Third Biannual NPN Symposium on Asylum, Refuge, Migration: Event Report

Part 1 by Amjad Al-Shalan (University of Salford) and the NPN team

Part 2 by Rena Jackson (University of Manchester), Jade Munslow Ong (University of Salford), Veronica Barnsley (University of Sheffield) and Matthew Whittle (University of Leeds)

Part 1

The Third Biannual Northern Postcolonial Network Symposium, co-organised by Dr Jade Munslow Ong (University of Salford) and Rena Jackson (University of Manchester) was held at MediaCityUK, University of Salford, on 29th January 2016. It presented a platform for conversations relating to asylum, refuge and migration, and sought to establish dialogue between academics, local organisations, politicians and the wider public whose concerns in these areas overlap.

In 2015, the media has provided extensive coverage of the journeys made by sanctuary seekers across the globe, focusing particularly on the crisis in Europe. People travel on water and across land in attempts to reach places of safety, but their struggles do not end once they arrive at their destinations. Instead, further struggles ensue once they enter the various European countries as they apply for the right to remain and seek out the basic human rights they were not granted at home.

The NPN symposium cultivated diverse perspectives from asylum seekers living in Manchester and Salford, charity representatives, activists, politicians, academics, students, artists, writers and others. The symposium enabled cross-disciplinary, cross-sector, and personal explorations of the psychological, social, cultural, economic and political effects of migration on individuals and communities.

The political legacies of imperialism were explored as a way of investigating the ongoing and future role of postcolonial studies in addressing the symposium themes, and there were contributions by a large cohort of postcolonial researchers working in various disciplines who spoke about the energy and politically-engaged aspects of the field. The event promoted diversity and conversation as a way of bringing together theory and practice.

The day began with a postgraduate and early career research roundtable chaired by Dr Anastasia Valassopoulos (University of Manchester). This roundtable largely examined the symposium topics from the perspectives of literary studies, applied theatre and anthropology, media studies, Francophone studies, history, political science, and creative biography.

The first speaker, Dr Letizia Alterno (University of Manchester), began by tackling the issue of migration by using a play, Lampedusa, to shed some light on the condition of detention centres in the Mediterranean. She analysed Lampedusa as a way of exploring how creative practices can function as tools to create public empathy, promoting cultural engagement with migration.

Alexandra D’Onofrio (University of Manchester) explored the role of migration in shaping identity through the stories used by refugees to narrate their lived experience. The research showcased how the process of animation helps to shed light on the non-linear workings of the imagination and their impact on people’s lives and decisions.

Jo Garbutt (University of Salford) considered the legacies of a sixteenth-century landowner and philanthropist, Henry Smith, and the important role that his sizeable endowment has played in providing advocacy, housing and integration support for sanctuary seekers and refugees in the UK. Jo spoke about her planned semi-fictional biography of Smith and the possibilities it might hold for communicating the imperatives of acceptance and welcome to a public often hostile to the foreigner.

Brenda Garvey (University of Chester) explored the struggles and risks that migrants from North African countries such as Senegal face on their perilous journeys to Europe. In particular, Garvey focused on how the stories of these young people are being told at home. She showed how both the economic state of their new countries and the media act as the major driving forces behind migrants’ desires to undertake such dangerous journeys, which typically involves an illegal trade in people smuggling.

Dr Kasia Mika (University of Leeds) offered a “discussion of the questions of labour migration, citizenship, and statelessness in the context of the ongoing Haiti-Dominican Republic citizenship crisis”. She explained that difficulties arise when the citizenship crisis is presented primarily as a “migration problem”. She concluded by saying that there are no easy solutions here because this crisis of citizenship is not a priority for the international community. However, it was stressed that more local and recognisable forms of displacement should and “can form a basis for ‘critical solidarity’ with, and compassion for, all those rendered stateless ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’”.

Sarah Stewart (University of Edinburgh) examined the role of gardening as practice and in metaphor. She explained how gardens have the ability to work as both therapeutic and communication tools to stimulate recovery for victims of violence. Her research dwells on the reparative role of gardening in relation to trauma and torture that so often function “to obliterate the consciousness and language of the sufferer”. She also drew on a number of garden-related metaphors in literature and art to call attention to different cultural approaches to working the soil.

The Q & A for this roundtable included, among many other explored areas, the subject of empathy, with added speaker and audience insights into how various creative methods, such as gardening, theatre and storytelling, are used to stimulate empathy. In response to questions about practical support for refugees both in the North and beyond, a representative of Refugee and Asylum Seeker and Participatory Action Research (RAPAR) alerted symposium delegates to the Trades Unionists for Calais initiative that is seeking to develop through Stand Up To Racism. This initiative, it was explained, works at the grassroots level to create useful, collective responses to the needs of people seeking asylum. The importance of sharing historical, factual information about the development of the refugee and asylum ‘field’ in the North of England, including a greater awareness of colonial and postcolonial histories, was also emphasised.

The community roundtable revealed some exciting new directions in postcolonial studies, with conversations focused on grassroots work within and across academic, creative, charitable and political communities. The roundtable started with thoughts from the chair and speaker, Dr Jonathan Darling (University of Manchester), who summarised his ESRC-funded research into the asylum and accommodation process, which in 2012 changed from being a public to being a private provision. He explained how this change, affecting asylum seekers and local authorities, has introduced new harmful vocabularies in which asylum seekers are commodified and turned into service-users.

Next, the organisers and facilitators of the Northern Postcolonial Network Art and Poetry workshop: Asylum, Refuge, Migration, which took place at University of Manchester on 15 January 2016, shared their experiences of working on this project. The workshop was organised by the Northern Postcolonial Network in collaboration with the University of Manchester and the University of Salford, with Rena Jackson (University of Manchester) and Dr Jade Munslow Ong (University of Salford) as its lead organisers.

Rena Jackson explained how the workshop was designed to bring together sanctuary seekers, academics, students and community artists to explore the broad theme of migration through art and poetry. In this sense, the project worked as a catalyst for discussion of refugee narratives that might otherwise receive little attention in the media or other political outlets. Rena spoke about her and Jade’s community involvement with Manchester City of Sanctuary and United for Change in the months leading up to the workshop and the way in which this engagement provided important ingredients for the NPN workshop, with activities geared towards conversation and self-managed time.

Dr Jade Munslow Ong continued by sharing her input on how the project offered a response to, and revision of, different “facts” presented by the media, providing a space in which refugees and asylum seekers could narrativise their own lived experiences. The project used mixed art forms such as poetry, embroidery, collage, cartooning, monoprinting, painting and drawing to tell alternative truths about asylum processes in ways that help to create empathy. She also spoke about NPN plans for future engaged work of this kind in other key northern English cities in line with a new research project tentatively entitled ‘Refugee North’.

Dr Judy Kendall (University of Salford) explained her role as a facilitator, and described how she invited participants to respond to media photographs relating to migration using haiku. The images chosen by the participants caused some struggles initially because the poetic style is supposed to be allusive and reflect a non-opinionated experience. However, the final result was expressive, highlighting both the shocking and devastating aspects of the images as well as drawing out the less apparent ordinary and the hopeful within them.

The co-artistic directors of Pod Collective and co-facilitators of United for ChangeEmily Hayes and Anna White, were next to discuss their roles within the workshop. Emily Hayes explained how she worked with participants to create banners that combined embroidery, drawn images and words to convey stories about individual experiences of seeking sanctuary. Anna White emphasised the differences between the embroidery and monoprinting that took place at the workshop in terms of time. Whereas the slow pace of sewing allowed for much conversation and reflection on long, arduous migrations and lengthy asylum processes, the speedy nature of monoprinting allowed participants to capture snapshots of their lives in Manchester and Salford.

Joe Pelan, one of the filmmakers who documented the workshop process, briefly discussed the process of interviewing asylum seekers and refugees about the creative practices they were using to express the difficulties of their situation.

Dianne Ngoza (Women Asylum Seekers TogetherManchester City of Sanctuary/ United for ChangeManchester Migrant Solidarity) shared her personal experiences as a forced migrant, and spoke powerfully and beautifully about the long years she has spent struggling for the right to remain in the UK. She described how Africans are popularly depicted as living in abject poverty, and yet the poverty she has experienced here is much worse than anything she ever knew in Africa. Her life was described as being “in limbo” as she fears what will happen to her daughter if she is forced to return to Africa. She further explained how her passion for supporting asylum seekers’ rights prompted her to join various charities to help others.

The final speaker at this roundtable, Julie Ward, MEP for the North West of England, talked about her regional and European engagement with asylum issues, including reflections on the importance of the arts as a tool for wellbeing, empowerment and social change. A link to her reports on visits to Calais refugee camp and Grande-Synthe refugee camp (near Dunkirk) can be seen on her Refugee Crisis page. She began by stating that human rights should be the basis for all debate and explained how she is keen to see different communities interact with each other and promote diversity. She explained how art is important in initiating conversations about issues that are central to political debate, and that the role of MEPs is to speak in such debates on behalf of those who do not have a voice.

community roundtable

Julie Ward MEP speaking at the community roundtable

The Q & A focused on different experiences of temporality at the various workshop stations and in relation to timetabling, the relationships between artistic form and politics, and the frustration felt by asylum seekers who cannot access the legal, medical and political expertise necessary to improve their lives. An important contribution from the floor offered a critique of perceived divisions between the citizen and the academic, and between academia and politics. The speakers acknowledged this by highlighting that academic research can be community-based and practice-led as a way of collaborating with partners to influence change. The session concluded with a focus on the importance of teaching in sowing the seeds of change in future generations.

The academic roundtable was chaired by Dr Veronica Barnsley (University of Sheffield), and based on a forthcoming volume, titled Edinburgh Contemporary Research on Refugee Writing, edited by Dr Sam Durrant (University of Leeds)Dr David Farrier (University of Edinburgh)Prof Lyndsey Stonebridge (University of East Anglia)Dr Benjamin Thomas White (University of Glasgow) and Dr Agnes Woolley (Royal Holloway, University of London). The representative speakers, Sam, David and Agnes, began by explaining how the project was born out of a desire to connect their own community-based work with refugees to their research in postcolonial and migration studies.

academic roundtable

academic roundtable

They outlined how the collection will provide an urgently needed account of how and why the refugee has emerged as one of the key figures of our era. The book will demonstrate how refugees have been written into being by international law, governmental and non-governmental bodies and the media, foregrounding the role of the arts and humanities in imagining, historicising, and sometimes obscuring, the precarious experience of forced migration and statelessness. How might we better imagine and historicise the refugee’s experience and how best narrate this experience alongside other forms of migration and displacement?

Comprising forty commissioned essays on writing by and about refugees from scholars working across the humanities and social sciences, the collection will establish the case for placing the study of the refugee at the centre of contemporary critical inquiry.

The speakers then mentioned that the collection will include historical, genealogical and theoretical (critical and cultural) approaches to the “modern refugee” as well as definitions of genres of refugee writing. The book will address specific categories of the refugee experience, including asylum, and consider how representations of these experiences are situated within different spaces, for example borders, conflict zones, occupied territories, camps, seas, homes, open cities and digital territories. The methodology is informed by the idea that refugee narratives can defamiliarise the familiar and stir empathy as a tool for humanitarian engagement. The work seeks to read the social through aesthetics and aesthetics through the social.

The chair opened the Q & A session by asking the panel what a humanities perspective can offer to a topic more often treated within the social sciences. They responded with a number of examples from their own work with and writing about refugees and suggested that a humanities approach has the potential to re-imagine the situations and dilemmas that refugees encounter, thereby eliciting dialogue about forced migration and exploring the potential for refugees to contribute both to their host communities and to a global debate on migration that is often driven by political position-taking. The panel also affirmed that academics can usefully engage in discussion with activists, politicians and the public to offer a historically and theoretically informed critique of terms that have become common parlance, for example “refugee crisis”. Further questions from the audience addressed issues including: climate refugees; the importance of non-chronological imaginings of displacement, journeys and arrival; the necessity and even the appeal of risk-taking for some migrants, and the difficulties in understanding the perception of risk in diverse contexts.

Jade and Rena offered closing remarks, thanking all those who helped with the workshop and symposium.

Part 2

An important feature of the Third Biannual Northern Postcolonial Network Symposium was an exhibition of the artwork produced at the workshop discussed as part of the community roundtable, as well as the film documenting the workshop process. MediaCityUK proved to be the ideal space in which to present the many outputs from this workshop. In the atrium gallery space of the third floor, eighteen striking monoprints depicting positive aspects of life in the UK were mounted next to four large banners decrying the injustices of the asylum process, the losses and limbos that assail the lives of refugees in this country. Imperial legacies haunting the past and now stalking the present human rights crisis of denied entry and settlement to the world’s asylum seekers are printed and immortalised on calico.

IMG_7494 2

Andy embroidering at the NPN Art and Poetry workshop

Two canvases were mounted just opposite. The first displayed collage work in which media images are radically rewritten to prioritise the insights of sanctuary seekers as well as providing scope for imagining alternative cultures of inclusion and belonging. The second, a painted canvas, carries isolated words, both positive and negative, that participants associated with asylum, refuge and migration. In the hall leading into the reception area outside the symposium conference room was a vibrant mix of photographs taken by Dr Matthew Whittle (University of Leeds). Presented in A6, A5 and A4, these photos captured precious workshop moments, with the largest of the photos devoted to framing moments in which strangers connect, and meaningful exchanges, jokes and laughter are shared among participants (the full album can be viewed on the NPN Facebook page). The film documenting the workshop process, and which was screened throughout the day as part of the exhibition, also evocatively records these moments of interaction. The film can be viewed here.


banners on display



monoprints on display


photos on display


canvases on display

In the reception area appeared the many beautiful examples of haiku inspired by difficult pictures of displacement and movement found in the media. One powerful haiku, written by Aida E. Safari, responds to an image of migrants moving across a field:

Refugee wearing grey top.
His bent head –
Maize is growing.

A further display featured cartooned responses to poems by Norman MacCaig and Colette Bryce, as well as three original poems by workshop participants that convey memories of their childhoods. A striking contribution by Andrea Taylor-Haynes is reproduced here:

Rawdon Mines

The wind drifts swirls of black dust
Over the mountain hills
The iron clad structure towers over
The landscape.

Men huddle at the top of the steel cage
Keeping close to beat off the rain.
The machinery jerks and the cage swings open
It swallows them up in one large gesture.

The women look around and upward
To the tall imposing mining structure.
Children huddle close to their mothers and
Shout to their fathers.

The shift is over, black as coal the
Men alight from the steel cage.
Into the open arms of their wives and children
The day draws to a close and the mine is silent.

The foyer area outside the conference room was also given over to poster presentations, including one by Jonathan Leif Basilio (Sociology, University of Manchester), titled ‘“Carding” the Undocumented’. Based on fieldwork research into barriers to access of ID cards in the U.S., his poster reflects on ways that these obstacles produce routine patterns of discrimination, misrecognition, alienation and exclusion. Jonathan’s research argues, in line with many of the symposium’s practice-led interventions, that affective experiences are an important resource for identity formation and should become an impetus for identity work.

The two creative contributions that closed the symposium, spanning prose and poetry, complemented the many artwork displays that decked the halls of MediaCityUK. These included a reading and conversation session with Dr Nitasha Kaul, chaired by Dr Caroline Magennis (University of Salford), and ‘An Evening with Jackie Kay: Asylum, Refuge, Migration’, chaired by Professor John McLeod (University of Leeds).

Nitasha began by reading sections from her Man Asian Literary Prize nominated novel, Residue (2014). One extract focused on the humiliation and fear caused by being interrogated by airport staff, and a second honed in on the use of racial categorisation as a way of asserting social difference – exemplified by a moment when the Kashmiri narrator looks down on “some black women”. The readings were both humorous and moving, and drew out sharp observations about cultural translations and the expectations attached to life in the UK.

In a lively and uplifting conversation with Caroline, Nitasha discussed the academic, creative and activist aspects of her work, as she has published widely as a political scientist, economist, poet, novelist, and newspaper columnist as well as on social media platforms. Nitasha commented on how different registers are often required for these different forms, but noted that she tries to avoid feeling restricted by preconceived notions of academic or popular writing styles. She also analysed the use of social media as a tool for wider engagement and activism, whilst acknowledging its pitfalls, describing how following one TV interview, she was subject to vehement and misogynistic attacks by nationalists via Twitter. Nitasha and Caroline’s fantastic discussion was followed by some hastily-gulped wine before the delegates joined additional attendees in the Digital Performance Lab at MediaCityUK for ‘An Evening with Jackie Kay’.

Jackie and John

John and Jackie

Jackie opened her presentation with the poem ‘Fiere’, a celebration of friendship that spoke both to John, as chair and personal friend of Jackie’s, as well as to the themes of the symposium, which emphasised the need for firmer bonds between asylum seekers, refugees, local communities and organisations. In her trademark warm and humorous style, Jackie read a number of poems, mostly from her recent chapbook, The Empathetic Store, including ‘The Imaginary Road’, ‘Extinction’ and ‘Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk?’ All of these poems engaged with the various issues under discussion during the symposium: the role of imagination and creativity in undertaking and forging new life paths, the dangers of divisive messages promoted by politicians such as Nigel Farage, and the confusion of, and restrictions imposed by, airport controls.

Jackie also noted a point that she had earlier raised in a newspaper article:

There are certain small but piercing similarities between the treatment of the old and the treatment of refugees. The old are often displaced from their homes, moved out against their will; decisions are often made for them that they have no say over. Often, they are treated as imbeciles or halfwits, lumped together in one place, given clothes that don’t belong to them, treated as a fallen tribe or a beleaguered clan, incapable of any individuality.  (Jackie Kay, ‘Nothing prepares you for being the daughter of ageing parents’, The Guardian, 2nd August 2015)

A discussion of the similarities between asylum seekers and the ageing UK population helped to contextualise two particularly poignant readings, one poem that was inspired by her ageing mother, and another written for the ‘Stop Destitution’ campaign of the Scottish Refugee Council. Taken together, these readings brought home the isolation and fear caused by both old age and by the process of sanctuary seeking in the UK.

Following the readings and discussion of her work, John and Jackie engaged in conversation around human connections, refuge and asylum issues, and adoption. These highly personal and moving exchanges emphasised the importance of sustaining friendships, because, as Jackie noted, friendships often outlast romantic relationships, create places to call home all over the world, and operate as a kind of call and response to sustain you in the face of pressures and problems. John and Jackie also discussed the relationship between politics and empathy. John made the case that although it may not be possible to imagine the horrors experienced by others, particularly others fleeing traumatic situations in their home countries, it remains vital to keep on trying to imagine their lives through art and poetry. This is difficult, because although failure seems inevitable, we have a moral imperative to try to fail better each time. John and Jackie also talked at length about adoption and ways to reconcile being with and from two sets of parents who may have completely different beliefs and views.

Later inputs from audience members developed this line of questioning around the experience of meeting birth parents as an adult, whilst other questions and answers focused on Jackie’s use of comedy in her writing about serious subjects, the ageing population, and her engagements with different Northern English towns and cities. After the event, Jackie spent a long time responding to individual members of the audience, before joining the symposium organisers and other speakers and delegates for dinner.


Jackie Kay, Julie Ward and the NPN Team

Rena, Jade and the NPN team would like to thank the chairs, presenters and participants at the symposium, as well as the University of Salford, University of Manchester, Arts Methods Manchester, and the Postcolonial Studies Association for their generous financial support for the event.

Additional thanks are due to the following for their advice and support: Manchester City of Sanctuary, United for Change, Pod Collective, Refugee Council, Emma Barnes, Jérôme Brillaud, Ian Currie, Karl Dayson, Andrew Fairhurst, Michael Goddard, Jerome de Groot, Amy Etherington, Tim Isherwood, Matt Jackson, Tamsin Middleton, Johnny Mills, Barry Munslow, Pauline Ong, Valerie O’Riordan, Ruth Abou Rached, Jacques Rangasamy, Emma Robinson, Amy Rushton, Winda Setia Sari, Nicola Sheehan and Gavin Simpson.