by intensification of social interaction by digital means. In this project then, necessarily, we use digital tools to engage participants in the research which is a creative and a documentary process. The outcome will be an ethnography, or maybe many ethnographies, qualitative descriptions, chronicles of the lifeworlds, experiences and analyses of the impact of Covid-19 from the perspectives of asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented.
In fostering forms of digital creativity, we deploy arts-based methods as a way of investigating changes in social life. To date, participants have said how, through the project, they are making meaningful uses of their time and they often express a new sense of purpose after the trials of isolation.
The use of digital tools for artistic and creative expression allow for the observation, analysis, and interpretation of the experiences of Covid 19 in an interactive space. We create digital spaces. We also benefit from local and transnational digital spaces and networks. A good example, is the Kid’s Saturday Art Club that was developed locally in Swansea, South Wales as part of this project. Children and their mothers gather together on zoom to participate in drawing, calligraphy, painting and craft work. This club nestles within the larger support network of Swansea Asylum Support group and Swansea Asylum-Seeker’s Women’s group. In these ways we operate very much at a local level and at a distance.
We are also working very much translocally. Migrant diaspora and transnational communities that have long been enabled by as well as mobilised digital technologies for a variety of purposes. Such digital communities have already established social norms, practices, traditions, migration histories, stories, conflicts and uses of language and metaphor. In some respects, these features are comparable to those of geographically defined communities. As researchers we are able activate these translocal connections. Friends and family from the Syrian and Iranian diasporas have made compelling contributions to this project. A good example is the video, Lonely Streets in the gallery.
Online fieldwork offers new ethical challenges. We must make sure that all members of any digital groups or community know they are being studied and have access to data we produces. Protecting the identity of participants is paramount in the case of asylum seekers and refugees and other vulnerable.
While we focus on migrant groups of diverse statuses (including asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers, undocumented/destititute/homeless migrants) we pay special attention to particular sub-groups to get at specificities. For example, according to the Mental Health Foundation, their first monthly poll in March 2020 found that the most anxious group under conditions of self-isolation at home, were generally 18 to 24-years old. This group found it next to impossible to self-isolate away from family and especially from their peer networks. For this reason, we aim to include younger refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people in this study. But at the same time, we are very mindful of the fragility of young people and will go to every length to ensure confidentiality, privacy and anonymity.
We also include women, who dominate front-line care and “essential work” professions in the COVID-19 crisis (two thirds of front-line workers in the UK are women, most are low-paid, many from minority and socially excluded communities of migrants). We curate and document their creative responses, asking: How do young people at home and women in care professions experience and respond to the demands of this crisis?
Through our extensive networks of working with migrant and refugee women, children may get involved in the project but we are mindful that their faces should never be shown. We have a great deal of experience of working with refugee families using multi-media so, for example, to ensure anonymity, we would during the curation process, combine a child’s drawing for example with their voice over talking about the picture that they drew and what it means to them. For women, we give guidance to record only their voices or for a family member to film them from the back or in silhouette or show only their hands shown with voice over. We are keen to encourage participants to use objects to narrate their stories and this is an excellent way to create rich but safe and secure stories.
Identities of all participants will be anonymised as the default practice in the project. No faces will be shown, and all names will be anonymised making it impossible by any means to trace back the identities of the participants. This will be the case unless the participant expressly wishes to be named and visible as indicated on the consent form. For example, it may be that, in a small number of cases, the participant is an artist who expressly wishes their artwork and name to be made public. In such cases a careful assessment will be made as to whether the participant fully understands and appreciates the risks of any personal identifiers being publicly disclosed.
Anonymisation will be built into the creative and curation process so that drawings, objects, hands, texts or silhouetted images are accompanied by voice over, music or soundscape to avoid recognition.
Any personal or sensitive data will be safely stored in the private mode in the database which will only be accessible to the six project researchers and to the project and data manager who oversee that all the data is carefully and securely uploaded and check that the file naming and storing is carried out in full accordance with the plan.
In a small number of cases, digital items may come from Syria or Venezuela or Sri Lanka or Congo or another country because these items have been created and shared via transnational family networks. Due diligence will always be carried out to ensure that any data coming from outside the UK or EU is checked and that we have informed consent that it be transferred to the UK for storage at our personal account at the Open University’s ORDO archive.