Lights in the Distance: Migration History on our Shores

Lida Amiri; Madeline Heneghan; Daniel Trilling; Arshad Isakjee; Kathy Burrell; Emy Onuora; Mike Morris (left to right) 

Guest blogpost by Beth Saunders on a recent event supported by the AHRC “Translating Cultures” theme.

On Thursday 11th October, Toxteth library hosted a very important conversation regarding two era-defining issues: migration and Brexit. Appropriately hostedby WoW (Writing on the Wall) as a part of their Black History Month series, journalist Daniel Trilling, social and urban geographer Dr Arshad Isakjee, reader in human geography Dr Cathy Burrell and PhD candidate/author Emy Onuora, joined in a dialogue exploring European migration history. All panellists were in conversation with Lida Amiri, STAR (Student Action for Refugees) member and PhD candidate, who studies literature by translingual authors of Afghanistani origin. The panel discussion covered Trilling’s latest publication Lights in the Distance, Dr Isakjee’s viewpoint on migration and memories, Burrell’s insight into European migration in relation to her recent interviews with Polish migrants and important relevant historical context about black history in Liverpool from Onuora.

What made this discussion even more special was the variety of voices that we heard. Trilling, Onuora and Amiri are, for instance, all first-, second- and third-generation refugees, from Ukraine, Nigeria and Afghanistan respectively. Voices from those with lived experiences and such close connections are necessary to conduct an appropriate and balanced discussion for a topic such as immigration. This balance helped create a more humanitarian-focused dialogue that invites those with lived experience to tell their stories.

One theory that I think is worthy of consideration stems from a humanities point of view. Isakjee voiced an interesting geographical theory that has cropped up time and time again within many international histories. To what extent is it natural that today’s asylum seekers are treated this way? All communities have certain social groups who are used as scapegoats; eventually, they are usually absorbed into what we view as ‘normal society’ and then a new group will arrive and replace the previously excluded. Will those seeking asylum eventually be absorbed as a norm of society or will they always be the scapegoat?

Initially, the event started with a speech from WOW’s co-director Madeline Heneghan, who welcomed the audience. This was followed by the event organiser Lida Amiri, who commenced the panel discussion. The conversation began with Trilling, who spoke at WoW and Amiri’s previous workshop ‘‘Refugees in Literature, Film, Art, and Media’’. Introducing his latest book Lights in the Distance, Trilling discussed his investigation into Europe’s conduct at its borders aimed at recent refugees from African and Asian continents. Trilling read a section of his volume which explained his experience with two asylum seekers in Italy. His contribution to the conversation regarding borders was very important as he had clearly well researched the topic through working closely with asylum seekers and he was able to share their stories in a sensitive and comprehensive manner.

Dr Isakjee, from the University of Liverpool, widened the conversation to identity, belonging, security and the governance of communities. His research focuses specifically on the health conditions of asylum seekers, based on interviews he conducted with those fleeing persecution across Europe. Isakjee explained ‘push back’ techniques used at many of Europe’s borders. This is when state’s governments accept asylum seekers across the border but keep them in conditions worse than the country they have fled from, smashing phones, taking away money and increasing vulnerability in order continually to push them back and away from Europe.

Next to speak was Dr Kathy Burrell, also from the University of Liverpool, who brought to the table the topic of Polish migration after World War II, through which migrants contributed to the British economy. The role of migrants as an invaluable labour force is, as Lida Amiri commented, along established and important part of European history. This was the case, for instance, with cheap labour demands in the 1960s when the Turkish ‘Gastarbeiter’ arrived in Germany. Burrell revealed her findings from interviews with migrants from different countries living in Liverpool according to which feelings of exile can be felt over generations. Lida Amiri asked Dr. Burrell to comment on experiences of post-World War II Polish migration in comparison with recently arrived refugees who are visibly different. This was an interesting angle as the former involved ‘atypical’ migration compared to how the public perceive a post-2000 refugee. This is because this migration originates within Europe rather than extending to Asia and Africa.

Author, historian and doctoral student Emy Onoura’s contribution encouraged the audience to consider immigration as a repeating, almost cyclical, historical process: from the Anglo-Norman conquest, to the Huguenots, to WW2 refugees, the Windrush generation, and to current refugees in today’s media. Across history, immigration has been as common as war, colonial expansion, natural disaster and persecution as the movement of people is a direct consequence of these events. Onoura agreed with Dr Burrell in stating that feelings of exile exist amongst second/ third generations and that many struggle with choices of allegiance.

The questions from the audience were powerful indeed. The first hand that was defiantly fired into the air came from a black female Liverpudlian, who expressed her concern about Brexit and immigration discourse. She told us that she is now scared to walk out onto the streets of acity that she called her home. A city where a group of residents have recently graffitied over and violated a public exhibition which commemorates those many people who died as a result of ‘Fortress Europe’. This in Liverpool – once the international hub for Britain, once one of the largest open borders in the whole world.

The next question was again related to Brexit. The panellists tackled the question of the causes of Britain’s departure from the EU: money versus immigration? It was mutually agreed that Brexit began as a small dispute that has since significantly erupted into an unforgettable piece of national history. Through carrying out research for my recent History degree with the University of Liverpool, where I explored decolonization of the British Empire, independence movements and the effects on the British public, I cannot express to you how deep my concern about Brexit really is. Particularly in this current climate, perhaps it as deep as the freezing cold 21-mile wide English Channel?

Words by Beth Saunders

Former co-president of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) Liverpool

BA in History with Communication and Media, University of Liverpool

Cite this blog post
Charles Forsdick (2018, December 13). Lights in the Distance: Migration History on our Shores. Translating Cultures. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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