Durham University

Department of Geography

News Archive

'Them' Refugees - What does it mean to study the refugee & migrant crisis in our time?

(4 November 2015)

As part of their Transcapes research project, Antonis and his colleagues Yannis Christodoulou (National Technical University, Athens), Joe Painter (Durham University), Evie Papada and Anna Papoutsi (Birmingham University) will spend the next 20 months on the Greek Island of Lesbos, as well as conducting pilot projects in Kos, Athens and the Greek-Macedonian border. They are working with the University of Aegean's Urban Geography lab, where they will run workshops and meetings with different stakeholders. The team will interview refugees and members of the local Greek community to find out more about the obstacles facing the new arrivals, and the social and financial impact of their presence on the Greek community. They will also look at the impact of these changes and challenges on the broader political landscape of Europe.

Antonis and his team explain what motivated them to set up the Transcapes research project:

We watch, in sheer awe, as thousands upon thousands escape the degradation of war and poverty, only to be greeted by the degradation of the policing and control of "Fortress Europe".

We watch as the grip of Europe's policing mechanism is tried out to its extreme, perhaps even succumbing under the will of these thousands. And while we watch we realise, that this so called "migrant crisis" is a crisis of the European system of order and belief in itself. Our European sense of community, as a common political space, has abruptly reached its ultimate challenge.

To pretend this is no major feat and it’s just business as usual is not a plausible option. We have to act and in order to do so, we need to understand the nature of this migrant and refugee "crisis".

But how should we go about studying the migrant or refugee "Other"?

More so, how should we go about studying humans in pain? To leave our study merely at the level of observation, and potentially compassion, would signal little more than an attempt to capitalise upon human pain.

To feel compassion alone would be equally inadequate: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers". (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others).

To claim that we are able to comprehend and share the plight of the transient people traversing Europe would be equally disingenuous and in its essence, outright impossible. So we have decided to embark on another course.

Rather than trying to understand what drives the newly-arrived population, our aim is to comprehend the possible ways in which this group of people will reform and reshape our very own landscape: how it questions, challenges and alters the political and social reality that we face, the very essence of the European continent's sense of being. Our aim is to understand these transcapes: how these new transient populations transform, question and challenge the European political space.

"The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted". (Hannah Arendt, We Refugees).

The Transcapes project is funded under the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Urgency Grants Mechanism. This is the first time the ESRC has activated this funding mechanism on a strategic basis, in response to a crisis.