Memorials to people who have died and to those missing during migration

Reflections on the first WUN-funded workshop

By Martin Preston, University of Bristol

Site of the destroyed memorial at Thermi, looking towards Turkey Photo: Martin Preston

Since 2014, the deaths of more than 32,000 migrants have been recorded globally (IOM, 2019). The true number is certainly far higher. A lack of documentation, other means of identification or the willingness or ability to do so means that many of those recovered may remain nameless. With so many deaths being unknown or unrecorded, the fate of those lost is often uncertain for those they leave behind.

Memorials form one way in which public memory is created and reproduced (Dickinson, et al, 2010). The shores of Lesvos and the water around it serve as the final resting place for many of those lost. Initiated by ‘Welcome to Europe’ a purpose-made physical recognition of the dead and missing of the ongoing migration ‘crisis’, a monument at the shores at Thermi on the East of the island was destroyed by unknown perpetrators. However the spot remains a focal point to remember those who have died, as happens annually since October 2013.  In contrast, monuments to refugees of the Asia Minor Catastrophe a century ago, are prominent and plentiful on the island. Elsewhere memorials to recently deceased migrants, such as communally created quilts in the USA and The Counter of Shame in Barcelona do exist. However, the general absence of memorials to missing migrants, given the scale of recent loss, is perhaps one indication of the marginalisation of the living.

At the end of April 2019 I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive a grant from the MMB to join a multidisciplinary group of scholars, civil society leaders, international organisation representatives and professionals, working in the area of migration and migration policy. Gathered at the University of Aegean on the island of Lesvos, Greece, our purpose was to deliver a workshop to consider how memorials for dead and missing migrants may be internationally recognised.

This workshop was the first event of a Worldwide Universities Network funded research initiative convened by Ann Singleton. This research platform had the initial purpose of developing guidelines and a proposal for UNESCO accreditation of heritage sites for memorials to dead and missing migrants. In the longer term the project aims to support the establishment and formal recognition of a global network of memorials.

The workshop ran over two days and was hosted by Professor Stratos Georgoulas critical criminologist and long-term activist for refugee rights. Day one included important contributions from Julia Black, from the International Organisation for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, on the reality and difficulties of collecting accurate data for the dead and missing. The journalist and author John Max Smith provided an inspirational account of his journey with his father, the political commentator and veteran, Harry Lesley Smith. Harry, who witnessed the human cost of World War Two, became a leading voice in Canada and the UK, fighting for the rights of migrants, up until his death in 2018 at the age of 95. Syd Bolton and Catriona Jarvis of the Last Rights Project gave insights on the role of memory in preserving dignity, the opportunities for learning and the importance of community participation in such projects.

Day two of the workshop provided the opportunity for Tony Bunyan, Director of Statewatch, to give an analysis of the wider European Union approach to migration, the externalisation of its borders and the context for the hazardous way in which migrants are compelled to make such journeys. The workshop was concluded with a design phase for the project led by Professor Elizabeth Brabec, of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), in which the time frame, core goals and ways to achieve them were agreed upon.

The workshop also provided the opportunity to find out first-hand some of the crucial work being delivered by larger international NGOs, as well as that of local NGOs, for the migrants living on Lesvos. Firstly, the group were able to visit Moria Detention Centre. The conditions within the centre were consistent with those condemned as ‘inhumane’ by 19 local and international NGOs in September 2018. A mixture of hyper securitisation, overcrowding and inadequate access to provisions of services such as education, highlighted the consequences of the intensive internment through the EU’s ‘hotspot’ policy.  This visit also facilitated a visit to Médicins Sans Frontières whose work outside of the perimeter of Moria provided crucial healthcare support, as well as educational and therapeutic services within a starkly more humane and dignified environment.

My own interest in the project draws on scholars working in peace education and transitional justice in conflict affected contexts, as well as that of memory studies. Such an approach generates some key question as to the purpose of such memorials. Who, for instance, are such memorials for? What, if any, are the value of memorials beyond that of enshrining memory for those who have lost loved ones? Viewed from an educationalist perspective, what might the pedagogical value of such memorials be? What role might such memorials have in creating discourse between different and disparate communities represented through the creation and destruction of the memorial at Thermi? How might such discourse about the recent events on Lesvos inform understandings of the wider migration ‘crisis’? What challenges do such disparate views present for the such a project? By developing guidelines for memorials sites, this project will inevitably widen the audience of memorials beyond that of just Lesvos or Greece. What opportunities and challenges does such an international dimension present?

The second workshop will take place in Accra, Ghana in October 2019 at the University of Ghana and will be hosted by Dr Delali Badasu.

Martin Preston is a PhD researcher at the School of Education, University of Bristol. His current research focuses on the education of adolescent refugees within Addis Ababa in the context of the actuation of the Global Compact for Refugees.

References

Dickinson, G., Blair, C., & Ott, B. L. (2010). Places of public memory: The rhetoric of museums and memorials. University of Alabama Press.

IOM. (2019). Fatal Journeys 4. Missing Migrant Children

 

 

 

 

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