The two days during which the G-7 leaders held a summit in Sicily, Italy, on the second day joined by the leaders of a number of African countries, I was in York at the inaugural conference of the University of York Migration Network organised by Maggie O’Neill and Simon Parker. Italy’s prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, the host of the G-7 summit, had deliberately chosen Sicily as the location for the summit: Sicily, through its proximity to the African continent, is one of the places where the fact that the movement of people is perhaps the key issue of our times that requires imaginative solutions to avoid more unnecessary deaths on stingy boats is there for everybody to see. Well, almost everybody – with the person obviously oblivious being US President Trump, who apparently chose not even to listen to the simultaneous translation when Italy’s prime minister spoke about the need to address the migration issue and developments on the African continent in different ways than hitherto done (Trumps spokesperson later tweeted he had a small earplug in his right ear). In the end, his inability to recognise compromise as the art of politics prevented the final communiqué from pointing out the positive contributions of migrants, supported in this allegedly (and unsurprisingly for a politician totally obsessed with migration targets, however far removed from reality) only by British PM May.
Thus the final statement of the summit talks about borders and the right to protect those, not as Italy had hoped stresses the positive impact of migration nor calls on industrialised nations to create more legal channels for migration as one effort in reducing the journeys of people on flimsy boats. Not that the EU itself is a shining example of a more human and solidaristic approach to those stranded at its shore – as I have written about elsewhere. But countries like Italy (and many others) have also been brave at the forefront for a more humane solution, through their coastguards and in encounters of everyday assistance.
While those events unfolded in Sicily, making it clear to everybody who after the first initial shock about the Trump presidency thought four years will pass and things will not be that bad after all, that things indeed will be that bad and much worse is likely to come, I was in York at this conference with the pertinent title: Ways of Telling: Methods, Narratives and Solidarities in Migration Studies. For two days we discussed, listened, watched and read about multiple ways in which the voices of those who are on the move, who claim citizenship and belonging, enact it or are denied it, make themselves heard and visible, with us, against us, facilitated by us. We engaged with the potentials and pitfalls involved in participatory methods, and their potential and limitations when it comes to challenge or even change power structures and contest (il)legalities.
My personal highlight of the two days was the performance of The Tin Ring by Jane Arnfield, a performance that tells and acts out two versions of parts of the life story of Zdenka Fantlová, one of the very few survivors of the Holocaust still alive. So many more versions would be possible to tell the story of Zdenka, and Jane’s brilliant performance brings the power of storytelling in all its facets superbly out in the open. Every person who comes by land or sea to the Europe they imagine as a save heaven also has those multiple stories in them, often they remain hidden and at other times something sparks them to life. A photograph maybe, a piece of theatre, or the wish to perform one’s own story for others, be it through film, literary works or in any other form of artistic and creative engagement. The York conference was so rich in the manningfold ways in which such encounters can happen and reminded all involved that behind each migrant journey often is the single simple wish to lead a life in dignity.
The final communiqué of the G-7 was, had the Italian hosts had their way, to be a step in that direction – but now prolongs a conceptualisation that sees migrants predominately as a threat to security and national interest (whatever that term actually means). And while in relation to the other pertinent issue of our times, climate change, the G-7 in reality mutated to the G-6 against one, with only the US not making a commitment to stay in the Paris accord, on the issue of refugees and migrants no such split occurred: the praise for human mobility and ingenuity, and a praise of our differences as rich instead of a threat, is nowhere to be found.
Counter-narratives and counterpoint-artistic engagement as demonstrated by another initiative participating in the conference are thus so important, at all levels. Solidarities are called for – through activist art, but also in academic research. It is important to help explain the world and defend the values that should bind us togetehr, and academics are after all trained to do so. But it is equally important to change the world and counter the injustices and oppressions that the contemporary global order creates. In times like these more than ever. And the meeting in York was such a timely and in many ways uplifting occasion to think through how doing so better.