Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Remembering through Embroidery

A guest post by Gillian McFadyen

Impression from the day at Tate Liverpool

This past academic year, the Stitched Voices Embroidery Group, housed at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, has been working towards a collection based around the European Refugee Crisis. This project was established when we were invited to contribute to #IR_Aesthetics, a project funded by the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University, Birmingham. This field research project investigated the stories of migration and the refugee crisis in Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece from an inter-disciplinary perspective, including through artistic expression. The culmination of this project was a week-long event at Tate Liverpool in November 2018.   Stitched Voices were invited to exhibit work on the last day and run interactive sessions with the general public on stitching, discussing the refugee crisis and a small workshop creating arpillera dolls.

In the lead up to the Tate exhibit, Stitched Voices developed and created embroidered handkerchiefs documenting, in various ways, the refugee crisis. One of the central themes of the project has been drawing upon the UNITED for Intercultural Action list, that documents all reported deaths of individuals who have attempted to enter Europe.  We drew upon the list, which sits at over 34,000 individual deaths and goes as far back as 1993, focusing on individuals who died within the Balkans regions from 2017 onwards.

Below is a series of hankies developed by the group for the Tate exhibit. In addition to being exhibited at the Tate Liverpool and the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth, the work has also been exhibited at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in connection with the “Evros: The Crossing River” theatre production. 

The Balkans Route Embroidery Remembrance

Fortress Europe
Fortress Europe (2018, McFadyen)

Fortress Europe (2018, McFadyen): Hankie depicting the EU Project of Fortress Europe where the emphasis is on security, borders, citizens, and othering. Yet, the border is porous. Regardless of the policies implemented by the EU, refugees and immigrants are still able to enter into the EU zone. And every safe route that gets made illegal by the EU only results in multiple other routes emerging that are more hazardous and precarious for individuals seeking access. 


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Journeys of the Sea (2018, McFadyen)

Journeys of the Sea (2018, McFadyen): According to the IOM, in 2018 alone over 4,503 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean Sea of individuals seeking access via the sea multiple routes into Europe. This piece depicts the tumultuous routes that these individuals take, in the quest for sanctuary – underlining the need for safe passage, safe routes, and hospitality. The 12 golden stars depict the EU, passive observers in the unfolding annual tragedy of the Mediterranean Sea.


Below are textile examples drawn from the United for Intercultural Action List. Important to note, that of those documented, these are only the deaths that have been reported.

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Madine Hussini, 6 years old, Afghanistan (2018, McFadyen).
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Basheer, 18 years old. Nationality unknown (2018, McFadyen). The River Evros has been a site of multiple drownings, with refugees perishing in the river in their attempt to cross from Turkey into Greece.
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Mother and Child, nationality unknown (2018, Bliesemann de Guevara). Even when deaths are reported, it is often impossible to identify the victims. As a result many dead on the list have no name, age, or nationality. Their stories are lost, but we can imagine their journeys and hopes for safety, security, and stability. In the face of individuals with no names, the personal element of embroidered handkerchiefs – inspired by the Embroidering for Peace movement for the disappeared in Mexico – allows us to envisage the women and child in an act of remembrance.
Capsized boats
Capsized Boats (2018, Bliesemann de Guevara). The list also documents mass tragedies, such as this capsize on 17 March 2018, resulting in multiple deaths, over half of them children, with the individuals originating from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Save routes
Safe Routes (2018, Conwy Read). While the tragedies on the sea routes of the Mediterranean – be it the Southern Med or the Aegean Sea – have been most reported on the in media, many tragedies have occurred across land, as refugees hazard journeys from Turkey heading West, along the Balkan routes.
Lawend Shamal
Lawend Shamal, The Lost Children (2018, McFadyen). On the list, there are multiple entries for children who have died in attempting to attain sanctuary in Europe. Individuals do not undertake these journeys lightly; the costs of staying in their country of origin are too high. Yet, through entrenched policies of border protection, security and the criminalisation/militarisation of refugeehood, attempting to gain sanctuary is becoming physically impossible.
Abandonment (2018, Bliesemann de Guevara). 
As legal routes into the EU are shut down, smugglers are able to profit from individual human suffering and desperation for safety.
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Tragic Rescues (2018, Bliesemann de Guevara).
Amongst the stories of rescues are also tragedies such as this one. On over-packed boats, crammed by the smugglers in order to capitalise further on peoples suffering, women and children often find themselves below deck, or thrust into the middle of the boat, where suffocation can occur from either the fumes of the boat engines, crushing, or in the event of a capsize, from drowning due to unsafe conditions on the boat.

Dr Gillian McFadyen is a Lecturer in international Politics at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Her research engages with the theories of post-colonialism, hospitality and labelling, applying these approaches to the figure of the refugee. She has a particular interest in the practices and policies of the British refugee regime.

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