Overseas Fieldwork Reports:

“Just show them that we have feelings.” – Reflections on the representation of migrant children’s stories

lena-opfermann-b-180By Lena Opfermann, Politics and International Relations Pathway, University of York

In September 2015 the name and image of Alan Kurdi became an enigma. The three-year old boy, drowned in the Mediterranean and washed ashore, became a heart-wrenching emblem of the devastating effects (forced) migration can have on children in the light of increasingly inhumane border controls and exclusionary migration policies. In the wake of Alan Kurdi’s unfortunate death, the world focused on refugees moving towards Europe. Similar migration flows and sadly similar fatalities mark and continue to define migration in other parts of the world, always involving and affecting children.

In South Africa, unaccompanied and separated migrant children have little options to legalize their stay. Many therefore live in the ‘shadows’ of the country without adequate documentation. This exposes them to constant risks of arrest, deportation and discrimination by authorities, state officials and the often hostile general public. Like Alan Kurdi, many of these children who are forced to or decide to leave their homes, never get the chance to tell their story even if they survive.

Building on my previous work with refugees in Southern Africa, my PhD explores the views and experiences of undocumented migrant children in Cape Town. Recognizing children as agents in their own right, I apply an integrated ethics approach by using a theatre-based research methodology. Thanks to an ESRC Overseas Fieldwork Grant, in 2014 I implemented a workshop series with ten teenage participants of four nationalities (Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Zimbabwe).

refugeeBy allowing participants to choose which experiences to share and how, theatre-based research is sensitive towards participants’ boundaries and agency. Role-playing, improvisation, miming, group discussions and creative writing offer verbal and non-verbal means to express and communicate embodied tacit knowledge. The workshops generated an in-depth insight into migrant children’s experiences while guaranteeing their ownership of the research process and producing reciprocal benefits.

In representing others, the ‘lure of tragedy’ tends to commodify migrants’ stories and pain, raising important ethical questions. Performative representations of migrants for example often derive from particular narratives constructed and promoted by migration systems that perceive and portray them exclusively as either perpetrators or victims.

In my research, participants represented their own stories as actors on stage. The children’s reflections confirm that the experience of performing in public increased their sense of ownership and created an enormous sense of pride and achievement that many of them are deprived of in their daily lives. Given their seemingly hopeless situation, participants’ enthusiasm and positive experience of telling their stories serve as a reminder for researchers, policy makers and the media to recognize the importance of valuing migrant children’s voices.

Being close to completing my PhD in Politics, I am looking for opportunities to engage in further interdisciplinary migration research. I can be contacted on lso501@york.ac.uk . More insight on the theatre-based methodology used in my research can be found in the following publication: Lena Sophia Opfermann (2015): Testing the “triple imperative”: A drama-based exploration of migrant children’s views, Transnational Social Review, 224-240.