Somatic shifts: the politics of movement in the time of COVID

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.

By Victoria Hattam.

Dispatch from Brooklyn, NY.
September 2020

COVID-19 has returned questions of migration and mobility to the centre of politics by upending the distribution of mobility privileges. Who is allowed – or required – to move is changing; many are trying to assess the consequences of such reorderings. I want to extend discussions of the virus by turning our eye from migration and mobility to movement of another kind. Under COVID-19, mobility for many has become less about getting from here to there; less about journeys of one kind or another; less about the movement of things: trade, finance capital, and cross-border production. As Shannon Mattern and others have shown, the virus is pushing the boundaries of mobility by demanding that smaller, differently located shifts be included in any assessment of virus significance. If we remain alert to the possibilities, perhaps the virus can open migration and mobility studies to somatic shifts and in so doing expand the political stakes of the present moment.

The virus has ricocheted through the somatic: distance, stance, breath, fluids, air flows, droplets, spittle have taken on new importance. There is a new awareness of the bodily everyday. What is especially interesting is the malleability of bodily actions; within weeks of hearing that the virus had arrived, and without any visual evidence that it was here, how one walked, talked, moved and stood changed. Space is now of the essence. Give a wide birth. I have been surprised at how quickly quotidian ways of being have shifted. What once seemed entrenched social forms have altered in relatively short order. If bodily actions can change so quickly, maybe habitus is not so fixed after all. Political possibilities open up as well.

Lining up for the Food Co-op, Park Slope, Brooklyn (image: Victoria Hattam, August 2020)

The somatic shifts underway have reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s experimental projects from the 60’s and 70’s. Fluids (1967) and Echo-ology (1975) come to mind. When I was co-teaching the ‘Political Sensorium’ with the late Ann Snitow, New York artist/researcher Robert Sember came to class and enacted one of Kaprow’s ‘Happenings’. It was a simple yet amazingly powerful action – deeply political in ways that resonate for me with the virus now.

The protocols went as follows: Everyone stands in a circle. One person has a teaspoon filled with water. The teaspoon is passed from one person to the next moving around the circle. Once the spoon has been passed all the way around, it changes direction and the spoon is passed back to the beginning. Once completed, the person left holding the spoon swallows the water. The whole action takes no more then 5-10 minutes – depending on the size of the group.

When Sember drank the water, a gasp filled the room. I understood expropriation in a way that I had not before. The visceral political. Disbelief, injustice, outrage followed. What amazed me in the Kaprow action, and what echoes now, was the speed with which I and other participants invested in the care of the water and collectively were outraged by its demise. Within the few minutes that it took to complete the action, we had identified collectively with the spoon’s contents – the careful passing of the spoon from one person to another had created a sense of affective investment in the water. The testament to the identifications generated was revealed by the shock that accompanied the arbitrary consumption of our newly created charge. A cycle of identification and resistance occurred within minutes not years.

Spoon filled with water (image: Victoria Hattam, Brooklyn, New York, August 2020)

Living in the time of COVID-19 has shifted somatic presumptions in powerful ways, changing the terrain of the bodily political.

Kaprow was certainly not the only one to push the envelope with such experimental work: John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Daniel Goode, Fluxus, The Motherfuckers, the Cockettes and many others drew attention to the somatic dimensions of the political through a variety of wide ranging projects.

Many experimental works carry with them a playfulness, a sense of pleasure and lightness of being that is captivating. But often, especially with Kaprow’s Happenings, there is a multi-vocality in which matters of power, futility and loss hover in the works as well. This more somber dimension to the Happenings adds to their salience now. Cage’s playfulness and infectious smile are complicated in Kaprow’s work. Constructing the ice ‘tomb’ that is left to melt, carrying buckets of water up stream in order to tip the water back into the river cast shadows over these collective endeavours. Perhaps a sense of mourning pervades Kaprow’s water actions as they were created not long after his two-year old daughter was killed by a car near their home in Glen Head, Long Island. (But one need not resort to such individualized motives; the power of Kaprow’s events often lay in their capacity to hold possibility and difficulty together.

This other register within Kaprow’s work, the more somber, futile, shadowy elements, echo in the time of COVID-19 when the virus reveals again the deep seated racial violence that constitutes the ground of US politics: infections, deaths and unemployment numbers all are structured by zip codes. The virus has ravaged unequally, exploiting longstanding economic and racial disparities in new ways. Pope L’s street crawls come to mind. In 1991, Pope L lay prone on the street, pot plant placed on the road in front of him, pushing it along the road inch by inch for hours. The Tompkins Square Crawl, as the action is known, was one of several such crawls that enact a powerful sense endurance and struggle.

Alternatively, we might follow Jill Richards into what she calls ‘The Fury Archives’ where movement is key, but takes less teleological forms. First wave feminism was powerful in Richards’ telling not for its end point, not for the retrospective ordering provided by the securing of women’s suffrage decades later. Any such ordering foreshortens the politics as it is happening. It is the long slog of action itself, the ‘long middle’ of small scale conflict without clear end, that Richards foregrounds. That unsettled, shuttling motion resonates now. Where the somatic shifts are taking us is by no means certain.

Under COVID-19 movement has neither ended nor disappeared. It has changed. Movement has moved to the everyday somatic. The political ramifications of somatic shifts are neither natural nor inevitable. They are in good measure ours to shape.

Victoria Hattam is Professor of Politics at The New School in New York City. She is a member of the Multiple Mobilities Research Cluster and of the Transoceanic Mobilities Network. Her current research focuses on US-Mexico border politics and the global political economy. For a recent writing see ‘Race Walls,’ in The Funambulist 31 (September–October 2020).

Kept apart – couples and families separated by the UK immigration system

By Katharine Charsley

In the wake of the report into the Windrush scandal, in which Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the UK for decades were wrongly treated as irregular migrants and denied basic rights, Secretary of State Priti Patel has announced her intention to work towards a ‘fair, humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office’, which treats individuals as ‘people not cases’. There has been no sign, however, that the government is considering changing the UK’s family immigration rules, which routinely separate British citizens and long-term residents from their loved ones. Since 2012, the need to demonstrate earnings above a minimum income (set higher than the pay of around 40% of the UK working population), sky-high visa fees and other costs, an increasingly complex application process, and not infrequent errors in decision making (half of immigration appeals are upheld) have meant tens of thousands of couples and families have been kept apart.

Toddler on the phone to her father (image by Michael Grieve)

Over the past few months, I have been working with Reunite Families UK (a campaigning and support organisation), other local academics interested in the issue (Helena Wray at the University of Exeter and Emma Agusita at the University of the West of England), and Rissa Mohabir from the specialist organisation Trauma Awareness, on a project exploring the impact of this separation on British people with non-UK partners and/or families. Rissa facilitated a safe listening project bringing together members of Reunite Families UK to talk about their experiences of negotiating the family immigration system and living with immigration-related separation.

Rissa is more used to working with refugees and so was struck by the level of trauma in evidence in the initial project workshop: ‘The depth of feelings and isolation compounded by the prolonged application process, highlighted lesser known trauma responses of the participants.’ As well as the emotional impact of not being able to be with their loved ones, parents grappled with combining long hours of work to meet the minimum income requirements together with enforced single parenthood and children traumatised by the absence of the other parent. The uncertainty of how long separation would last, or indeed whether they would ever be reunited, could be torturous. Many participants described significant tolls on their mental and physical health. When life situations became difficult – through bereavement, health crises or political events overseas necessitating relocation – the inflexibility of the family immigration system compounded difficulties and trauma.

Our work together was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that instead of a second face-to-face workshop the project had to move online. Family separation became an experience shared by many in the UK during lockdown, but for participants still going through the immigration system, coronavirus and lockdown amplified challenges and uncertainties as partners were affected by travel bans. Reunite Families UK members also reported increased anxiety about the impact of lost income and service closures on their prospects of reuniting.

From the outset of the project we envisioned it being a creative process, using a model of co-creating prose-poems (or ‘narrative prose’) developed by Trauma Awareness in previous work with refugee women. Participants in the workshop were asked to bring an object with them which spoke to them about their experiences of separation. In the workshop, describing the relevance of the objects (which included a rejection letter, phones and huggable items to fend off loneliness) became one of several exercises used to elicit words and images, which then formed the basis of our work together.

Rissa and I compiled participants’ words into evocative prose-poems and word art, individual case studies were then added to provide more sustained personal accounts, and we also added information on the family immigration process for those coming to the topic for the first time. An illustrator, Michael Grieve, brought his personal experience of his wife’s visa rejection to developing illustrations for the project. Some were literal – a rejection letter, hugging a pillow in the absence of their partner –  whilst others were more metaphorical  – the unpredictability and complexity of the immigration process represented by a maze or a Visa World pinball machine (can you make enough to avoid heartbreak and rejection?).

Visa World pinball (image by Michael Grieve)

At each stage, we worked with the original participants in a to-and-fro process of co-creation, which saw the results expand from our original vision of a few prose-poems with illustrations, to a full-colour e-book that we hope will both bring the issue to wider attention and provide a resource for those affected by it.

Reunite Families UK launched the book online amid their renewed campaign to scrap the Minimum Income Requirement. An open letter to Boris Johnson has gathered more than 1,000 signatures (add yours here) from affected families, gaining celebrity support from Joanna Lumley and Neville Southall (whose Twitter followers will have found the striking images from the book appearing on their feed this summer!).

With Parliament just returned from summer recess, Reunite is sending copies of the e-book to MPs. Priti Patel will be getting a printed copy. We hope that she will find time to read it so that the new, more ‘compassionate’ and ‘humane’ Home Office approach will include recognition of the plight of separated bi-national couples and families. With the end of the Brexit transition period looming the alternative is stark: failure to reform the family immigration system will see thousands more separated in future as the immigration rules are extended to UK-EU couples and families seeking the simple right to live together.

View the multimedia e-book here (available as an interactive flipbook, downloadable pdf, or accessible Word document) and a Policy Bristol briefing paper here. You can also read more about the Kept Apart project on the Brigstow Institute website.

Kept Apart: Webinar and Book Launch is being held on 14th September, 6.30-8pm – please register on the Eventbrite page.

With thanks to members of Reunite Families UK, the Kept Apart team (Rissa Mohabir, Caroline Coombs, Paige Ballmi, Helena Wray and Emma Agusita) and Michael Grieve (illustrator), and to the Brigstow Institute (University of Bristol) for funding the project.

Katharine Charsley is Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol.

From ‘social distancing’ to planetary solidarity

Letter from Afar – the blog series about life and research in the time of COVID-19.


By Nandita Sharma.

Greetings from Hawai’i!

Reading Colin’s blog from the ‘afar’ of Bristol has made me think about distance, and the (dis)connections between physical and social distancing. We are physically far apart, but, I like to think, socially close. This seems to run counter to the ‘social distancing’ we are being enjoined to adopt.

‘Social distancing’ is the most oft-used phrase during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it could be the motto for how states and ruling classes govern. For those studying the political economy of capitalism, ‘social distancing’ is understood as the effort by rulers to keep the levers of power and much-needed resources out of the reach of most people (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, personal communication, 11 March 2020).

Physical distancing at the bus stop (image: Gavin Clarke on flickr.com)


‘Social distancing,’ then, is not about the physical space between us. All systems of apartheid, after all, are built to ensure the close proximity of the dominators and those they supress. The point of ideological practices such as sexism, racism and nationalism is to keep us politically separated from one another. Going along with the idea that ‘we’ are unconnected to ‘them’ severely weakens our ability to take back our power and resources. That is precisely the point.

Rulers extol us to distance ourselves not only from other people, but also from the rest of life on our shared planet. We are encouraged to use non-humans as we will but to take no responsibility for the harm we do. Indeed, we are taught to deny any awareness of our actions and to deny our connections with other life forms.

This is reflected in the political organisation of our world. We live in a global system of apartheid organised by nation-states, which encourages us to see each nationalised territory in splendid isolation from all others. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that we ignore the world at our peril.

What we can learn from this global pandemic is that the global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into almost all parts of the planet has resulted in the destruction of complex ecosystems, the dispossession of more and more living beings (humans and non-humans), the rise of industrial agriculture and ‘meat farms,’ the cultural capital attached to eating ‘wild’ animals by urban dwellers, and the expanding supply chain of commodities. Each of these have contributed to the breeding and spreading of novel viruses.

Yet, none of this reality is reflected in responses to COVID-19 by either nation-states or capital. Instead, each nation-state touts its border controls as its first ‘line of defense’ (in keeping with the general militarised jingoism of the pandemic). Meanwhile, capital discourages efforts to halt transmission of the disease while pushing for the quick ‘opening up’ of the economy. Nation-states have largely gone along with this by refusing to organise the redistribution of wealth necessary to ensure that people can survive without jobs.

Many imagining themselves as members of the ‘nation’ cheer on such approaches, thereby further fanning the flames of racism/nationalism and deflecting attention away from inept governments and rapacious capitalist markets. Such approaches are on full display in the United States (but not only here).

On 31 January 2020, the same day the novel coronavirus was first declared a public health emergency, Trump issued an executive order blocking the entry of anyone who had been in China in the last 14 days. On 11 March 2020, Trump extended the travel ban to include the 26 EU Schengen states. On 14 March, it was extended further to encompass the UK and Ireland.

In keeping with the structural importance of national citizenship to current regimes of power, these travel bans do not apply to US residents and family members or spouses of US residents or citizens, even though they may very well be the ones carrying and spreading COVID-19. In any case, the first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US was announced more than ten days before the very first travel ban. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has continued to increase. So too have border control measures.

Supposedly to ‘protect the public health,’ on 20 March 2020 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health order denying people seeking asylum the protections afforded them under national law and allowing them to be summarily deported. From 21 March 2020 to 30 April 2020, more than 20,000 migrants were expelled, mostly to Mexico. 

Migrants are deported from the US to Mexico, March 2020 (image: Asociacion Pop No’j)


Of this number, 915 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum. A New York Times reporter found that, ‘some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters [sic] and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families’ (Dickerson 2020). Disavowing responsibility for the harm they do to others, the US government is largely silent about the spread of COVID-19 in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) concentration camps or their deporting of people with the virus to nation-states with far less resources than the US. This too is a form of ‘social distancing.’

At the same time, nationalism doesn’t prevent people from demanding that what they need and want from ‘outside’ continues to enter, including personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment and people recruited to work in sectors deemed ‘essential’ for the well-being of the citizenry. While industries of healthcare, agriculture, meatpacking and more would cease to operate were non-citizen workers not permitted to enter and work in the US, these workers are denied the rights and protections available to the citizenry they serve.

The issue, then, is hardly about movement. Nation-states actively organise the movement of people, other living beings, capital, commodities and more – but only on terms that maintain ‘social distancing.’ That is, only on terms that will keep power and resources out of the reach of most people and only on terms that will ensure our continued separation from one another.

This is not a contradiction, so far as nationalists are concerned. Instead, it is a powerful testimony of the importance of separation to ruling relations.

If ‘social distancing’ is the mantra of those hoarding power and wealth, the response of those seeking liberty from rulers is to break down the walls built to disconnect us from one another. While public health officials and media talk about ‘community spread,’ it is also true that during this global pandemic a tremendous growth of solidarity has taken place.

Here in Hawai’i, where I am ‘sheltered in place’ with my partner, Gaye Chan, there has been a massive uptick in our connections to people, mostly strangers. In keeping with our project, Eating in Public, Gaye has responded to the fear of food shortages at the market by building ‘weed stations’ that demonstrate how to grow and cook the edible, nutritious and tasty weeds all around us. She then erected another Free Store, re-stocked on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. And, she helped organise the Seamsters Union that, to date, has collectively made more than 3,000 cloth masks to freely distribute to those ignored by rulers. Each day, more people come and go, stop and talk than ever before. Practicing solidarity while adhering to safe practices of physical distancing is the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and it forges a path away from our dominated world. And, I know we are not alone.

Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar and Professor at the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She recently published a new book, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).

On being a space invader: negotiating whiteness in education

By Evelyn Miller.

Poster for Juice, the online South Asian collective and magazine (2020)

I am a first-year sociology student at the University of Bristol, and a mixed South Asian woman, my mum being of Malaysian and Mauritian descent and my dad being of English and Irish descent. This blog sketches out the troubles I have experienced in white-majority educational institutions to show why it’s important for university staff and students and to challenge practices that reproduce structures of elitism, whiteness, and masculinity

Before secondary school, I lived in Woking on a diverse council estate with lots of friends and similar families nearby. As I started secondary school, we moved to Godalming, an almost entirely white and middle-class area in Surrey. Our house is on a road that was originally wholly council owned. Set in the Surrey hills, it is not your typical council estate, but a stigma is still attached to living there. Meanwhile, being one of the only families of colour in the town has made us hyper-visible. We are positioned as ‘other’ and our presence is often met with racism and hostility. I remember other children shouting, ‘go back home!’ at my younger sister, aged 10 at the time, as she walked the dog in the first few months of living there. At school and college, I experienced more subtle and institutional racism. There, I did not simply study for my GCSEs and A Levels but was also forced to learn about the inequalities and hierarchies of race and class that positioned me as an ‘other’.

At my state school, I was one of a small minority of people of colour. Even though I often academically outperformed my peers, it seemed I constantly had to prove my ability, while my peers who presented as outwardly middle-class and white were simply assumed to be able. Disappointed by a curriculum that did not reflect my own experiences as a woman of colour, I took it upon myself to bring my views and experiences into my work. For instance, when a small group of us were tasked with writing a satirical article for an AS Level in Creative Writing, I wrote about my frustration at my teachers consistently calling me Moli (another South Asian girl in the year) rather than Evelyn. I titled the article ‘The difference is written all over our faces’, but it met with ridicule from both my Creative Writing peers and my teacher, who even joked about calling me Moli in the feedback. I think the only person who made me feel ‘seen’ at school after reading this was Moli herself.

The painful invalidation of my voice and experience continued as I studied for A Levels. My final Art project explored the identities of women of colour through a series of portraits. By sharing this project beyond college, I met lots of other artists of colour, took part in exhibitions, and founded a South Asian collective and magazine, Juice. Yet my art teacher dismissed the project entirely, suggesting I should just focus on portraiture and my artistic technique. Though disheartened, I ignored him and dedicated my Personal Essay and final piece to discussing the representation and agency of women of colour in the art world. I achieved an A*. Though my teacher praised my work, he never acknowledged the importance of the themes I was exploring.

drawings of faces
Evelyn’s A-Level Art sketchbook (2019)

Nirmal Puwar’s book Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place with its analysis of the dynamics of in/visibility experienced by people of colour in white-majority institutions captures my experience at school and college in Godalming. I hoped that in moving to Bristol to study sociology I would leave behind my sense of being a space invader. But I was disappointed to find the core modules offered to first year students still prioritise the theories and thought of white sociologists, especially white men, and often completely overlook the critical work of scholars and activists of colour who had inspired my interest in sociology. In some cases, all the essential readings were by white authors. How can I, or any women of colour, find our place as sociologists whilst being taught that thinking sociologically is almost exclusively a thought process of white men?

Postcolonial feminist thought was introduced, but in a module on global sociology, as if such thinking is only relevant to global issues. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and exciting to study the works of women of colour, although ironically my seminar tutor misgendered the sociologist Gurminder Bhambra, referring to her using the pronouns he/him. Other seminar tutors have been key to my happiness and success this year, however. They have provided me with support and additional readings prioritising intersectional thought, and they have given me hope that we can create radical anti-racist and feminist spaces within the university.

When people of colour question the overwhelming whiteness of British universities, Sara Ahmed says, they are often heard as speaking about themselves, being too ‘subjective’, rather than speaking about wider structures of inequality. But the sociological imagination, as famously defined by C. Wright Mills, demands ‘the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society’ – personal troubles are inherently public issues. My ‘personal troubles’ described above connect to a public problem, namely the fact that schools, colleges and universities are not ‘neutral’ spaces of learning but continue to take whiteness as the norm and reproduce classed, raced and gendered hierarchies, marginalising minority groups.

Anti-racism activists and scholars have worked for centuries, and continue to work, both within and outside of institutions, to challenge racist systems, policies and practices. Gurminder Bhambra recently presented a radical argument for decolonising universities, the ‘home of the coloniser, in the heart of establishment’, including greater attention to anti-racist practice within universities. It is important for students as well as staff to get involved in MMB’s Anti-Racist Network so that we can collectively explore what it means to decolonise the university and how to do it, as well as wider issues of racism and how to combat them.

Evelyn Miller is studying a BA in Sociology at the University of Bristol. She is a co-founder and the creative director of Juice, an online platform for sharing the lived experience of the South Asian diaspora.

Please contact Julia O’Connell Davidson if you would like more information about MMB’s Anti-Racist Network.

The relevance of luxuries during a global pandemic

By Tamar Hodos 

In these extraordinary times, I have made a contribution to society by providing a timely news story that does not involve the current global pandemic. This is the results of a study that forms part of my ongoing research into the production, distribution and socio-cultural significance of luxuries in past globalising contexts. One might well question the tact of highlighting luxuries at a time when human life and economic stability are at tremendous risk, however. 

Carved ostrich egg with hole in top
Decorated ostrich egg. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the interconnected world of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians and Egyptians, ostrich eggs were turned into highly decorated vessels, and they were coveted by elites across the Mediterranean and Middle East. The project, in collaboration with colleagues at the British Museum and Durham University, has explored where eggs were laid, whether the mother was wild or captive, and how the eggs were worked. The journal publishing the results timed its release to coincide with Easter. The research has received global attention. 

It might seem frivolous to discuss luxury good production methods when everyone is affected by Covid-19. Luxurious objects are the preserve of the wealthiest, who can afford them. When so many people have lost their jobs and rapid economic recovery prospects are bleak, it may even appear crass to emphasise materials beyond reach for so many. 

Luxuries impact upon many more than their elite consumers, however, and in this lies their wider relevance to society, both past and presentOur study has revealed that decorated ostrich egg production in antiquity was a particularly complex affair. We established that the eggs were acquired from wild, rather than captive, birds. As a result, we can suggest that the production process begins with trackers, who had to find nest sites and steal eggs by one means or another.

Ostrich nests are difficult to spot because they are dug into the ground amid grasses such that they are invisible from across the landscape. The female’s colouring further camouflages the site during the day, when she incubates the eggs; the male’s colouring does the same at night, when he keeps the eggs warm. An ostrich will lay its head flat if it senses a predator, which is the origin of the notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. But do not take that as passiveness: the birds can kill with a single kick.  

Faint carving of ram's head on shell
Detail of a ram’s head. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Acquiring eggs entailed risk to the tracker. Firstly, it could take days to find nest sites, since a male ostrich’s territory may extend up to 20km2, and nest locations seem to have no relation to nest sites from previous seasons within a territory. Secondly, other predators equally dangerous to humans inhabit the same landscapes as ostriches. Even if the tracker chose to kill an ostrich rather than merely steal its eggs, the bird itself was not the only threat. 

Furthermore, it transpires that just because you could source an ostrich egg locally, it does not necessarily mean that you did. In antiquity, ostriches were indigenous to north Africa and today’s Middle East. Using isotope analyses, our study was able to determine different environmental zones across this expanse where the mothers roamed during ovulation. But this raises new questions such as whether fresh eggs themselves were traded as source material, and if eggs from different areas had different perceived values. Who was involved in these exchanges? 

We also learned that an egg needs to dry out naturally for an extended period of time after blowing (emptying) before the shell is suitable for carving. This necessitates safe storage, which has economic implications as storage creates a longterm investment before reaping payment.   

Only once an egg was suitably dried could highly skilled craftsmen undertake their decoration. In this lies a social interpretation complication, for artisans were mobile during this era. For example, Phoenician craftsmen were known to be in the employ of Assyrian kings in Assyria. So, should we consider a product made by such an individual as a Phoenician or Assyrian object 

Furthermore, what does it mean when a deceased Etruscan king in Italy is interred with a decorated ostrich egg? Or a Phoenician residing in Spain? How do those meanings overlap and differ? As the eggs were imports to both regions, what does this tell us about the varieties of connectivities between cultures using ostrich eggs? This line of questioning is valuable to our own era, because our identities cannot necessarily be understood simply from how we style ourselves, especially as our choices are often contextually significant, and when objects, dress, style and people are highly mobile. 

Faint carving of lotus flower on eggshell
Detail of a lotus flower motif. © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

The ostrich egg study used the mobility of objects themselves to learn about the variety of people involved in production and exchange in the past, as well as shared and divergent social practices of materials in common, but its relevance does not lie just in learning more about the ancient world for diverting news stories. This approach is applicable to society today because of our own social relationships with the material world. Today, the same object may concurrently have overlapping and different social or symbolic meanings for diverse populations, while its production and distribution connects people in complex ways across time and place. Understanding the relationships between our social lives and material worlds helps us foster better relationships with one another, especially with regard to social and cultural differences. Objects ‘belong’ to many more than just their final consumers. Luxuries extend across the full spectrum of society.   

Unfortunately, so does Covid-19. 

Tamar Hodos is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Bristol and a unit director on the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies.

 

Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection

By Ignacio Odriozola 

On 20th January this year the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Committee) released a landmark decision on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change. The decision did not include specific guidance as to where the tipping point lies, but it nevertheless remains highly relevant to future similar potential cases around the world. 

The case and the plot twist 

The case deals with the individual communication made by Ioane Teitiota, a national from the South Pacific country of Kiribati, under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Based on this Protocol, he claimed that New Zealand had violated his right to life by rejecting his request for refugee status and returning him and his family home in 2015.  

Children sit on sand bags by a flooded sea wall on a Pacific Island
Flooded sea wall by a village on Tarawa, Kiribati (UN)

Teitiota argued in his case that the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, had forced him to migrate from Tarawa (the principle island in Kiribati) to New Zealand. He claimed that freshwater on Tarawa had become scarce due to salinization and that eroded inhabitable lands had resulted in not only a housing crisis but also land disputes. These, combined with social-political instability, created a dangerous environment for him and his family. 

New Zealand’s judicial system did not find evidence that Teitiota had been involved in a land dispute or that he faced a real chance of being harmed in this context that he was unable to grow food, find accommodation or access to potable water; that he faced life-threatening environmental conditions; and that his situation was materially different from other residents of Kiribati.   

The Human Rights Committee supported the decision adopted by New Zealand and rejected almost all arguments brought by Teitiota. However, it specifically acknowledged that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights under Article 6 or 7 of the Covenant, thereby triggering the non-refoulement obligations of sending states […] given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under the water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized.” (Parag. 9.11) 

This paragraph has caught international attention. To be clear, the Committee is not expressly banning the return home of someone requesting international protection due to the impacts of climate change. But it indicates that states, individually and/or collectively, could be prohibited from sending people back to life-threatening conditions if they don’t cooperate to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in those countries. If the conditions in those countries are not thoroughly analyzed before discarding risk, they could breach the powerful international obligation ofnon-refoulement. 

Landmark decision or a passing storm? 

Despite delivering an important message, the Human Rights Committee ruling does not provide explicit guidance for its implementation. Nevertheless, assumptions can be extracted from the document that shed light on its relevance and growing significance. 

To begin with, it is the first-ever ruling adopted by a UN Committee regarding the claim of a person seeking refuge due to climate change. It also reinforces the idea that environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development can compromise effective enjoyment of the right to life, as stated previously in the General Comment No. 36and the case ofPortillo Cáceres et al. v. Paraguay 

Furthermore, despite not being legally binding, the decision is based on international legal obligations assumed by the 172 States Parties to the ICCPR, and almost 106 States Parties to the Optional Protocol. The latter allows individual claims against the ICCPR such as Teitiota’s. 

Contrary to media reports, such as those by CNNandThe Guardian, the Human Rights Committee did not address Teitiota as a climate refugee. Instead it considered him a person under the protection of the ICCPR whose life could be at risk of being exposed to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment due to the impacts of climate change. This means that the Committee´s examination was based on factors and standards intended to consider if there was a threat to Teitiota’s life in Kiribati from the perspective of International Human Rights Law, which is wider and more inclusive than that of International Refugee Law.  

Huts above a sandbagged sea wall on a Pacific island
Sand bags attempt to prevent village huts flooding on Tarawa, Kiribati (Brad Hinton)

The Committee established that individuals seeking refugee status are not required to prove that they would face imminent harm if returned to their countries, implicitly relaxing the probatory standard required for pursuing international protection under a human rights scope. It argued that individuals could be pushed to cross borders looking for protection from climate change-related harm, caused not only by sudden-onset events but also slow-onset processes (Parag. 9.11).  

The Human Rights Committee has continually raised the standard of states’ analyses of protection requests. In this ruling, it recognised that New Zealand’s courts carried out a careful and in-depth examination of both Kiribati’s and Teitiota’s situations before proceeding to deport him. But alongside this it highlighted factors that must be considered in future similar cases: for example, the prevailing conditions in the person’s country of origin; the foreseeable risks; the time left for authorities and the international community to intervene; and the efforts already underway (Parag. 9.13).  

In this way, the Committee’s ruling represents a significant step forward. It has established new standards that may lead to the eventual international protection of people impacted by climate change. From now on, states should examine in detail the climatic and environmental conditions of a migrant’s country of origin under the possibility of breaching the non-refoulement obligation. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said: “If the crisis continues to worsen, a similar case in a few years may reach a very different result. 

Ignacio Odriozola is studying the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol. He is a lawyer for the Universidad de Buenos Aires and a researcher for the South American Network for Environmental Migrations (RESAMA).

 

MMB in 2020 – forging new partnerships

Happy New Year from the MMB team!

We have exciting plans for 2020 as MMB continues to develop its dynamic research remit and build an ever-stronger community of scholars. Our four research challenges are running a range of workshops, seminars and networking events in the coming months, which will showcase the breadth of approaches to migration and mobilities studies among our members. We will also be organising a public lecture by a prominent international activist and scholar – identity to be revealed soon. 

New this year is the MMB film group, in motion, which will be screening films about migration and movement on the last Tuesday of each month. We are also starting a regular MMB research seminar for members to share their work and receive critical feedback from colleagues. And one of our PhD students is running a series of workshops on the logistical, ethical and intellectual challenges of fieldwork. Keep an eye on our website for details of these and other events coming up. 

Don’t forget, the website is a place where you can showcase your research. Do contact us if you have any questions or would like help in developing your text and illustrations.

At the end of last year we published the MMB 2018-2019 Annual Report to show our progress in building an interdisciplinary network of scholars and supporting the wide range of migration-related research across the university and city of Bristol. The report outlines the focus of each of our research challenges, which bring people together from diverse disciplines to think about migration and mobility in new ways. The report features many of the research projects of these challenge members as well as highlighting some of the key events organised by MMB in the past year. 

In 2019-2020 we will continue to consolidate and support our internal community while also developing closer partnerships with institutions and organisations outside the UK. These include The New School in New York, the European Public Law Office in Greece and the Universities of Linkoping and Malmo in Sweden. We are also delighted to be liaising with a network of University of Bristol scholars working in Latin America to support their research on movement and migration in the region. 

Do get in touch if you have any news about relevant events, publications or research ideas. We also still have a small amount of funding for networking events and activities, so if you have an idea that will take place between now and the end of July 2020 please complete the application form. We will next review applications at the end of February. 

We look forward to working with you in 2020! 

Bridget, Emma and Emily 

 

 

Being at sea: a FUTURES event at the SS Great Britain

By Laurence Publicover

At FUTURES, an evening held recently at the SS Great Britain in Bristol as part of a Europe-wide series of events celebrating academic research, I spoke to families about the experience of being at sea. What is it like, we pondered, to spend days – or even weeks – without sight of land? What might happen, in such circumstances, to your sense of personal or national identity? How would you pass the time, and how might you interact with others – often from very different backgrounds – in the same enclosed environment? 

Drawing on my research on shipboard cultures and the cultural practices that help define and redefine them, I set up three activities to help visitors think about what it might mean to enter on a nautical existence. First, I asked them to match up maritime terms to their definitions. Illuminating the extent to which British culture has developed through oceanic ventures, many English terms and expressions (‘fathom’, ‘the bitter end’, ‘aloof’, ‘clean bill of health’) have maritime origins. Over the centuries, and often by borrowing terms from other maritime cultures (Dutch, Indian, Portuguese), a distinct ‘language of the sea’ has developed, informing and informed by ‘landlubber’ language. My activity asked participants to match up three sets of words and definitions, ranging from ‘Apprentice’ level (‘capsize’, ‘convoy’), to Midshipman level (‘ballast’, ‘bowsprit’), to ‘Skipper’ level (‘futtocks’, ‘cats’ paws’).  

A woman and man study captions of maritime terms to match them up to their definitions
Matching up maritime terms at the SS Great Britain

Taking advantage of my surroundings, my second activity asked children to compose diary entries in which they imagined themselves on board the SS Great Britain in the nineteenth century, bound for Australia on a two-month voyage. To help them think themselves into this scenario, I provided excerpts from three diaries composed by passengers who had travelled on the ship: one an Irish nun heading to Australia to teach in a Catholic school; the other two men on the same voyage, but experiencing it very differently from their steerage- and cabin-class accommodation. The children were, for the most part, horrified by the idea that modern entertainment systems would be unavailable. After a look of despondency and resignation, one finally wrote: ‘Day 1: I had food and read for an hour!’ A second, apparently (like me) impressed and unnerved by the warren-like design of the SS Great Britain, wrote: ‘Day 3: I played hide and seek and I got lost. I had to sleep under the coffee table.’ Perhaps sensitive to the tedium and frustration that can easily build up over a long voyage tedium and frustration, which cultural activities, including diary-writing, were designed to alleviate a third participant wrote: ‘Day 50: I threw my homework in the sea.’ (An environmentalist aside: this child also seemed to sense that dangerous predilection humans have to treat the sea as a giant toilet bowl: a repository for all the things we do not want, whether nuclear waste, by-catch, sin, or corpses we would rather did not become pilgrimage sites.) 

The first and second activities overlapped. As my research has indicated, inexperienced seafarers are often struck – and often disoriented – by the ‘salty’ language spoken by sailors, and one indication that they are beginning to ‘get their sea legs’ is their attempt to try out this language in diary entries. One of my participants was obliging enough to do the same, test-driving two terms he had only just taken on board: ‘Day 7: We went into a convoy with other ships and I pretended to be the skipper.’   

A view of the stern of the SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain, Bristol City Docks

The third activity was knot-tying: a practice that is nautical, but not exclusively so. It is often argued by scholars in oceanic studies that we live in a ‘sea-blind’ culture, neglecting the oceans on which we still rely for our day-to-day existencewith the vast majority of international trade carried by ships, and communications cables tracing the seafloor yet which, due to the mechanisation of shipping and the advent of air travel, no longer feel part of our everyday world. If this is so, then what has happened to this specific skill, knot-tying? The answer appears to be that it has passed on to amateur climbers; there were several of them at the SS Great Britain, and they were able to tie far more knots than me. 

It was this question of the place of the sea in our culture – and our capacity to remain blind to the oceans – that I was trying to draw out during my conversations across the evening. The stall across from me was, rather wonderfully, asking children to think about what was inside their mobile phones, and so I asked those who came over to me afterwards how long they thought their phones might have spent at sea, and who might have been working on the ship that carried them over the oceans. We don’t tend to think of our phones, or clothes, or appliances, as ‘maritime’ objects; it is – to me at least – strange to think of them in mid-ocean, thousands of miles from shore. The strangeness of this thought is an indication of how easy it is to imagine the sea – as it has so often been imagined, in most cultures – as ‘alien’, beyond the human realm, even when our everyday lives – the very words we speak – are in so many ways structured through human relations with the oceans. My aim, in the helpful surroundings of the SS Great Britain, was to ask participants to reflect on some of the implications of sea-blindness. What might it mean, for example, for climate change? How often do we reflect on the labour conditions not only of those who make the objects we consume, but who transport them? If we are going to continue to exploit the ocean (the seabed, the fish, the manganese nodules), then who should get to decide how we do so? And if we fail to look directly at the sea, what does that mean for the migrants trying, in far less secure and well-appointed surroundings than the SS Great Britain, to cross it?  

MMB reflects on the past year

By Bridget Anderson, Emma Newcombe and Emily Walmsley

In the run up to our second MMB AGM we thought we’d take the chance to showcase migration related research in Bristol, reflect on our past year’s work as a Specialist Research Institute and discuss plans for future development by writing an annual report.  At this stage it is just a draft so we are happy to take suggestions for changes and additions. If you would like your work profiled in this report please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

In 2018/19 MMB focused on how we could organise ourselves, in intellectual and practical terms. We discussed the range of research interests across different faculties and as a result set up four cross-faculty teams to develop our ‘Research Challenges’. Our four co-ordinators have done an excellent job in getting these research challenges going, including organising four great kick-off events that brought together a wide range of participants. We are very grateful to Pier, Nariman, Manoj, and Angelo for all their hard work.

We set up a cross-faculty management group to help us fulfil our objectives and are grateful to them too for the ways in which they have engaged and thought through how we can develop our work. We also found funding for a part-time administrator and Emily joined us in November 2018.

In January we launched our website and the new MMB ‘look’ (we even have MMB pens!). The website is a great place for showcasing your research and bringing it to a wider, cross-disciplinary audience. Do let us know if you want to have a listing or contribute a blog.

It’s been an event-full year for MMB. We’ve concentrated on building our internal community and as such have held or supported 25 events – in May we had four running in one week!  One particular highlight was having the privilege of hosting the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for an event that brought together UoB researchers with activists and community workers from Bristol. A big thanks to Diego Acosta from Law for arranging this. We hope that you’ve found the events stimulating and that you’ve taken the chance to engage with people from across the University.

Finally, remember that MMB is here to support you. In the coming year we will be trialling some ‘drop-in sessions’. If you have an idea you want to think through, a question about impact or are in search of contacts, do come along (details will be on our website). Also, we are keen to promote the wide range of research and publication projects going on in Bristol on migration and mobilities, many of which are described further in this report.

If you would like to add your work to this report and our website, please do get in touch – mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk.

 

Workshop on image-making in migration research and campaigns

By Nariman MassoumiPoster of Image-making workshop

The first event of MMB’s Imagination, Belonging, Futures Research Challenge took place on Tuesday 2 July at the Department of Film and Television, University of Bristol.

Focusing on the topic of ‘image-making in migration research and campaigns’, the aim of the workshop was to consider the uses of photographic images of refugees and asylum seekers in migration research and campaigning work, exploring problems and challenges as well as alternative approaches (photographic or otherwise) to the visual representation of migration and displacement.

Around 30 people participated in the workshop including migration researchers and academics, representatives from campaigns and NGOs, filmmakers, photographers, artists and activists. The workshop was split into three sessions and the event was chaired by Bridget Anderson, MMB Director and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship.

Image of two Matses children on the screen, and Camilla Morelli speaking
Camilla Morelli speaks about her collaborative film-making with Matses youth

The first session consisted of panel presentations and discussion focusing particularly on ethical responsibilities, informed consent, collaborative and participatory practices and the processes involved in producing images. Camilla Morelli (Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Bristol) presented her fascinating animated film about the imagination of marginalised Matses youth and their desires to live in the city. This film was part of her British Academy funded collaborative project Indigenous Animations, which brings together indigenous artists, animators and Amazonian children and youth to co-produce animated films. Through their participation in the research and visualisation processes, the participants’ consent and agency in their own representation was embedded into the outcomes.

Often the ‘people in the pictures’ – those whose images are used in campaigning material – are not consulted in how they are represented or what their opinions are on the subject. This was an issue passionately taken up by Jess Crombie, a humanitarian communications consultant and Lecturer in documentary image making and ethics at London College of Communication. Jess presented on research she conducted on the image-making of Save the Children and other NGOs. She stressed the importance of involving often unheard voices and views of those photographed in the image-making process (one of the recommendations of her report) alongside adopting creative and collaborative practices and sensitive communication that respect human dignity.

But collaborative practices can also become an additional source of stress and responsibility for those already dealing with the mental and physical trauma of fleeing persecution, being displaced and coping with hostile and restrictive asylum systems and policies, as Vicky Canning pointed out in her presentation on activism and resistance in refugee rights research. Canning called for a more direct, less ambiguous language in migration research and the system violence experienced by refugees, especially women. Vicky displayed her Asylum Navigation Board, which aims to help people understand the multiple barriers and restrictions facing those navigating the asylum system.

The second session turned towards presentations from the local community, beginning with a moving photo story by Bnar Sardar, an Iraqi Kurdish photojournalist living and studying Bristol. Titled Two Religions, One Roof, the photographic series offered an intimate portrait of belonging and co-habitation between two displaced families (one Christian and one Sunni) in Kirkurk. Bnar fled Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 and is one of the only women to have documented the violence and displacement in the region.

Image of Ruth Jacobs speaking and a refugee's photograph of Bristol on the screen
Ruth Jacobs shows images taken by refugees and asylum seekers in Bristol

Bnar recently took part in a community project in St. Pauls Darkrooms for refugee and asylum seekers – a short black and white photographic film course run by Ruth Jacobs from the Real Photography Company. Participants had the opportunity to take, develop and print photographs of Bristol. Ruth discussed the process involved and presented some of the images produced by the participants, which were exhibited at the Vestibules on College Green in June. The images presented a unique vision of the city through the poetic perspective of refugees.

St. Pauls Darkrooms is in the same building as Bristol Refugee Rights, a local asylum seeker and refugee support group. Ruth Soandro-Jones, Fundraising and Communications Manager for the organisation, followed with some important and candid reflections on the challenges of obtaining and using images of people seeking asylum while they are accessing support at BRR, especially in relation to fundraising requirements.

In the final session participants broke into groups to discuss a set of questions posed by organisers and raised by participants themselves in advance, and the issues discussed were brought together and categorised into key themes by Jacqueline Maingard (Reader in Film) in a short summary at the end.

The workshop had a dynamic, buzzing energy and a sense of urgency. A whole host of problems and challenges in the use of images in migration were brought forward and discussed. It appeared many participants were grappling with similar questions and challenges, despite coming from different sectors, perspectives and practices.

There was a desire amongst attendees to continue the discussion and consider the workshop as a launch for further activity and action. Watch this space!

Nariman Massoumi is the co-ordinator for the MMB Research Challenge, Imagination, Belonging, Futures.