A 24 year old man is taking refuge in a safe house a few hundred metres north of Turkey’s border with Syria. As he quietly sips tea in the corner, Abdo Shakh looks like any of the Syrian men who wander the hinterlands of Turkey having crossed the Syrian border. Except he is not. He lifts his trouser legs to show two prosthetic limbs. He lost his legs after stepping on a cluster bomb in his town just outside Aleppo. Despite his injuries he made it across the border having paid people smugglers. He is taking some respite at the safe home for refugees before moving north to Germany, to Sweden, to any country that will welcome him and allow him to rebuild his shattered life.
Two years later I find myself under the scorching summer sun of southern Arizona near the town of Nogales on the Mexican border. Donald Trump has just introduced his policy of separating children from their parents. But for the millions of undocumented migrants who have made America their home, the fear began as soon as he took office.
Outside the gates of the Eloy Detention Centre in an isolated area of desert shrubland, 20-year old Leslie Rosales is on her way to visit her mother, who has been held in the state detention centre for two years.
“She was a manager at McDonald’s but one day the ICE officers came and arrested her,” says Rosales, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who have become the face of Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
She believes that someone tipped off the immigration authorities. As she tells her story the plaintive sound of singing can be heard from behind the razor wire where the detainees, mostly Mexican, are playing ball and exercising. She expects her mother, who has been living in the country for more than two decades and paying taxes, will ultimately be deported to Mexico. “She has nothing there, her life is here, she has built her family in America,” she says, quietly.
At this historical moment in two very different parts of the world, a similar story is playing-out. Across the western world a new phenomenon has emerged in recent years.
Some call it the decline of the liberal order – a deliberate effort by Western Governments to move away from the system of cooperation that emerged after World War II and governed how countries interacted with each other for decades.
In simple terms it is a retreat into national borders, a rejection of the idea of globalization in the political and economic sphere. That sentiment manifested itself in the rise of right-wing parties in countries like France, Italy and the former soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe. It perhaps reached its apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump, a firebrand nationalist with no political experience who was elected to the most important office in the world by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment and economic nativism.
In my postings as Europe Correspondent based in Brussels and then my move to Washington, one story continued to follow me – the rise in anti-immigration feeling in established democracies, and the desire of western countries to close the door to those most in need of refuge.
Journalists may write the first draft of history. But they also hear directly from the people who are most affected by the great historical changes and decisions made by those in power, voices that are often excluded when “official” history is later written.
Reporting from the outer fringes and borderlands of Europe and America, I am struck by the desire of those who have found themselves fleeing hardship to tell their story; to communicate to anyone - any figure of authority – often in desperate snatches of broken English. This ranges from the dignified, highly-educated young men who fled Syria to escape conscription to Assad’s army, and are now at refugee camps in eastern Europe teaching the young children who are living there with their families awaiting processing by the EU, to the hard-working South American families who fled murderous gangs in their homeland and built their lives in America, only to be faced with expulsion.
Giving a voice to these sometimes nameless faces is part of the role of a journalist, and of artists who are trying to make sense of the crisis.
In this exhibition, Anita Groener challenges the viewer to engage with the individuals at the heart of the refugee crisis – whether it is through the circular video of a figure running through a forest, a piece rich in ambiguity about the role of predator and the hunted, or the tiny black paper cut-out silhouettes of fleeing refugees.
By forcing us to confront the human side of the refugee crisis, to walk in the footsteps of people on the move, this work provides a timely reflection on one of the tragic humanitarian crises of our times.