The Everyday Voices of Migrants
Polity of Literature (34/36)

The Everyday Voices of Migrants

Wanting to help “refugees,” we tell stories of distant disasters and flight and rescue. But what stories do people on the move tell?

Literature, as we’ve defined it for this series, is shaped by what Michel de Certeau called “the practice of everyday life“—literature is quotidian not rare; self-made not taught; homeostatic not governed by received rules or metrics; radically democratic (even anarchic) not the instrument of an elite. Our series further assumes that literature opens us to the future; it is an expression of things as yet unknown to us.

Léa Coffineau uses video and the web to show us what she finds in the everyday lives of migrants, those tens-of-millions of people on the move whom politicians call “refugees.” She is suspicious of politicians and mass media who use the images and stories of migrants to paint a dire picture of “natural disaster,” as if migrants were animals forced to move by floods or fire, and we—the readers who receive the stories—were their saviours. Notably, that story dominates the market category publishers call “refugee writing” and it circulates as prize-winning books and widely-read news stories. Whose stories are those?

Where is the literature of the migrant? How can we, who are not on the move, find it and receive it? Léa Coffineau suggests that it might be in the migrant’s practice of everyday life: “the voices they can craft” are evident and shared in the most quotidian of places, as pictures and text uploaded to Google Maps. In 2020 she began “I Am Here,” a web-based exhibition that gathers and frames the everyday lives of migrants in the camps that have been built to hold them, seen through their eyes. In this contribution to our series she describes that work and related projects that open space for the literature of migrants to emerge.


Author’s note: I prefer calling people on the move —whether they choose or are forced to move— “migrants,” not “refugees.” The term refugee is imposed from the outside, following arbitrary criteria, to deem an individual worthy or not of a nation-state’s protection. In this article, I will use the common designation “refugee camp,” a term migrants themselves use regardless of the status given to camp dwellers. Refugee camps are places where migrants seek (and sometimes find) refuge.

The camps are everywhere: in the hills (Kutupalong, Bangladesh), in the desert (Farchana, Chad), on former military bases (Budel, Netherlands), on polluted ground (Kara Tepe, Greece), enclosed by highways adjacent to garbage dumps (Paris, France), on islands (Chios and Samos, Greece; Manus and Nauru, Papua New Guinea), and many more unwelcoming locales. Camps are hidden because migrants, existing “on the margins of the world” (Michel Agier 2008), are undesirable, unwelcome, and asked to disappear in silence.

Photo of a large tent, water containers, and portable bathrooms, with a large swirl of dust rising in the background.
Photo: Mashhour Halawani, Zaatari Camp, Jordan. February 2017.

There are hundreds if not thousands of camps in the world, operating under different names: refugee settlements, IDP camps, reception or transit centres, processing areas. Self-settled, or planned and established by local authorities (often with assistance from international institutions such as the UNHCR), camps pop up to shelter migrant populations and to contain international border-crossing. Some were opened decades ago and exist today as fully-evolved urban areas where many generations have been born and buried (Katumba, Tanzania). Some appear and disappear within a few years (Comé, Benin). Some surface suddenly one day, and somehow the migrants making the camp survive all attempts at eviction (Le Puythouck, France). Some are under construction as I’m writing these words (Bhashan Char, Bangladesh).

In France I documented the daily lives and journeys of African and Middle-Eastern migrants who were living in makeshift camps established under bridges (Paris), on a former landfill (Calais), and in the woods (Grande-Synthe). On any day they could be forced to clear out and evacuate; they were chased until they disappeared, their tents, mattresses, and sleeping bags destroyed or thrown away. They were relentlessly asked to not exist. For most of them, keeping in touch with the world and with their own sanity depended first on finding an electrical outlet and free wi-fi to bring their smartphones to life. Social media, and texts or video calls with loved ones, were their salvation and sometimes the only political space available to them. How to participate in their visibility and refuse their forced disappearance?

First of all, we must be able to imagine them. In a recent PoL piece, the series editor expanded on the range of “the political” (which is foundational to this project) to include what has been called “imaginary politics.” The core recognition in that essay applies here too—for the migrants most in need of politics (that is, in need of an even playing field on which to engage and negotiate power with a divergent, conflicted plurality of others), the “space of appearance” that Hannah Arendt described as the place where we all come into politics isn’t located in a publicly available place—whether a public square or a digital space or a set of legal guarantees that confirms our right to appear—”the space of appearance”  is actually located inside the minds of those who are looking and trying to see. It is rooted in our imaginations.

To come into politics with the world around them, migrants, especially those living in camps, look for ways to manifest their existence and struggle. We need to picture them. We need to hear, see, or read them in whatever voices they craft.

A young man lies on a cot with an IV in his forearm, while a younger boy sits on the edge of the bed with a scarf over his nose and mouth.
Photo: IHSAN TECH, Panian Camp, Pakistan. October 2019.
A toddler smiles in the sunlight while a woman's hand arranges a food tray.
Photo: Alia Selma Brahim, Boujdour Camp, Algeria. January 2018.

In August 2020, I started working on a colossal personal project aimed at mapping the camps of this world so as to grapple with the scale and magnitude of the encampment phenomenon. I started small, with the camps I had heard of in the news, often because of their gigantic size or because of appalling living conditions, and extended my research by relying on UNHCR reports, Wikipedia pages, online publications, and local help-organization websites. I then turned to Google Maps, planning to use the high definition aerial views of the platform to scan the landscape and find the precise geographic coordinates of each reference. I was stunned to find that a great number of camps are referenced on the platform. It means that for each red pin, someone at some time “added a place,” in the same way one would add a restaurant, a shop, or a tourist attraction. Most of the camps pinned in Google Maps even had reviews, pictures, and ratings from the migrants themselves, as well as from humanitarian workers and visitors. Using their “smartphone as a lifeline” (Alencar et al. 2019), what Karima Qias called her only “weapon” against invisibility and oblivion, thousands of displaced individuals left a trace of their existence on the platform. They documented their lives in the camps, uploading candid selfies, photographs of family members, of depressing rainy days, of comforting meals, of pets and cattle, of sunsets, of kids playing ball among a field of containers…

Many images, especially those taken in European camps, indicted the insalubrity and precariousness of the camp environments—flooded alleys, tents covered in snow, and rivers of waste, the kind of pathetic imagery that mass media purveys to convey “helplessness” so that outsiders can imagine themselves as “saviours.” However, the majority—those from migrants themselves—depicted fleeting moments, scenes of daily life immortalized by a phone-camera. And for some reason, the photographers found these moments extraordinary enough to put them out there, on the Internet…because life goes on, even surrounded by barbed-wire fences, even in the interstices of the world.

Landscape photo of an orange sunset over a large refugee camp that recedes to the horizon.
Photo: Muntasir Mamun Piash, Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. January 2018.

“This is where I live,” writes Khaled Al Saleh from Adana, Turkey.

“Hi friends, how are you?” writes Nurul Alam from Kutupalong, Bangladesh.

“I am a refugee and I want to get out of here,” writes Guan Salih from Samos, Greece.

“We call on all humanitarian organizations and the Gulf states to provide electricity in this camp, especially during the month of Ramadan, when weather is very hot and people are fasting,” writes Iraqi Falcon from Zaatari, Jordan.

“It’s very boring,” says Shahab Ato from Khanke, Iraq.

“I love this place because we feel safe, it’s not like our land where the music we used to hear are bomb and fire of guns,” writes Goadinho Goanar from Kakuma, Kenya.

“Free Sahara,” writes Ali Mustafa from Laayoune, Algeria.

Photo of a low rectangular building partially painted in vibrant colours under a blue sky. Cracked plaster at the corner of the building reveals worn bricks underneath.
Photo: Koria Said, Smara, Algeria. January 2018.

Refugee camp dwellers posted their comments as prayers, as political pamphlets, as cries for help, trying to reach an outside world, posting on the Internet like throwing bottles in the sea. Indeed, the platform makes it impossible to interact with the content. It is a one-way gateway, and its users very probably know it, but they still choose to use the window as a space of existence. They might not possess a passport nor be able to claim citizenship, but they exist. They are the living proof that nation-state citizenship cannot and will never supersede our existence. As Engin Isin points out, nation-state “citizenship is constituted as an expression and embodiment of the virtues [of the dominant] against others who lack [citizenship].” By articulating their existence in a world that strives to disappear them, migrants become absolute political agents. “Becoming political,” Isin writes, “is that moment when the naturalness of the dominant virtues is called into question and their arbitrariness revealed.”

In September 2020 the “reception and identification camp” at Moria, Greece, was set on fire and burned to the ground. Thousands of migrants were left homeless on the island of Lesvos in the midst of a raging pandemic. In a tragic final act (resembling that of the Grande-Synthe camp in the north of France in 2017), overcrowding and prison-like conditions had led to a desperate gesture that put an end to the “hell of Moria.”

A few days after the fire, the red pin indicating the location of the camp on Google Maps disappeared, and the aerial view was blurred. Was the move initiated by Google? Or had the request been made by local authorities? One thing is certain, the humanitarian disaster that had resulted from Europe’s immigration policies was being hidden, pixelated. Later, when I checked again, the red pin had reappeared with the mention “Permanently closed” in bright red letters; and the pictures—most of them showing piles of trash, open air sewers, and families living under tarps—had been removed. (Note: as of this writing the comments and pictures are back on the platform.) I was then considering myself a privileged witness, the keeper of a secret that I realized should not be kept; I would not passively witness its obliteration. That’s when the idea popped into my head of a digital exhibition designed to archive migrants’ comments and pictures, testimonies of their time in the camps.

I still had to sort through the data, targeting content uploaded by migrants themselves. I did not want content from humanitarian workers or visitors whose pictures conveyed a pathetic portrait of “refugee conditions”—the mass media image that positions migrants as helpless. To do so, I relied on a few cues, the most meaningful being the profiles of the users. Although the profiles did not let me contact them, they showed me every spot on the planet where users left a picture or a comment. This information helped me identify different categories of users and led me to another powerful discovery. I could trace the journey of migrants from their country of origin, through the camps, to their final destination. Many made it to Austria, Germany, Belgium, England, Australia. Because life goes on.

Names of various refugee camps are erased and obscured by graffiti that reads "Life goes on"

Visit Léa Coffineau’s digital exhibition I Am Here at https://www.leacoffineau.xyz/iamhere

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