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?
These questions break down into more specific empirical questions that guide our research:
- 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
With regards to methodology, we mix and experiment with diverse methods to create an arts-based digital ethnography of Cov-19 from the margins with the intention of making it visible in the mainstream, while exploring the following questions:
- 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?