Stories for justice: redefining the migrant ‘crisis’

by International Relations and Development student Maozya Murray

Whether fictional, biographical or mythical, stories wrap and encapsulate our entire lives. Constructing our waking identities and filling our dream space, stories build narratives, create meaning and justify decisions.

Storytelling is primal and archetypal, serving as a way to transmit important survival tips, valuable information and timeless wisdom from one community or individual to another. Today, stories are used to campaign for social change, create publicity, fundraising appeals, gripping news stories and so much more. In the framework of the refugee ‘crisis’, a positive representation of migration fosters empathy for displaced lives and connects us to our common humanity. As a powerful tool for changing mindsets, today, storytelling plays a central role in redefining the narrative surrounding the migrant ‘crisis’.

Research shows that when we bond with a character, in a story, our brain releases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for empathy, and narrative transportation. Empathy gives rise to understanding, in turn, changing our attitudes and shaping our behaviour. In regard to social justice, our connection to the participants factors largely in whether we choose to campaign, volunteer, or donate to a cause.

A study led by the cognitive scientist Veronique Boulenger revealed that the brain engages with emotive stories the same as it would with experience. In this way, effective storytelling replicates reality and enables us to become actors in the tale.

Refugee Solidarity Rally, Oneida Square Roundabout, NY. Image by Lilly Yangcen, WordPress

In the historical context, the anti-immigration sentiment in the UK is a relatively new story. In 1997, just 3% of the population cited immigration as an issue, and yet less than 20 years later, the figures raised to 48%. While immigration to the UK remained comparatively low, the years between 1997 and 2016 represented a shift in the way immigration was depicted.

The demonization of migrants in the media, film and political debate, drastically shifted public opinion by reshaping the narrative into one of fear and anxiety. Changing the story, gave legitimacy to the anti-immigration hostile environment, the Windrush Scandal and subsequent racial discrimination.  

The increasingly hostile narrative that surrounds refugees and asylum seekers is not reflective of the effects of immigration on the UK, but of the power of storytelling in shifting public opinion and consequently policy. In truth, most of the racist myths and rhetoric can be debunked by simple fact checks.

By redefining the story, we can return to a narrative of humanity and awareness for the millions displaced every year by war, persecution or violence.

‘The global solidarity crisis’ – a factual insight. Image by Amnesty International via Amnesty

In recent years, the fuelling of far-right nationalistic ideologies has seen media outlets metaphorically delegitimize and dehumanize migrants through ‘ideologically represented story lines’. Natural disaster, parasite, crime, and terrorism metaphors, are employed to suppress empathy and compassion for migrating people, and evoke fear for security and livelihood.

A study that analysed 57 media articles over a period of 2 years (2015-2016) revealed that negative metaphors make up 67% of the collected data. These imaginary story lines establish a xenophobic narrative that deepens the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and justifies harsh immigration policy. They may just seem like words, but certain metaphors are ‘deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious’ and create myths and stereotypes that have far-reaching consequences for migrant lives. In this way, negative storytelling is used as a tool to further the agenda of anti-immigration politics.

Like Starlings, migration is a fundamental part of our nature. Greg Kear via fineartamerica

As a pillar of anti-migration sentiment, stories play a vital role in shifting the narrative. By knowing someone’s story, we build relationships with strangers, allowing us to stretch our moral sensibility – thus motivating us to act in the name of social justice. Giving a platform to refugee tales can be an effective way to do this, by engaging people’s natural and customary care for each other. Through the amplification of refugee voices in film, theatre, public events, spoken word, or media outlets, we can break the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Storytelling connects humanity and elicits empathy and solidarity.

As our primary method of communication for over 40,000 years, it is an engaging and powerful tool in the fight for social justice. Transcending border, nationality and religion, stories unite us in the understanding that our similarities are more fundamental than our differences – that ‘differences’ are constructed and propagated to keep us afraid and apart.

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Marketizing the environmental crisis – a step by step recipe

by International Relations student Sara Monteiro

Basic recipe and main ingredients

Turning any crisis into something profitable usually follows the same basic recipe, with the following main ingredients:

  1. Discourse
  2. Media
  3. Co-option
  4. Politics

Mix these in a large bowl of International Capitalism, season to taste (more or less authoritarian/democratic/etc.) et voila! A delicious profit cake. Depending on the amounts used, it can serve transnational sized classes.

The CO 2 question as a practical example:

1. Global CO 2 emissions are too high due to the growing industrialization of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries
2. Campaigns for a sustainable economy, advertisement of Eastern countries emissions in comparison to the West, etc
3. Partnerships between NGOs and corporations for sustainable businesses.
4. Policies and agreements created to develop a Green Economy

Decoding the recipe

Ingredient no 1: Discourse

A specifically constructed narrative is essential in drawing the desired scenario, which usually consists in a partial truth flavored with a biased interpretation of it. Example:

● CO 2 emissions are too high – true

● Due to the growing industrialization of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries – limited analysis that doesn’t consider either the retroactive effects of the high levels of industrialization in the Global North, nor the growing emissions of Western industries located in countries of the Global South

Ingredient no 2: Media

A focused approach on the part of the Mass Media is key in spreading that specific narrative. Said scenario is then normalized through a re-framing of the problem in a unilateral way, hiding the other sides of the matter. Example:

● Green economy implies that a capitalist system can be sustainable, although capitalism is, by definition, unsustainable, since it aims to indefinite growth and thrives on uneven development

● The total number of CO 2 emissions is a very misleading statistic, since it hides how much of those emissions are due to foreign industries for instance, or how much each citizen is responsible for on average, etc

● As an example, the total values after 2016 were 9839mtCO 2 for China, almost twice as the US 5269mtCO 2. However, the value per capita in China is 7.2mtCO 2, which means that in reality Chinese citizens are responsible for less than half of carbon emissions compared to Americans, which produce 15.5mtCO 2 per person 2

Ingredient no 3: Co-option

In case it’s not clear enough by now, ‘co-option’ here reads as corruption , and refers to when the merging/cooperation between organisations makes possible the pursuit of a given goal without the interference of bodies with conflicting interests. Example:

● Agreements between corporations and conservationist organisations pass the idea of redemption and help mistaking methods of ‘compensation’ of emissions, (like offsetting projects) with the business model / method of production actually becoming greener

● Conservation then becomes a tool for facilitating the usage of land in the Global South to seemingly reduce Global North’s emissions and make impact assessments seem more favorable, when in fact the issue is only being moved around, not solved

Ingredient no 4: Politics

A range of adapted policies provides the practical tools to be used towards achieving a specific goal and thus benefiting a specific group of people. Example:

● Programs such as REDD seem to aim discouraging deforestation 3

● In reality, it targets the final balance associated with a company’s
deforestation/forest degradation, thus incentivising the trading of carbon stocks. In other words, as long as you plant a bunch of trees somewhere else, you’re fine destroying a centenary woodland, or a tropical rainforest and keep growing your business

What makes this possible

This recipe is only possible, of course, within a neoliberal capitalist context, which progressively turned us from a human society into a “market society” 7. A society where capital is prioritized over society itself, and financial markets are more important than a nation’s “real economy” 4 and the quality of life of its citizens.

Commodification of everything

We arrived at such an extreme of capitalism that we commodity – literally – everything 7 . From nature itself – not only raw materials, but land, water and even air – to the most abstract services and/or ‘products’, like our own time and sweat (i.e. labour), and even our body organs!

Normalizing the notion of Nature as a commodity 6 is one of the main contributors to the current environmental crisis. Simultaneously, it helps masking the root causes of this crisis, and gives way to notions such as ‘Green Economy’, which incentivizes the green-washing of businesses and industries rather than the implementation of real solutions, both to the environment and people’s lives.

What about solutions?

Solutions entail primarily a reform of our socio-political system, and only then technological development, as a complement.

As suggested above, the climate crisis and the modern capitalist system are intrinsically connected. What this means is that the most efficient way to solve either climate change and social injustice, is to tackle both at the same time! Models of a Green New Deal developed in the US and UK are thought for that.

Of course, in the long run, the most efficient solution is to find a more cooperative system, based on a local and cooperative economy organized around smaller clusters of people, like the grouping of cells within our body that allow organs to function efficiently and thus take part in sustaining the wider mechanism of our body.

At least for now, a planned transition to a more sustainable lifestyle through an integrated program that takes into account not only the final goal, but also the process of transition itself, would be a good start. For this we have the tools, we just need the will to use them.


  1. Ghosh, I., 2021. All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart. [online] Visual Capitalist. Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2020].

  2. The World Bank, 2021. CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) | Data. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2020].

  3. WWF World Wide Fund for Nature; IIASA International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (2015) WWF living forests report: chapter 5. Saving Forests at Risk., Gland: WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature.

  4. Strange, S. (1998). Mad money. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  5. Watson, M., 2021. Karl Polanyi; The Great Transformation and a new political economy. [online] University of Warwick. Available at: [Accessed 6 November 2020].

  6. McAfee, K., 1999. Selling Nature to Save It? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 17(2), pp.133-154.

  7. Marx, K. ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’ in Marx, Karl, (1976) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin, pp. 163-177.
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How Sharing a Meal Can Satisfy our Appetite for Connection and Heal Wounds of Social Division

Written by Ella Green of Sussex International Development.

Communal consumption cultivates connection

Eating always has, and always will be, a human ritual. It is essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human. From pan to plate, the product of the cooking experience is greater than the food upon which we feast. Sharing food fills not only the stomach but the heart.

Throughout history, eating together is well documented. In fact, the word companion has its roots in the Latin phrase com panio, meaning with bread. So, believe it or not, a friend or companion is actually just someone with whom you share your bread. Sharing a meal has an immense social power. The benefits go beyond the biological. Through sitting down and eating with someone, the divisions of difference can be somewhat dismantled.

In the words of ‘life chef’ Leon Aarts: ‘Sharing a meal has power to connect you with people from other countries, other cultures, the other side of your street, or even your family.’ But can the commonplace rituals of cooking and consuming combat the effects of the hostile immigration environment?

The Home Office has made the UK hostile

‘When you’re an asylum seeker, you can’t work and your social life is almost nothing. You feel like you’re useless’ – Noor

Life as a migrant in the UK is tough. Barriers exist at every stage of integration and migrants are deprived of human rights. One of the most harmful hurdles is the ban on working. Refugees seeking asylum are not entitled to work in the UK. This leaves many people in precarious situations, where they live in poverty. The government gives asylum seekers just £5.39 a day to live on. Covering the costs of living in a city like London is almost impossible.

Source: Refugee Action, 2018
Source: Alisdare Hickson, 2017

Alarmingly, 71% of the British public believe that asylum seekers should have the right to work. From this we can conclude that the government is not reflecting the opinions of the people. Instead, they are creating a culture of exclusion. And even when people’s asylum claims or migration status are accepted, the struggle continues. Many migrants find that their qualifications don’t count or they’re English language skills aren’t high enough.

People also find themselves living under a volatile immigration status. The threat of detention or a change to their visa is always on the horizon. Paulette, from Jamaica, worked for 5 years as a teacher in South London. One day, the Home Office made changes to her visa requirements and she was informed that she must have extra qualifications in order to extend her visa. After this, Paulette and her young daughter lost their home and source of income and became susceptible to deportation.

Many living under hostile immigration policies, feel devalued. Arriving with burning ambition, experience and skill, these are left to dwindle. Most migrants desire purpose but are met with prejudice. Additionally, Post-Brexit plans will make it even harder to migrate to the UK, and many migrants will be classified as unskilled.

Source: Phil Thomas, Flikr, 2011

And it’s not only migrants who feel the burn of the Tory government’s hostility. Marginalisation is rife amongst native English nationals. The strains of austerity mean society is characterised by inequality. For many, life consists of poverty, social isolation and poor mental health.

So, where the void between people is seemingly growing, is food the answer to our problems?  

Sharing a meal can satisfy our appetite for connection, direction and solidarity

According to Leon Aarts , ‘We had more in common than our differences.’ When Leon, sat down to share a meal with refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’, he realised that through the simple act of eating communally, social divisions can be crushed. From there, he bought back to the UK the concept of Superclub Compassion.

Likewise, in response to the hostile environment, a multitude of grassroots, social enterprises are flourishing in the UK and beyond. Migrateful, Superclub Compassion, Supper & Stories, JUMA Kitchen, The Jollof Café and Al Shalmi Kitchen all put connectivity through food at the heart of their operation.

These organisations have created collective spaces which are fuelled by conviviality, hospitality and care. They focus on our commonalities not our contrasts. This is demonstrated in the fact that, despite their notorious brutality, the refugee and volunteer-led kitchens in Calais have even been known to feed the police. Therefore, the impact of together spans far and connects even the most divided. In fact, it has also been proven that sharing a meal improves happiness, health and wellbeing.

A clear case of connecting migrants with people from diverse background is the initiative Migrateful. Migrateful works by paying migrants from as far as Syria Eritrea and Sri Lanka to run cooking classes.  Although some may have unstable immigration statuses, they offer some of their chefs that do not have the right to work a weekly solidarity grant to support them with their essential needs. Migrateful also invests in training their chefs, so they can deliver high quality lessons to the public. The experience is about mutual learning- the chefs teach people to cook food from their home countries, while at the same time, they develop skills, such as English language. Everyone then sits down to dine together, sharing life stories and laughter.

Migrateful cooking class. Source: Migrateful, 2020

Other groups work in a similar way. When the government isn’t welcoming or integrating migrants, these initiatives reinstall the sense of self-worth and purpose that people crave.

And these spaces allow for self-expression, healing and storytelling. Stories & Supper, for instance, give migrants a place to share their histories. In a simple mealtime setting, the silencing of migrant voices is resisted. Narratives of refugees and migrants as passive and in need of saving are slowly grated away. Migrants take the lead and their agency is nourished. In these environments, prejudices melt away and the conventional space where you expect to share a meal with friends or family is filled with strangers.

And the impact flows in all directions. Cross cultural exchange is facilitated by the universality of food. Cooking seems to cultivate compassion, connection and cohesion. At its best, food becomes a uniting force, in the midst of a lonely and hostile world.

Sadly, appetites for human connection may only be partially satisfied. The wounds of a society divided by race, gender, sexuality, religion and more, can only be partially healed.

 But, at the end of the day, one thing everyone has in common is eating. As Majeda, a Syrian chef at Migrateful, says: ‘I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love.’

Ella Green is a finalist in International Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

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Doing cross-disciplinary research: a successful experiment

Written by Dr. Andreas Antoniades of Sussex International Relations.

Summary: Working in multidisciplinary research teams is challenging but necessary if we’re to tackle some of today’s big challenges such as inequality, climate change and pandemics. Based on my recent experience in the field of sustainability, I point to five factors for success when it comes to working across disciplines.

Three years ago I was given the opportunity by the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) to work in a multidisciplinary research team. The initial composition of the team was rather small (4-5 members) and involved both natural and social scientists investigating the impact of rising debt on deforestation and environmental sustainability. It was a transformative experience. Reflecting back, I think there are 5 key things that made this multidisciplinary experiment a success.

(a) Dividing work in a non-disciplinary way: We never divided the work along disciplinary lines (e.g. political scientists focusing on politics, economists on economics, natural scientists on deforestation, etc.). Each of us was more interested in what other members of the team had to say about ‘our’ field of expertise and how we should design the research. This willingness to ignore subject boundaries and create a truly ‘non-disciplinary space’ created a productive dynamic, that strengthened the integration and the creativity of our research team.

(b) Trust: In this non-disciplinary environment, we did not feel the need to retreat to disciplinary jargon or hide behind our disciplines when we faced difficulties, e.g. when a ‘common language’ was not there to support our communication. We made it clear from the outset that all questions in team meetings, no matter how basic, were legitimate. Through this we managed to create a safe space for knowledge exchange, and most importantly a safe space for ‘ignorance’ based on mutual respect. This built trust amongst team members, which enhanced creative cross-disciplinary thinking. In fact, some of our most interesting findings came from asking questions from our data that would not normally be asked from experienced researchers in disciplinary dominated research environments.

(c) Shared responsibility/ownership among the leading investigators: A shared ownership model maintained the involvement and commitment of the investigators to the highest possible degree. Such a governance structure created dynamics of equality, boosting levels of trust and causing ripple effects across the rest of the group. Doctoral and post-doctoral researchers did not participate as research ‘assistants’, but as fully integrated members of our team with an equal voice on all aspects of the project and its direction. Having clear rules from the outset on who would be the first author in planned publications, further increased the trust and commitment of the fellows of the team and made it feel like a truly collaborative project.

(d) Time commitment: Cross-disciplinary work is a time-consuming exercise. It takes time to develop a ‘common language’ because this can only happen through actual research interaction. It takes time for different modes of thinking to integrate in a new non-disciplinary modus-operandi. And it takes time for the above-mentioned relations of trust to be established. Maintaining the group as a cross-disciplinary space is an ongoing process, too. Frequent meetings are required to nurture and guard cross-disciplinarity, avoiding any specific discipline to dominate or determine (consciously or unconsciously) the direction of the project. Frequent meetings also help to keep the project warm even when problems arise and progress slows down. In our case, this meant weekly meetings of 45-60 minutes.

(e) Willingness to take risks: Cross-disciplinary research is ideally placed to create new knowledge, advance curiosity-driven research and reverse the over-fragmentation of knowledge in modern academia. Yet, to maximise the benefits, investigators should be willing to take risks and work outside their comfort zones. This could be experimenting with different methods or with data mining; attempting to examine the relationship between seemingly unrelated phenomena; or testing ideas that sound farfetched. In such an environment some risks will be materialised, so flexibility (both from funders and researchers) and contingency planning is critical. And of course, some mistakes along the way may be unavoidable – integral parts of a steep learning process.

Cross-disciplinary research may not be easy, but it is certainly the way forward. To address the big challenges of today and tomorrow, we need to change our knowledge production system. This is easier said than done. Decades of knowledge fragmentation and compartmentalisation have created a well-consolidated structure deeply rooted in all aspects of academic life, from how students are socialised in different academic fields to the criteria of how academic faculty is recruited and promoted. The identification of the problem is not new. But how we address it matters a great deal. Attempts to develop or impose top-down structures of cross-disciplinary collaboration can only do so much, and in some cases they seem to have generated a non-productive, instrumentalised attitude toward multidisciplinarity, including resistance towards it. To succeed, this should be a bottom-up process driven by trust and creativity. Here I pointed to five factors that may facilitate this process at the research group level. Research institutions can support this shift by creating more opportunities for informal social interaction between researchers from different fields, and by explicitly supporting and recognising the value of cross-disciplinary curiosity driven initiatives.

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Making ‘Vaccines work’ for everybody

This post is written by Dr. Ben Kasstan, a medical anthropologist at the University of Sussex.

Photograph by Thomas S.G. Farnetti
© Wellcome Collection.

It is unreasonable to expect hesitant parents to accept vaccinations automatically. Vaccinations are among the most successful public health interventions to reduce childhood morbidity and mortality, but they also remain one of the most controversial. 

Uptake of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination in England has suffered since 1998, when Andrew Wakefield and colleagues falsely claimed in The Lancet that the triple-vaccine may be a cause of childhood autism. Whilst their article has since been retracted and Wakefield’s claims refuted, the legacy for vaccination coverage has been catastrophic. Parents continue to fear that the all-in-one vaccine could put their children at risk of developing autism, which has been linked to outbreaks of measles in UK media

From a public health perspective, maintaining high levels of vaccination coverage across the population is vital to prevent and resist the spread of infectious outbreaks. High coverage rates help to protect people with vulnerable immune systems, such as newborn babies, pregnant women, or people who can’t be vaccinated. 95% of the population need to be vaccinated for protection against measles, though coverage rates at the national level do not reflect rates at local levels. 

Recent outbreaks of measles in areas of New York have been largely blamed on Haredi Jews, who are otherwise described as being ‘ultra-Orthodox’ or ‘non-compliant communities’ because of ‘culture’ or ‘beliefs.’ Yet there is little understanding around the vaccine decision-making and hesitancies among Haredi Jewish parents. Reactions to the outbreak have been so damaging that age-old anti-semitic representations of Jews as public health risks have resurfaced. Public health in the United States was used as a political technique to contain and control reviled migrant groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as European Jews and Italians

Similarly Haredi Jews are viewed as a ‘hard to reach’ group by Public Health England due to lower vaccination coverage in London and Manchester neighbourhoods. Haredi families tend to be much larger than the national average, which presents a concern of more unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated children.  

My research has explored vaccine decision-making among Haredi Jewish families in England. What is true of any community is diversity, and I found a range of responses that included complete acceptance, selective acceptance, delayed acceptance and refusal of childhood vaccines. Parents were not opposed to vaccinations because of ‘religious beliefs,’ to the contrary, I was frequently told that they were important to preserve health and save lives (a core Jewish principle known as pikuach nefesh). The most common problem for parents with vaccine hesitancies, or who opposed vaccinations altogether, was safety and a lingering concern that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. More importantly, parents felt healthcare professionals did not treat their concerns seriously, and parents perceived healthcare professionals as not being able to address their concerns transparently. Whilst non-vaccination is seen as a moral issue (‘good’ parents vaccinate, ‘bad’ parents don’t vaccinate) – and even ‘child endangerment’ as one friend put it – the Haredi parents in my study declined vaccinations to protect their children. 

There is a danger here in scapegoating minority groups for what is, in reality, a national anxiety. The Childhood Vaccination Coverage Statistics for 2017-18 in England indicates a worrying trend towards lower vaccine uptake, which raises critical questions of the trust between England’s diverse population and public health services. The statistics report that rates of MMR coverage at two years of age have lowered for the fourth year in a row, with coverage stalling at around 91.2%. This falls short of the 95% threshold of MMR coverage needed to protect population health. Whilst the 95% threshold was secured in County Durham, regions such as the Isle of Wight and Camden (London) were below 90%.Recent media reports claim that up to half a million children in the UK remain unvaccinated against measles, which could spread like ‘wildfire’ without action. 

It is not enough to tell parents that ‘vaccines work’ (as the 2019 World Immunisation Week hashtag puts it), and it is unreasonable to expect hesitant parents to accept vaccinations automatically — without a process of informed consent. Healthcare professionals need to be responsive and sensitive to the vaccine hesitancies of parents in order to promote public confidence, and they need to be prepared to address questions of safety by offering clear information about vaccine products, processing and procurement. 

If parents are to accept that vaccinations are the safest way to protect their children, then healthcare professionals and public health services should accept that some parents need assurance and reassurance of why and how vaccines are so safe. 

Protecting child health is the aspiration of parents, healthcare professionals, and anthropologists like me. Working together to understand how concerns can be addressed is the most sustainable and effective way to show that vaccines can work for everybody.

This post is written by Dr. Ben Kasstan. Ben’s research focuses on reproductive and family health among ethnic and religious minority groups. His forthcoming book ‘Making Bodies Kosher’ (Berghahn Books) explores vaccine and child health decision-making among Haredi Jews in England.

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