Today is International Migrants Day and here at the Docklands Library at the University of East London we have set up a small exhibition to help raise awareness of the plight of migrants and refugees across the world and also to showcase some of the very meaningful achievements of refugees and migrants too. In his address for International Migrants Day, Ban Ki-moon stresses that “2015 will be remembered as a year of human suffering and migrant tragedies. Over the past 12 months, more than 5,000 women, men and children lost their lives in search of protection and a better life. Tens of thousands more have been exploited and abused by human traffickers. And millions have been made into scapegoats and become the targets of xenophobic policies and alarmist rhetoric. ” (Source: Secretary-General’s Message for 2015).
Very few of us can fully understand or appreciate the level of fear and uncertainlty involved in making the decision to migrate to another country. Having recently moved house myself in the last week, I am fully aware of the levels of stress and uncertainty this has caused in order to move from one flat to another half a mile down the road. The necessity of having to pack your life experiences accumulated to date into numerous boxes, and never knowing quite how these will fit and adapt to a new living environment can be quite a daunting and unnerving experience. To be faces with the decision to potentially leave your family, friends, your possessions, your culture behind you and to start a journey to a completly new life is something that a very few of us can fully relate to.
This was one of our driving forces for the creation of this Living Refugee Archive website during a UEL funded civic engagement project earlier this year. We were keen to investigate how an oral history methodology could be used to help document and preserve the actual lived experience and testimonies of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Entitled “Democratic Access or Privileged Exclusion? Civic Engagement through the Preservation and Access to Refugee Archives,” the project sought to use existing Archives held within the UEL Library as a basis to forge new partnerships between students, academics, archivists and a community groups. Archives traditionally have a very important role to play in documenting our history and heritage, preserving our memories; recording our testimonies and reinforcing identity creation.
The project has raised important questions. These included: How can we document the history of migration within our archives? Who accesses refugee archives? Are refugee archives well-represented in relation to the preservation of lived experience of refugees and migrants? If not, why is this? Who get excluded from refugee-archives, and in what ways? How could we improve access to refugee research archives? One of the outcomes of this work was to reflect upon how Archives can be useful to the preservation of “memories” of migrants and refugees. Speakers and participants during the launch event for the Living Refugee Archive argued that oral recording and preservation of lived experience of refugees and migrants are best ways in which social and political history of under-documented and unheard communities could be constructed.
In a year when the “Number of refugees to hit record in 2015” we need to consider now more than ever how we approach trying to document, archive and preseve the life histories and real-time testimonies and narratives to help contextualise the situation and to help establish an historical narrative which truely reflects the life histories of these brave souls. There is I fear still much work to be done.