Challenging Narratives: Pop Culture and the Refugee Crisis

by Kate McGuire

1. A Political and Moral Crisis

In 2015, Europe received approximately 1.2 million first-time applications for asylum, more than double the amount received the year before. By summer 2015, some Greek islands were seeing an average of 1,000 arrivals by sea per day. Though routes are constantly in flux, the flow of people is not slowing. The EU’s latest deal with Turkey suggests that the EU is still unwilling to fairly share the burden of the crisis. Recent history suggests that when one route closes, another opens. The EU can thus expect continued demand from asylum-seekers unless a more sensible policy is reached. Though Europe’s refugee crisis is often discussed in legal and political terms, it is also a moral issue that has sparked questions of European culture and identity. The last year has seen a level of migration higher than any year in recent history. It has led to the implementation of new laws, debates about the limits of international law and has further increased tensions between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It has also sparked a conversation outside of the political realm, in popular culture. Well known figures in literature, theatre, music and art have all contributed to the conversation, many by taking a stand against their government’s decisions. What role does pop culture play in contributing to or challenging political and legal ways of seeing the refugee crisis? And how should we consume political art?

  1. How did we get here?

The origins of asylum are unknown, but the Torah mentions “cities of refuge” and asylum laws existed in medieval England. While the idea is ancient, refugee as a legal term was created in 1951 as Europe needed a way to process the millions of people displaced in the Second World War. The Protocol [Relating to the Status of Refugees] is now considered a part of customary international law. While the effectiveness and scope of international refugee law can certainly be critiqued, in light of the Danish minister’s recent comments about “adjusting the rules of the game”, the Refugee Convention can be seen as a landmark achievement of international law.

The right to asylum is enshrined in international law. It stems from a very basic conception of human rights. Asylum cannot be applied for in one’s home country, thus a person must cross the border of a second country to launch a claim. Despite the right to seek asylum, many migrants waiting to have their claims processed are placed in detention centres, which often resemble prisons. Some, like Australia’s notorious Christmas Island or Britain’s Yarls Wood are the site of numerous documented human rights violations. All are an attempt by the state to control immigration flows.

The civil war in Syria has resulted in the creation of 4,812,204 registered refugees, accounting for 38% of the total refugee population. Lebanon, with a population of only approximately 4.5 million people is host to 1.2 million Syrian refugees. The EU faces increasing asylum applications from refugees arriving by various means. Cooperation between EU countries has been slow, with many European states unwilling to help both member-state Greece and and non-member state Turkey cope with arrivals.

In the public domain, big media corporations and politicians shape much of the the discourse around the benefits and drawbacks of migration. For example, British home secretary Theresa May is well known for her insistence that many of the migrants arriving by boat are not genuine refugees and that mass migration is damaging the British state’s cohesion. The more pressure Europe feels to reform its immigration policy, the more it relies on the creation of a good refugee/bad refugee dichotomy and thus restricting the definition of “worthy refugee.”

The bad refugee arrives at the border in search of better economic prospects. The bad refugee arrives by boat. He is Muslim. He is a young, militant male. He has come to take advantage of the welfare state.

The good refugee is an industrious family from war-torn Syria. The good refugee arrives at the border through legal means. They are women and children or men with degrees in STEM fields.  

The realities of the situation on the ground matter little to the construction of the worthy refugee. In contrast to the rhetoric of Ben Carson or Sean Hannity who assert that the majority of refugees are unaccounted for young, militant men, the gender ratio among Syrian refugees is nearly even: 50.7% women and 49.3% men according to the latest UNHCR figures. 15% of Syrian refugees are children under the age of 17.

In the UK, home secretary Teresa May has repeatedly stated that many refugees are economic migrants coming to take advantage of the UK’s welfare state. However, 50% of asylum-seekers in 2015 were from two countries: Syria and Afghanistan, both of which have seen war and extreme political instability. Other common origin countries include: Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan. Asylum-seekers do not have the legal right to work and in the UK receive only £36.95 (approximately $50) a week to live on. When considering housing, food, transport as well as the fact that most arrive with very few articles of clothing and other possessions, this is hardly an extravagant benefits system. Finally, despite politicians’ complaints about the money used for migrant benefits, the 11 billion euros has been spent on deportations since 2000. Another billion has been spent on attempts to secure European borders.

  1. A Creative Challenge

The above represents the “official” discourse. The situation on the ground is ever-changing and misinformation is abundant. Often, the real figures matter less than the overall narrative constructed by government spokespersons. As tensions continue to increase, a number of celebrities, poets and artists have become more outspoken on the issue, using their public platforms to call out their government’s response to the crisis. Benedict Cumberbatch used the talkback sessions after his performance of Hamlet at the Globe to angrily critique UK policy and raise money for the charity Save the Children. JK Rowling has also been vocal in her disagreement with the British government. Most recently, Ai Weiwei visited the Greek island of Lesbos, making several strong statements on social media and closed his exhibit in Copenhagen in protest over Danish law which allows the authorities to seize valuables from refugees. Two of the biggest contributors to the public conversation on the refugee crisis in the past year have been M.I.A. with her release of “Borders” and Banksy through his Dismaland exhibition and various pieces in Calais refugee camp.

Banksy

While Banksy’s art has often been tinged with political and social commentary, rarely has he spoken so explicitly about an issue as he has in his pieces on the refugee crisis. Thus far, Banksy has created several graffiti pieces and a temporary installation at his summer pop-up exhibition, Dismaland. Each of his pieces tackled a different aspect of the refugee crisis and the West’s response to it: from the French police’s use of tear gas in Calais, to the danger of boat crossings in the Mediterranean. The graffiti pieces have been installed in strategic locations from London to the Calais camps, and the raw materials from Dismaland were sent to Calais and repurposed to various building projects. Two of his graffiti pieces will be examined in greater detail below.

Banksy: The Raft of the Medusa

Next to the Calais immigration office, a Banksy interpretation of The Raft of the Medusa appeared. The original Raft is a painting by 19th century French painter Théodore Géricault. Géricault was inspired by the story of the French Royal Navy frigate Medusa. The Medusa set sail in 1816 to colonize Senegal, but was wrecked on a sandbar. Due to a shortage of lifeboats, approximately 150 people crowded onto a hastily constructed raft and waited for a rescue boat to come. Thirteen days later a rescue boat found the raft, but by this point the 10 survivors had lived through violence, resorts to cannibalism and the suicides of their shipmates. This event captured the attention of the French public and the lack of proper rescue equipment, alleged inaptitude of the ship’s captain and length of time before the raft was seen as a failure on the part of the French government.

Three years later, and after meticulous research, Géricault painted The Raft of the Medusa. The painting depicts masses of bodies piled onto a raft, many of them with their hands outstretched towards a man who is standing at the edge of the raft, waving a flag at a rescue ship barely visible in the horizon.

Banksy’s piece in Calais features a graffiti-stamp version of Géricault’s raft, but instead of a rescue boat, the survivors are waving at a cruise ship in the distance. This piece is a pointed reminder that while to some the Greek islands are a nice tourist destination, for others they are another port in an arduous journey. The piece was installed across from the Calais immigration office. Calais is the entry port for many migrants hoping to reach the UK. The makeshift camp that has popped up along the border has been called “The Jungle” and has been the site of tension between migrants and authorities as France has used tear gas and demolished temporary housing structures in recent months. France is concerned that increased numbers of refugees will have negative impacts on tourism and businesses on both sides of the channel fear falling profits.

Banksy: Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most publicized recent Banksy piece was the image of Steve Jobs, which appeared inside the Calais refugee camp. The image depicts Jobs with a rucksack over one shoulder and an early model of the mac computer in the other. Banksy rarely comments on his work, but released a statement saying: “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.” Banksy’s piece responds directly to the rhetoric of Theresa May and other European officials who react to the refugee crisis with concern about how it will affect Europe’s economy. It is a well-intentioned reminder that innovation relies on opportunity.

However, is this message truly challenging the dominant narrative, or re-enforcing it? The Refugee Convention was not written to jumpstart Europe’s economy or to search for a new product to put on next year’s Christmas lists. It was written to find a way to respond to a tragedy which the entire United Nations felt it had a responsibility to address. Sensible refugee policy should not be based on capitalist interest. This only becomes more clear when the role of the West in creating or exacerbating issues in migrant’s home countries is acknowledged It is important to consider and address the economic arguments made by politicians. It is also important that economics does not become the only lens through which arguments about the crisis are explained.

M.I.A.

Rapper and recording artist M.I.A is another artist who has never shied away from the political. M.I.A was born in London but grew up in Sri Lanka after her family moved when she was 6 months old. Her father was a Tamil political activist who was in hiding for most of her childhood; the family often moved to escape the fallout from the Sri Lankan Civil War. At 9, the family- minus her father, left again for London where she spent the rest of her childhood in the Hounslow council estate. Much of M.I.A.’s music speaks about the political situation in Sri Lanka and she has never avoided controversy. In an interview with the guardian following the release of Arular she said: “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”

M.I.A.: Borders

Her single “Borders” is the latest product of this philosophy. The video features refugees running, climbing fences and crowded in boats. MIA is the only woman in the video: all of the refugees are brown-skinned men. While individual faces are shown, the video mainly shows the bodies en masse, unapologetically demanding humanity be returned to refugees while acknowledging the stereotypes that have surrounded coverage of the crisis.  

The lyrics are also reflective of M.I.A.’s personality. The song opens with: “Freedom, ‘I’dom, ‘Me’dom/ Where’s your ‘We’dom?/ This world needs a brand new ‘Re’dom.” The refrain is casual, almost lazy at first: “Borders, what’s up with that?” She moves on to “politics”, “identities”, “privilege” and “boat people” asking a simple “What’s up with that?” to each of the big news stories of the past year. The popular catchphrases “queen”, “being bae”, “being real” are questioned and “love wins” is used to show the selectivity of America’s concern for others.

Throughout the video, M.I.A. wears a football jersey where the sponsor logo ‘Fly Emirates’ has been altered to say ‘Fly Pirates’. This choice resulted in heavy criticism from the club, Paris Saint-Germain, who accused M.I.A. of taking advantage of their popularity and demanded compensation for the harm the brand had suffered. When asked about the issue, M.I.A. said the sports jersey was an easy choice because of how ubiquitous athletic wear is: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s something realistic – migrants wear sportswear.”

Paris Saint-Germain was not the only party that responded negatively to the video. “Borders” received many negative comments on M.I.A.’s Facebook page, as well as other online forums. Many were angry that the refugees were often portrayed as a faceless mass, and that M.I.A. was the only woman in the video. However, most criticisms failed to consider M.I.A.’s background. Even as she has become increasingly successful as an artist, M.I.A. has remained consistent in her advocacy for refugees grounded in her own background as a refugee. This does not mean that she is immune from criticism, but rather that the images in the video were purposeful and that the message was not an empty nod at solidarity, but a personal one. Forced migration is often a gendered and racialized experience, and the way refugees are portrayed in the media negatively plays on these elements.

While “Borders” was released while Europe was dealing with the refugee crisis and it is relevant to the conversation around this, the video is not only about Europe. The video was released on Maaveerar Naal, or Great Hero’s Day, a Tamil nationalist holiday and dedicated to her Uncle Bala who she described as her hero and role model, and one of the first Tamil migrants to the UK. The video received a lot of attention because of tensions around migration, but speaking up for refugees is not something new to M.I.A. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, she said: “The subject matter hit the mainstream press but it’s something that I’ve been doing all along.” Trying to raise awareness about the political situation in Sri Lanka has been a consistent feature of M.I.A.’s work, but as Sinthujan Varatharajah pointed out in his piece on “Borders” for the blog Warscapes: “. Despite such visual and historic connections [to Tamils in Sri Lanka] drawn by the artist . . . Western media somehow still managed to reduce MIA’s political commentary to a Europe-oriented one, rather than a global one.”

  1. An Artistic Path Forward

M.I.A. and Banksy are just two of the artists working to challenge the official discourse around refugees. Though they come from different backgrounds and have varying intentions in their work, both have made strong, public statements that the status quo is not good enough. Critically engaging with pop culture responses to the crisis is a way to gage the dialogue beyond what is seen on the news. The messages broadcasted by Banksy and M.I.A. as dicussed in this article, or by Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot and others not discussed should not be received uncritically, but neither should it be dismissed. It is important to interrogate the ways in which celebrity activism—which reaches a wide audience—is playing into or working against the dichotomies and stereotypes propagated by politicians and media.

For this reason, it is important to regard the pieces discussed with a critical eye. An artist such as Banksy can have many different messages within his art, some of which subvert the official narrative and some of which may actually serve to support it. But one does not need to agree with all of the statements or ideas put forward to benefit from the product. Often, we cannot control the content of the messages we receive, but we can control how we use this content. Banksy’s piece on Steve Jobs can be used to discuss the view that migrants and refugees are only desirable because they may contribute to the economy or industry of a country. M.I.A.’s “Borders” can spark a conversation on freedom of movement and the debate around open borders.

Often, political statements in popular culture are seen as empty and removed from whatever problem they are seeking to address. In many cases, this is true. However, migration (both forced and voluntary) is a field in which policy is important and which citizens must pressure their governments to act if sensible policy is to be created. Celebrities have a large public following and the choice to speak out can have a large impact in spreading information and encouraging people to act. It is obvious that going to Banksy’s Dismaland or watching M.I.A.’s music videos does not count as critical engagement with the refugee crisis. But perhaps for some, these images will inspire deeper research or begin a debate. Increased information may lead to more decided to attend protests at detention centres, donate money or volunteer their time and skills.

 

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