The Arts and Forced Migration: An English Literature PhD student at the Refugee Studies Centre International Summer School

This guest blog comes to us from Sarah Stewart, an AHRC funded researcher in recipient of the SGSAH Student Development Fund to attend the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) Summer School. 

Can art and its study meaningfully and significantly intervene in massive human suffering? The UNHCR reports 68.5 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide, the highest levels of displacement ever recorded. It’s obvious how medical professionals, policy-makers, lawyers, engineers, plumbers or urban planners can lend their expertise to the task of delivering people enough stability to rebuild and maintain life and community. Art, though? After a long day slogging at my thesis on theatrical representations of asylum seekers in the UK and Australia I do sometimes wonder how helpful what I have been trained to do best really is. Thanks to the SGSAH Student Development Fund, I was recently able to spend some time with a group of professionals working in forced migration settings. For two weeks in July, I attended the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) Summer School, a programme I hoped would give me insight into how governments, NGOs, humanitarian agencies and other academic disciplines were responding to the current state of forced migration, and where art, literature and its study might sit in this labour.

The RSC Summer School is designed to enable practitioners working in the field in situations of forced migration to take a step back and consider academic perspectives in their work. The programme runs for two weeks out of the University of Oxford’s School of International Development and is particularly popular with UNHCR staff. There were also journalists, professionals from various NGOs, and government asylum officers and advisors. The course material put into conversation anthropological, political science and legal approaches to forced migration with elective modules on topics like humanitarianism, gender in forced migration and psycho-social support. Most days began with a guest lecture by a leading scholar, and over the two weeks we engaged in debates about open borders, completed a simulation negotiating the return of a group of refugees from Indonesia to East Timor, and worked our way through some five to six volumes of readings of exceptionally small print. At the Festival of Ideas on the weekend, some participants shared thoughts and plans from their day jobs. The impeccable admin also deserves a mention and got a standing ovation at the closing dinner – now there’s a job that is pivotal to humanity.


After a few tutorial sessions, I noticed a theme developing that became central to the programme itself: representation in narratives matters, because technical mechanisms of protection are always mediated discursively and culturally. There is a general consensus that trying to gain wide approval to modify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol in any way would severely weaken them because the strength of feeling that enabled their creation in the wake of the Second World War has largely disappeared. Even with the Convention and Protocol in place, governments shape and tap into public opinion to undercut the protections these legal instruments enshrine. In June this year for instance, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed a precedent that granted asylum to women (particularly those living in poverty and proximity to organised crime) who are victims of domestic violence under the Convention nexus of a persecuted social group. His argument denies domestic violence against women is systemic and targeted, but rather characterises it as ‘private crime’.

Moves like this are intimately linked to mobilisations of public opinion. Indeed, a recurring comment in the Summer School concerned the inability to fit nuance and situational complexity into newspaper headlines accompanied by lamentations over the media’s mass manipulation of public opinion. I have studied poetry for many years now and am inclined to think you can fit rather a lot of nuance and complexity into a line, though this is lost in the instrumental populism of headlines and the little time we seem to have these days for reflecting on intricacy. I also know that a honed critical approach to texts and discourse (the ability to read complexity in brevity) is not a direct path to loving thy neighbour; there have been many exceptionally well-read defenders and perpetrators of crimes against humanity. And yet, to communicate and understand one’s place in the world, to build a life in concert with others requires narratives and discourses as surely as these are also deployed to dehumanise and destroy. Surely charting those narratives and discourses, and the limits of our imaginations has a place here.


That was my feedback in our last tutorial session: we’d talked about the media as well as legal, political and anthropological frameworks, but what about the arts as a space of reflection and experience, for fostering environments of hospitality, equity and justice? Arts-wise, we had so far only had an optional evening screening of Dr Maher Abdulaziz’s excellent film The Wait. Though it didn’t have a module dedicated to it, the organisers had thought of that, too. The absence I felt in the offering, which nevertheless seemed to be constantly talked around, was addressed in Alison Phipps and Tawona Sithole’s closing lecture, ‘After Forcing: How Then Shall We Live?’, a talk that emphasised that the living and meaning-making after and during forcing has everything to do with the forcing itself.

I met a lot of people with exceptionally difficult jobs in those two weeks. I knew this would be the case and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I think is vital about the arts to people toiling on the front line and that my work would diminish in my own estimation. It wasn’t, and it didn’t. If dialogue and identity are at the core of the way populations permit politics to be organised, the forms we use to tell stories and connect narratives, though always cumulative, have a vital role to play alongside the food, the water and the shelter. As Professor Matthew Gibney pointed out in our last tutorial, you never know when the political opportunity for a watershed will present itself. For such a thing to happen in the first place, the language and concepts must be present and available. This is what art and its critique have the power and the responsibility to work towards.

UNHCR figures on Forced Migration

US Attorney General ruling in ‘Matter of A-B’ case

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter


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