‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. I know, it’s a cliché, but bear with me—photography is an incredibly powerful tool. It can expand our knowledge, our empathy for strangers and, ultimately, tell a story. This story will leave you at a loss for words: angry and yearning for change. Enter @Now_You_See_Me_Moria, an Instagram page, turned photography collective, turned into a global movement—telling the stories of refugees living in life-threatening conditions through the lens of the refugees themselves.
Now You See Me Moria was started at a point in time where Amsterdam-based photo editor Noemi was going through heartbreak in July 2020. “I just felt pain, a strong pain that was gouging through my whole body, physical pain,” she wrote on the website. One night, she was struggling to sleep and resorted to Facebook to numb the boredom. Among the timeline, she stumbled across the work of photographer Amir, a 21-year-old Afghan refugee capturing his experience living in the conditions of the Moria refugee camp in Greece.
“At that moment, when I saw his photos, I realised he was trying to explain what was happening in the camp,” Noemi told me. “Europe was not interested at all—we were all concerned with our own issues [not pay attention to what was happening there]. I couldn’t find any new information about the situation in the camp.”
“I could see that he was sharing photos within his small bubble on Facebook,” Noemi continued. “I decided to contact him. I thought my knowledge of photography could help him bring those photos outside of his bubble.” She noted how the images Amir created were documentation of the struggles refugees in the Moria camp were facing—essentially, the images cut through the noise—producing a raw, unfiltered portrayal of life in the refugee camp through the eyes of the people experiencing it. “You don’t have to become a photographer or have a [good] camera. To me, the power of the photos was precisely in that.”
Noemi highlighted that she decided to use Instagram as a platform to raise awareness. It was “free, fast and would give us the visibility we were trying to reach.” However, after five weeks of working on the platform, there was a fire in the camp. “Suddenly, 20,000 people were displaced,” she said, “people were sleeping on the streets without food, without anywhere to go. They were even forming demonstrations to protest.”
She explained that in response to the fire, the refugees were promised another replacement camp with decent living conditions, “which was obviously a lie.” She added, “That’s the worst thing you can say to someone who’s seeking safety. Obviously, all of the refugees went inside, apart from the few who were relocated to other countries.” The camps have notoriously unfit living conditions. The Guardian described the Moria camp as “a place of violence, deprivation, suffering and despair.” Noemi highlighted how the uncertainty of the camp’s future—and when, if ever, the refugees would escape such conditions has led “children to commit suicide, pregnant women to commit suicide, due to the daily emotional stress of not knowing when the situation will change.”
By this point, the small project—initially formed from an insomnia-induced Facebook scroll—was slowly growing into a collective. Qutaeba from Syria, living with his two daughters, and Ali, a 23-year old from Afghanistan, joined the bid to document the conditions of the Moria camp. Noemi added, “This was a really important moment. The new camp was closed meaning journalists and photographers were not allowed inside. They were the only ones really showing what’s happening inside the camp.”
Sadly, a large chunk of Western media has the tendency to paint refugees in a negative light: a danger to society, terrorism, a burden on our public services… you get the idea. This is, obviously, fabricated but it doesn’t stop those with ill intent from pushing that narrative. After all, fear sells—and papers have to make money. Well, that’s one of the many excuses the mainstream press would give in vilifying and dehumanising innocent people fleeing war-torn countries.
Now You See Me Moria is pushing the narrative in the right direction. The narrative that refugees are humans, just like you and me—not threats to society but innocent people escaping war, only to be held in dangerous and life-threatening conditions. Noemi explains, “The more you see the images the more you seem to know them. Not just the dramatic moments like the fire but also images of their daily life. When you see them cooking or playing with animals, you see how similar they are. Those are the boring moments you will never see in the media—they allow people to connect with compassion and empathy. It will make them act and not accept the situation anymore.”
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“At the start of the project, many people didn’t like the situation but didn’t think they could or know how to change it. What we wanted to do was change this mindset. Show that there is something you can do, even if it’s small.” Noemi continued.
The idea of a campaign was formed, an international movement of graphic designers who would repurpose images taken by those inside the camp into posters, plastering them across many cities to raise awareness. “We started this crazy and surreal idea to be involved with all 27 countries. We knew it would require a lot of infrastructure and money to do that but when we sent out an open call, we received an overwhelming response. Suddenly, over 500 graphic designers across the globe were onboard. It was something really beautiful. In less than four weeks, we had created the Valentine campaign.”
Noemi describes the Valentine campaign as going beyond “just one day—it was like the starting point” of the movement and community behind it. The date chosen was for both pragmatic and symbolic reasons. First and foremost, the situation in the camp was urgent—people were suffering and global attention was needed. Secondly, Valentine’s day is symbolic, as Noemi explained: “It’s a typical couple’s day. We wanted to draw attention to those who had lost the love of their lives due to these immigration policies.”
“It’s our goal to give this visibility—to change the public discourse. The media paints refugees and migrants as a threat, something that we need to protect ourselves from with fences and walls. It’s not true but if you don’t have experiences with refugees, the only way to know about them is through the media. If the media portrays them as dangerous, of course many people will be fearful.”
The demands of the campaign are clear. Noemi stressed the importance of self-representation when forming the demands, to listen to the voices of people actually living in the camp’s conditions instead of people outside speaking for the community. She said, “At first we thought we could push for a change in the conditions of the camp but after discussion with people inside, we realised change is not possible.” The project is pushing for an immediate evacuation of all refugees in the camp to protect their human rights. Noemi argued that they should be relocated to European cities that have expressed solidarity and are willing to welcome them. “Instead of the 250 million euros being sent from the EU to Greece to set up five new prisons, that money should go to the cities which support the refugees so that they can happily integrate and function in society.”
Contemporary politics have seen a massive swing towards nationalism for better and, much more often, for worse. Simultaneously, widespread environmental and social unrest has led to an intensification in migration all across the world. These two factors in tandem have created a climate in which the concept of ‘nationality’ and an individual’s ability to demonstrate it, have become vitally important. Yet nationality is not the clean bright line that politicians and immigration officials wish it were.
What solid proof of nationality can any individual attempting to migrate really provide? Though the majority of decisions can be made on the basis of legal and government documents, there are cases, both innocent and nefarious, where these traditional avenues fail. When they do, officials must turn to other means. For Canada, along with the U.S., the U.K. and several other European nations, the answer is physical: our provenance is baked into our bodies, stamped upon our DNA, like a maker’s mark. In addition, it is discernible with the right tools; tools borrowed from anthropology, archaeology, and, worryingly, from commercial genealogy websites. Establishing whether or not gene testing as part of immigration decision making actually works is not as trivial as it may seem given the surprising complexity that is nationality.
Simply understood, an individual’s nationality is that nation state within which they have the privilege of belonging, whether through circumstance of birth or granted through naturalisation. With this privilege comes, aside from the obvious right to remain, a multitude of other opportunities that depend on the nation’s geopolitical relationships. For instance, British nationals have certain advantages when migrating to Commonwealth countries and vice versa. To that end, demonstration of nationality can be hugely beneficial and any doubt over the truthfulness of one’s claim, devastating.
So how exactly can nationality be proven when the nature of a nation state (what it constitutes, where it’s boundaries lie), is so tricky to pin down? While it seems tangible, even obvious from a common sense perspective, nation is a mutable concept.
You might say that it is as simple as one’s country of birth. What then of unions and blocs? A child born in Scotland can move freely to Wales via England as if the distinctions between these counties were non-existent. Which of course they both are, and aren’t. What happens when a nation ceases to be, through fragmentation or absorption? Take anyone over the age of 30 from what is known, perhaps a little frivolously as the “Yugo-sphere”, former Yugoslavia, presently: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. The issue of which nation you became a part of after the breakup of Yugoslavia was incredibly complex, more likely determined by ethnicity than location, violently so in some instances, and is still ongoing today. Further complication arises when these overlapping but distinct concepts of nation, race, and ethnicity interact with an individual’s legal status.
Given these complications, how exactly can science conclusively determine someone’s nation of origin? The most recent Canadian strategy, employed in an indeterminate and unstated number of asylum claims, involves DNA profiling alongside other evidence derived from linguistic analysis software, interviews with friends and even analysis of social media, to determine an individual’s “real” country of origin. Does this actually work?
Let’s look at the case of Ebrahim Toure, who, though non-violent and cooperative, has appeared in front of the quasi-judicial Canadian Refugee board 67 times and has been held at a detention centre in Toronto for nearly half a decade. Four years of that time were spent in a maximum security facility. Upon arriving in Canada claiming to be from French Guinea, Toure quickly ran afoul of immigration authorities who believed this claim to be false. After traditional investigative methods proved inconclusive, authorities built a case that placed Toure’s actual provenance in the Gambia. This was based on analysis of his social media, showing a large number of Gambian friends, a linguistic test, and a DNA test form a for-profit genealogy company which showed he had distant relatives in the Gambia. The circumstantial nature of this evidence is obvious, Toure even pointed out that his upbringing was transient and that his mother was Senegalese, yet the quantum of proof is apparently sufficient to warrant his detention until the Gambia agrees to his return.
Perhaps, then the Canadian strategy is on the softer end of the scientific spectrum. What about a more directly scientific method? Could this provide a more concrete answer? Such a scheme, ominously named the Human Provenance Project, was trialled but ultimately abandoned by the U.K.’s border force in 2009. Under this project, similar DNA tests would be used in conjunction with population demographics to distinguish between claimants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan.
The Human Provenance Project also proposed the use of isotope signature tests, a process used by archaeologists to identify markers absorbed from an individual’s surroundings and diet to determine where they spent their life. In archaeology these tests are conducted using deep bone tissue. The project wanted to use hair or teeth samples to run these tests. Now at the risk of stating the obvious, teeth and hair are not the same thing as deep bone tissue. As scientists pointed out at the time, the best you could hope for using this method is a reflection of the environment an individual has been in for the past two years. In Toure’s case, it would have reflected the detention centre in Toronto much more than either Gambia or French Guinea.
The problem with these kinds of methods is twofold. First the resolution, that is the accuracy to which they can pinpoint location is very broad and even more unreliable. Perhaps you could establish which end of the 30 million km2 African continent a person’s family came from. Distinguishing the relatively tiny distances between Sudan and Eritrea is much less plausible. While that lack of resolution isn’t massively consequential when examining 70,000 year old human remains, when deciding whether to deport someone, perhaps even to their death, the margin for error is much less forgiving.
Secondly, practising these tests with a kind of scientific respectability gives them an undue epistemic weight which is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous. DNA tests are not infallible and run the risk of contamination, even under stringent scientific and forensic laboratory settings. Move that setting to a busy border facility and replace trained lab staff with minimally trained immigration officers and you have a recipe for poor accuracy that could be disastrous for those seeking asylum. Yet by slapping the label of “scientifically proven” on what is at best a rough guess we grant it the status of immutable, inarguable fact.
Using bad science or even pseudo-science to reify socially constructed categories into biological ones is very slippery territory. So too is using this ‘evidence’ to make a legal decision. If it sounds familiar it’s because this concept has been the basis of everything from Nazi extermination policies, eugenics movements, Jim Crow laws, white supremacist groups, ethnic cleansings and many other regimes of thought since the enlightenment which seek to exclude.
It’s not that DNA and material evidence cannot ever tell us anything useful in immigration cases. It might be able to support legal evidence in a few cases, perhaps a member of Toure’s extended family could be tracked to a certain region and it might be possible to contact them and obtain testimony that supports or contradict his claim. Yet as with forensic DNA evidence in a criminal case, this material should be supplementary to, not the sole basis of, a legal argument. Relying on DNA evidence alone opens us up to profound miscarriages of justice and when it boils down to deciding whether or not to deport a human being, it can even mean the difference between life and death.