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Moving up North

Disrupted Histories of the Black Mediterranean
Vers le nord : Les histoires perturbées de la Méditerranée noire
Olivette Otele
Traduction(s) :
Vers le nord []


Cet article se penche sur les expériences, à la fin du 20ème et au début du 21ème siècle, d’un certain nombre d’individus d’origine africaine en Grande-Bretagne : migrants économiques, réfugiés et demandeurs d’asile. L’analyse de la manière dont certaines notions, tels que la Méditerranée et son héritage colonial, se sont vues réappropriées et remplacées par des termes tels que la « Méditerranée noire » (Black Mediterranean), permet de mieux mettre en lumière le contraste entre, d’une part, les liens très tôt établis par les Européens entre la migration de l’Europe vers l’Afrique et les idées de conquête et de progrès, et, d’autre part, l’association établie par ces mêmes Européens, au 20ème et au 21ème siècles, entre la migration de l’Afrique vers l’Europe et les idées d’invasion et de désordre. Les récits des nouveaux-venus en Europe nous permettent de visualiser la façon dont plusieurs types de discours peuvent entrer en concurrence les uns avec les autres. Cet article a pour but de démontrer que nombre de récits de résilience et de recouvrement post-traumatisme, au 20ème et au 21ème siècle, peuvent servir à remettre en perspective la surreprésentation des histoires marquées du sceau de l’abus ou de la victimisation. S’appuyant sur les archives du Conseil aux réfugiés (Refugee Council) de Londres, cet article analyse également la manière dont la bureaucratie, les politiques publiques et les personnalités politiques ont plus souvent qu’à leur tour entravé le processus d’intégration de ces populations au sein de la société britannique, processus qui pourtant était l’un des objectifs officiels du gouvernement. Cela étant dit, un certain nombre de récits des expériences des Africains subsahariens qui se sont installés au Pays de Galles dresse le portrait d’une réalité tout à fait différente de ce que la « cacophonie médiatique » majoritairement négative peut laisser imaginer.

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  • 1 From Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi, to for instance ways to decolonise the academy as explored by Cupples an (...)

1The 19th century was a time when Britain and France were trying to suppress the imperial aspirations of several kingdoms in the eastern part of Europe. These included Westphalia and Prussia. The Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the India Ocean had by then been the terrain of fierce military and trading battles between various colonial powers such as Portugal and Spain amongst others. The Mediterranean region in particular, one of France’s oldest trading partners, reflected changes in the way power shifted amongst the kingdoms that had benefitted from direct access to the South Sea. The time was also particularly propitious for exploring concepts relating to colonial conquests, power and ideas about the groups of people who lived along the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean as a concept became an intense object of research in the 19th century for European scholars working on economic history, geography, and archaeology and the seat of ideas and debates about religion and Islam in particular, as exemplified by Ernest Renan’s body of work. The legacies of these intellectual investigations are still felt today. In fact, discourses about the Mediterranean oscillate at times between trading partnership, technology and particular narratives of discovery, conquest and saviourism (Blondin, 2018). Migration and specific explorations of the changing nature of human geographies, was often conceived as more than travel movements from the North of Europe to Africa (Horden et al., 2000). Exploring mass migratory flows from the Global South to European cities mainly emerged in the latter part of the 20th century. Post-war World Wars and post-decolonisation human journeys became the focus of a large body of work in academia. The Mediterranean continued to be a key concept in these researches. The latter part of the 20th century and the early 21st century saw detailed exploration of migration movements in relation to the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean as a concept continued to be explored by various researchers (Zapata-Barrero, 20020). For example, bringing together the words Black and Mediterranean opened the door to new interpretations that challenge 19th century hegemonic and triumphalist discourses of justifiable conquests. The term ‘‘Black Mediterranean’’, however, still contains its own limitations and raises questions about geographical, historical, and even methodological boundaries. How can one transcend a long history of trade that also resulted in appropriation of lands and subjugation of populations while attempting to critically assess Europe’s grand narratives in relation to the history of decolonisation? Similar challenges emerge when one tries to link past and present by looking into the current debate about various movements, addressing the questions about ‘‘decolonising the minds’’ from an epistemic viewpoint and the ramifications of such endeavours in several areas.1 Doubts remains however, as to how far one ever move away from the term’s historical background despite attempting to reinterpret it and to incorporate current critique and aspirations. Questions emerged about the limitations of the concept and these propel us to reflect on the uses of words such as ‘‘decolonial’’ as opposed to ‘‘anti-colonial’’ or ‘‘migrant crisis’’ when referring to the ‘‘Black Mediterranean’’. Building on these researches, this paper proposes to examine the changing landscape of the Mediterranean as a concept that expanded to the ‘‘Black Mediterranean’’ and the implications of such redefinitions. It will therefore analyse the question of migration by looking at several stories of people who moved from Africa to Britain and specifically to Wales in order to explore narratives of displacement, integration, institutionalised racism, resilience and recovery.

Appropriating dominant colonial narratives: from the Mediterranean to the Black Mediterranean

2Grasping the weight of the historical past needs to be part of the discussion surrounding to the Black Mediterranean. Defining the changing meaning of the Mediterranean went in conjunction with the desire of European countries to articulate and teach ideas that were believed to be fundamental for these countries’ identities as imperial powers. For example, French Member of Parliament Jules Ferry’s conception of state schools in 1872 was key in the colonisation of the minds through education. School was to be a vehicle to promote French values. Colonial conquest was to be presented as a continuation of 18th century Enlightenment principles (Otele, 2018). Beyond the concept and the physical boundaries of the Mediterranean, 20th and 21st century scholars are re-assessing and engaging the history of the migratory movement and their relation to modern forms of subjugations (O’Connell-Davidson, 2015), on the one hand, and on the other, the violence of a colonial past on populations, and the glorification of conquests as well as the celebration of colonial prizes, such as commodities sought after by colonial and colonial consumers (Walvin, 1997). The tension is therefore between past and present concepts and the legacies of the past as an ideological terrain for 21st century battles around equity and social justice.

3The very recent term Black Mediterranean coined by Alessandra Di Maio at the conference, Black Italia, in 2014 (Nero, 2014), was as an echo and a reference to Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (Gilroy, 1993). The term is a continuum of a dialogue that has started about the history and legacies of colonial experiences and the transformation of identities across oceans. From Gilroy to Di Maio, the articulation of violence and survival that is at the heart of the history of forced migration offers a counter discourse to the literature on the “benefits” of colonial conquests. The term slightly shifts our views from a Eurocentric narrative of the Mediterranean to the inhabitant of the newly termed Global South, as active participants of world history. The concept brings to the surface human stories and micro-histories and thus provides metaphorical, intellectual, and practical opportunities to delve into lived experiences.

  • 2 First published in 1949, Braudel’s volume has been annotated and republished in various editions an (...)

4Understanding the Black Mediterranean in context also involves a closer examination of the historical context in which Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean was born (Braudel, 2017).2 The brief analysis of blatant absences and too strong a focus in certain areas sheds light on 19th century colonial discourse and 20th century ideas about the place of imperial subjects and identities. Stories of the Black Mediterranean in action in the last part of the 20th century and in the 21st century provide us with an alternative discourse to metanarratives of empires. They disrupt contemporary and current populist representations of Africans as powerless and Africans as unwanted or dangerous subjects.

5The findings of historians, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, or linguists working on the Mediterranean were fundamentally based on European schools of thought. These intellectuals engaged with a reading of questions of race, identities, colonisation, power, education, and so on. From archaeologist Jean-François Champollion and philosopher Ernest Renan, to historian Fernand Braudel, identities, aspirations, and stories of people living in conquered territories were either absent, used as prompts to showcase European culture or simply dismissed as inferior. Though historically grounded in that past, the Black Mediterranean is multi-layered and can also be understood as a conceptual approach that includes and perhaps transcends Alessandra Di Maio’s definition. However, the context limits the analysis to a certain extent because the Mediterranean is both a starting and ending point for many human experiences. This chapter is about point of suture, crossroads, and larger metaphorical, historical, and geographical movements. It is about transnational history and stories that challenge current paternalistic and racist discourses about Africans in European settings. Britain’s migrants’ stories, for example, shed light on histories of resilience, survival, and recovery.

6The Mediterranean as a space that pre-dates the 20th century colonial definition is to be linked with the shifting relationship colonial powers and France in particular, established in 1808. By 1815, following the abdication of Napoleon, the borders of the Mediterranean had to be redefined by Britain’s maritime domination after the Treaty of Paris. Geographer Florence Deprest (Deprest, 2002; 2010; 2011) argued that because the Mediterranean was built around three key moments, it was crucial to understand it as several Mediterraneans, rather than one single unmoveable entity. Deprest noted that the three key moments comprised French and British fights during the Campaign of Egypt (1798-1801). In addition to military considerations, the campaign also led to an interest in Egyptology. The second moment was the Morea Expedition in which France engaged its troops during the Greek War of Independence. The third moment was the colonisation of Algeria that started with military campaigns in the 1830s. These moments led to a broader redefinition of colonial entities. Europe was to redefine the rest of the world geographically and ideologically. When in the 20th century Braudel produced his volumes on the Mediterranean, the identities of extra-European colonial subjects were not the focus of his scholarly production. He focused on commercial exchanges and looked at the long history of trade and at how those shaped identities along the Mediterranean basin. He concentrated on Italy, France, and North Africa but carefully avoided any thorough investigation of those who came from further south and still had to cross the seas forcibly or because they were in search of a better life. In the 19th and 20th centuries these inhabitants became socially invisible and yet, they were heavily present in the European capitals and countryside’s. They were the servants, blacksmiths or labourers who do not feature in most 19th century European microhistory books. This transnational imbalance was restored by several scholars in the 20th to 21st century, from Édouard Glissant, Calixthe Beyala, Léonora Miano to Pap Ndiaye, Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard, Francoise Verges, or Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, David Dabydeen and may others. A longue duree, examination of the stories of migrants from Africa also provide us with the opportunity to further engage with the definition of transnational history (Otele, 2020).

7Transnational history is about stories, interactions between social, cultural, legal, and political entities. It is also about examining the role of the state as a useful entity to understand histories of several worlds. The term nation-state on the other hand, often associated with transnational history can however pose problems when it comes to understanding certain human histories. The problem emerges when these so-called nation-states go through struggles such as a crisis about national identity, the rise of xenophobia, or the refusal to integrate certain communities of people into the nation, while implementing seemingly contradictory measures such as policies and politics of integration. Despite these challenges, the term transnational history seems adequate for our case study about migrants from Africa in Britain. In these cases, the term encompasses cultural memory as well as the realities of historical representation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees as alienating ‘‘Others’’.

8The term in our cases is also about cross-cultural collaborations, migratory practices and forms or societal and state discriminations. Our case stories bring to light several questions in relation to cultural identities and concepts that are commonly accepted in Britain such as multiculturalism or cultural diversity. What happens when territorial lines become the dominant traits of a cultural identity (for example Britain and its Brexit discussions) or what occurs when national identity rejects a seemingly inclusive definition of cultural identity (from Blair’s multiculturalism to David Cameron’s cultural diversity)? All these points send us back to the state with its borders and in these cases, to a tightening of what is seen as borders. Irrespective of these disputes, transnational history can articulate various histories within several often fragmented and yet collective cultural memories.

History, memories, and legacies

9There is still a clear delineation between history and memory in certain historiographies but when looking at the legacies of the past, memory becomes a societal, political and ideological tool that allows scholars to understand societies at given moments. Moving from one story through the study of individual memory as has been defined by philosopher Paul Ricœur (2006), one could contend that if memory is indeed an individual journey that is then presented and transmitted to a group, the collective endeavour of transmitting the narrative can crystallise communities’ experiences and become a tool for social cohesion. Sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1992) stated that memory is collective, as we remember together, then individuals take ownership of these memories. The crucial process of transmitting knowledge and memory plays a role in constructing both groups’ and individuals’ identities. The debate about memory is not new. Prior to Ricœur and Halbwachs, Freud, Jung and Lacan showed that the memory that is brought to the conscious mind, especially that which is painful, is healed through psychoanalysis. Talking it through, sharing it with the psychologist and moving it from the individual to the listener or listeners is part of a healing process. What happens when the trauma is shared but does not necessarily heal? Scholars have debated about intergenerational trauma that can be understood as post-memory as defined by Marianne Hirsch (1992). Although Hirsch’s work is on the memory of the Holocaust and uses arts to reconstruct what could be called memorial ruins, it provides us with a critical lens to understand the challenges one faces when trying to articulate collective memory with post memory. Using these concepts allows the stories of the Black Mediterranean to be understood not in isolation but as part of a common and yet unique process of healing, reconstruction, and re-invention of identities in the host country (Otele, 2020).

10Societies and families do not just transmit the pain of trauma. They also transmit a set of memories and practices that have shaped and are aimed at shaping individual identities. It is as much about forms of continuity through the transmission of various forms of heritage as it is about disruptions and new beginnings. The idea of transmission through shared practices defined as cultural memory by Jan Assmann (2012) brings to life the role of conscious and unconscious cultural practices. Assmann argued that it is not about accuracy when it comes to stories of the past. It is not about disputing the subjectivity of individuals but about the way they chose to remember, what they chose to transmit and how these memories have meaning to individuals and collective members of a particular community. It is therefore also about self-identification.

  • 3 The idea of an official memory in democratic societies raises several challenges including the ex (...)

11The work on memory is by no means a peaceful process. The epistemological articulation of language, narrative and counter memory has been explored by many. From Michel Foucault (1980) to Stuart Hall (1997), language plays a role in representation. Representation shapes memory through often painful processes because memory is also the locus for various power struggles. Counter-memory in that context could therefore be a useful tool for communities’ memories to fight against the hegemonic discourse of any official memory (Gur-ze’ev, 2003).3 On the other hand, political scientist Marie Claire Lavabre’s concept of ‘‘entrepreneurs of memory’’ brings to the surface a process based on a work of reduction and constant redefinition. Lavabre noted that communities’ identities and stories are fed into an accepted form of national identity and or so-called official memory. This process has an impact on the sense of belonging and on the question citizenship (Lavabre, 2018). Where we remember matters as much as who, what and how we remember.

  • 4 Trauma born from ancestors’ experiences of enslavement and colonisation, then poverty or exclusio (...)

12As societies, we feel the need to shape our identities and we do so, argued historian Pierre Nora, through sites of memory. The term ‘‘lieux de mémoire’’ (Nora, 1997) (places, sites or realms of memory) encompasses anniversaries, commemorations, statues, birthdays, fraternal orders, and so on. One could therefore argue that Black bodies, in this instance migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, have been and continue to be sites of memory, not simply as the repository of the past,4 marked through intergenerational transmission of trauma, but as embodied memory. Paul Connerton (1989) defined embodied memory as a process that is inscribing physicality and physical experience of remembering into the performative aspect of memorialisation. Transmission of memory and the act of remembrance is a performative act and a daily practice that then becomes the symbol of an ‘‘embodied memory’’.

13If we consider for a moment that the Black Mediterranean is a concept that reaches far beyond the physical boundaries, we can also argue that the Black Mediterranean has fluid geographic and geopolitical borders and the fluidity of the concept was built over time and was shaped by various nations’ approach to migration. The Black Mediterranean goes with the so-called migrant crisis because there were pre-conditions that negatively impacted on our approach to the way the story is told. The Black Mediterranean is as much about geographical delineation as it is about black bodies travelling and challenging those imposed borders.

Loud Voices5

14The Black Mediterranean nowadays is equated to the so-called migrant crisis. It conjures up images of people of African descent crossing the Mediterranean Sea in packed vessels and in many instances drowning or being rescued in Southern Europe. We accept the visual definition as presented by the media. Very rarely are we given a background about the places of departure, and the many journeys that took place before the crossing of the Mediterranean, or why the stories are centred around the last part of the Mediterranean journey. The assumption is that the starting point for a visual memory is the Mediterranean. The masses of bodies in vessels are, one assumes, coming from somewhere but rarely are we provided with spaces to interrogate the reasons of departure. When provided, readers or viewers are not generally invited to empathize with the plight of refugees from Sudan or economic migrants from Nigeria and other West African countries. The emphasis is put on borders in Southern Europe. The Mediterranean as a symbolic border has become intertwined with the legal geographical border. Turkey and Syria are both located in the north of the Mediterranean and yet they are not considered to be part of the European Union. The Mediterranean is indeed a political, religious and ideological point of departure where fears of the so-called foreigner have crystallised.

15This narrative of worrying porous borders started in the 1960s and culminated with the recent image used in politician Nigel Farage’s poster, ‘‘Breaking Point’’6. The migrants presented in the image are from Syria but the passage through the Mediterranean via Libya has racialised them and rendered them as dangerous as Black Africans in the minds of anti-immigration populations. The idea of an invasion of the island of Great Britain which had been at the core of anti-immigration rhetoric is aided by the narrative of an alleged lack of strong border control.

  • 7 ‘‘Taxpayers footing growing bill for asylum seekers’’, Hornsey and Couch end Journal, 21 May 1998, (...)
  • 8 Victoria Brittain, ‘‘Broken life of asylum seeker’’, The Guardian (Early edition), 31 July 1998. ‘‘ (...)
  • 9 ‘‘Child refugees ‘illegally held’ in the UK’’, The Independent (Early Edition), 6th July 1998. ‘‘Th (...)
  • 10 ‘‘Immigrant put strain on police’’, Folkestone Herald, April 28, 1998. ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at t (...)
  • 11 ‘‘‘I won’t treat you!’ – row as GP vars asylum seekers’’, Birmingham Evening Mail, November 6, 2002 (...)

16The current inflammatory language used about immigrants is not a new phenomenon. The reality of further housing needs due to the arrival of asylum seekers was highlighted by certain British councils. The Hornsey and Crouch End Journal’s article complained about taxpayers paying the bill for asylum seekers in 19987. A quote from that City Council was particularly significant in showing that the idea of a competition for social services between British taxpayers and newcomers was used by newspapers. No information in the article is provided about the number of asylum seekers who were effectively responsible for these expenses. No information is given about the ratio of the newcomers compared to the number of taxpayers benefitting from social services and therefore at risk of losing out. We however learnt that “The current volume of work with asylum seekers cannot be contained ... Services to other client groups are being adversely affected”. These statements and demonisation of asylum seekers garnered so much attention that some members of the public felt compelled to respond while a number of journalists were reporting on the devastating effect of detention for those deemed ‘‘illegal’’ as exemplified by the suicide attempt of a student and asylum seeker Enahoro Esemuze8. Some newspapers provided a space for readers to engage with these issues and to challenge negative discourses while politicians such as Jack Straw, Jeremy Corbyn, Liam fox and others got involved especially when the recurrent question of the incarceration of minors in detentions centers across the country was brought to the public’s attention9 (The Independent, 1998). Despite these counter discourses, the demonisation continued and appeared in the most unexpected ways. While some were complaining that immigrants were ‘‘putting a strain on the police’’ as more of them were ‘‘using our ports’’ in 199810, a Birmingham doctor/GP decided to turn asylum seekers away, supposedly so that he could “offer a better service to existing patients”11. It appeared that the doctor’s decision was by no means isolated as an increasing number of general practitioners have been turning asylum seekers and refugees in need of treatment away. They argued that the National Health Service was struggling to cope because of those newcomers.

  • 12 ‘‘The point is, our island is crowded’’, The Evening advertiser, July 30, 2001. ‘‘The Refugee Counc (...)
  • 13 ‘Fox sets racist hare running’’, The Morning Star, August 5, 2003. ‘The Refugee Council’ at the Re (...)

17While a reader from Swindon was complaining about the pressure newcomers were putting on the island, and with regards to the question of ‘‘integration’’ she noted, “Only when members of the ethnic population and their children born in this country forsake their Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, Polish, etc. clubs and join one of the several very good workingmen’s clubs scattered about Swindon can we begin to have integration”12. What the reader was advocating was assimilation rather than integration. Two years later, Shadow Health Secretary Liam Fox was making controversial comments about disease brought by asylum seekers and the need to curb that kind of immigration. In response to Fox’s comment a reader of the newspaper the Morning Star was arguing that the increasing number of Tuberculosis amongst British passport holders was indeed of greater concern. As the title of piece demonstrated, Fox’s comments were embedded in racism: “Fox sets racist hare running”13 (The Morning, 2003).

  • 14 DHSS FILES: ‘Report of the effect of the DHSS Board and Lodging regulations on refugees’ (1989); Le (...)
  • 15 Reader’s letter, ‘How much better it would be if Blair attacked the abuses that force people flee’, (...)
  • 16 ‘‘Lock-up refugees’’, Northampton and Chronicle and Echo, January 28, 2003. ‘The Refugee Council’ a (...)

18The anxiety at the heart of many discussions and comments, was the belief that newcomers enjoyed benefits that surpassed those that British people should allegedly enjoy first. The reality was that since the late 1980s, benefits to asylums seekers had been decreasing. In a letter addressed to Member of Parliament Nicholas Scott, the Minister of State for Social Security and the Disabled, Liberal Democrat Lord Chitnis, Chairman of the British Refugee Council pointed out several problems that asylum seekers were facing. They ranged from “the reduced rate of benefit from claimants under 25 years of age regardless of their individual circumstances” to “the loss of entitlement to single payments for items such as clothing, furniture and deposits for accommodation”14, members of the public were also active in voicing their concerns about the direction taken by a government that was expected to be sympathetic to the plight of newcomers. The Labour government under the leadership of Tony Blair for example, took measures that prompted some British citizens to question his decision. In a letter to the Newspaper The Morning Star in November 2003, an anonymous reader noted, “How much better it would be if Blair attacked the abuses that force people to flee”15. For the opposition, Blair’s cabinet was too lax on the rights of asylum seekers. The Northampton and Chronicle and Echo reported that the Leader of the Opposition, Ian Duncan Smith and Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin had announced that under Tory leadership, “all asylum seekers would be locked up until cleared by the security services”16.

19Politicians were also divided over the question of what were termed ‘‘open borders’’ or a more restrictive immigration policy. None of them placed the debate within the European and UN policies and recommendations about asylum seekers refugees and economic migrants. As documents from the Refugee Council archives demonstrate, ‘‘loud voices’’ dominated the debates and stifled the work of integration done by the British Refugee Council and other non-governmental organizations

20in the country.

21The question of immigration continued to dominate the political scene in the 2000s and onwards. Figures presented by pro and anti-immigration groups concerning the capacity of the island to welcome foreigners from the Global South also continued to shape the nature of the debates.

Reshaping European Borders

22In 2004, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union was set up. The aim was to record and police migratory flows to the European Union. A year later restructuring led to the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex. The Agency has been accused of being at the heart of the idea of a Fortress of Europe (Papastavridis, 2010). Frontex uses technology and a high volume of information that are regularly updated to render their interactive maps as accurate as possible. These maps explain the various migratory routes and the flow of people, their places of departure and arrival. Frontex’s pro-active capacity has led to new ways to envisage border control. The agency’s collaborative work with countries of departure signalled new delineations that had geopolitical implications. In order to control migratory flows beyond the ‘fortress’, European borders are now placed outside the geographical contours of the European Union. These contours are tied into funding countries of departure. In July 2018, the European Union gave 55 million euros to the Maghreb region and more specifically to Morocco, Tunisia and Libya; countries deemed to be a crucial part of the North African Window. The funds do not address the root causes of migration but are aimed rather at equipping these countries with infrastructures and capability to retain migrants crossing their territories on their way to Europe. Accountability for these funds is yet to be proven.

  • 17 IAI and AIRBUS Maritime Heron Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Successfully Completed 200 Flight Hour (...)
  • 18 Frontex Between Greece and Turkey: at the Border of Denial, Frontexit report (Website), 2014, acces (...)
  • 19 ‘‘The role of Frontex in Search and Rescue’’, Frontex (Website), 2016, accessed March 2019, https:/ (...)
  • 20 ‘‘The EU dirty hands’’, Human Rights Watch 2011 (Website), accessed March 2019, (...)
  • 21 ‘‘Once migrants on Mediterranean were saved by naval patrols. Now they have to watch as drones fly (...)

23In July 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron identified three circles of influence that set the priority for the European Union. These circles were based on economic considerations and in doing so, Macron was bringing to the spotlight some of the collaborations that have been in existence for nearly a decade. The first circle he mentioned was the relationship with Russia and other ‘‘superpowers’’. Among such powers was Israel. Israeli aerial surveillance capability is based on a technology that appealed to Frontex17. The second circle comprised countries geographically located in Europe but not in the single market, but which already had a close relationship with the European Union. The third circle included countries within the European Union. At first glance, it appeared that the relationship was mainly based on economic considerations, but the collaboration extended to the control of enlarged European borders. Countries such as Turkey have been fully collaborating with Frontex for several years and has been at the centre of fierce opposition from several groups including Frontexit18. Frontex’s remits are not just about illegal immigration. The agency also looks at human trafficking and other criminal activities including drug smuggling. It should also be noted that safeguarding European borders includes search and rescue missions carried out by the agency’s vessels19. The duty of care in Frontex stated objectives has however been damaged by recurring incidences that allegedly saw the agency turn a blind eye to human rights violations perpetrated by border control guards in several countries20. More recent alleged human rights violations relate to the use of drones and unmanned aircraft and the toll this puts on already vulnerable groups of people trying to reach Europe21. The tensions between policing and protecting European borders and the stated aim of supporting human rights through rescue missions has been at odds with the geopolitical implications of Frontex’s strategy.

24A long trend of media controversies and public negative perceptions about refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Europe has also been accompanied by voices of resistance aimed at celebrating diversity. The following accounts are an attempt to offer another counter-narrative to dominant discourses about worrying migratory flows into the European Union and forms of symbolic and physical state violence that are in par with those discourse.

Voices of Resilience

25Britain’s concerns about border control have been central to political narratives and immigration policies. To understand stories of resilience and other narratives of integration, one needs to consider the violence of public debate on the one side and the lived experiences of those who migrated to the country on the other. However, solely giving prominence to dominant voices reduces the space for a dialogue about the resilience of those who left their homes for various reasons and settled in Europe and in Britain in particular. Creating spaces for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers’ stories to be shared is a task that has its challenges. One of the objectives of this paper is to present some of the results of a funded project that was supported by both the Arts and Humanities Council and LABEX (a group of French funded research centres for excellence) (Disrupted Histories, 2016). This particular research is about the European Commission funds supporting research on migrants. The epistemological position of the researcher must be interrogated. The position of power that situates the interviewer and interviewee in a particular relationship can reinforce mechanisms of exclusion and othering. The journey during this inquiry raised several questions: what sort of power dynamics were at play when a researcher from the Global North uses the experiences of populations from the Global South for research? What was the role of institutions such as local authorities in facilitating these forms of exchanges and how could that have reinforced imbalances in certain areas of communications? How did these populations respond to various tensions between dominant narratives of either victimhood or discrimination that often pervaded these exchanges? How do we understand notions such as trauma, recovery and integration in these contexts?

26The overarching project Disrupted Histories looked at a variety of experiences and endeavoured to use oral history to uncover narratives of the past and present in specific settings. The vulnerability of the population engaged in this research about migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the 21st century led me to completely anonymise all interviews. The following examples based on a series of interviews provide us with important insights into the stories of people of African descent in Wales. Since the referendum of 1997, and following the Government of Wales Act of 1998, that set up the National assembly for Wales, Wales, one of the United Kingdom’s regions, has the power to self-govern and to legislate on certain matters. These have led Wales for example to work on bilingual material while establishing that Welsh should be taught in schools across the region. Language and the call for independence does have an impact on the way Wales work on the questions around integration.

  • 22  “Immigration officers contributed to death of asylum seeker, inquest finds”, The Guardian, Novembe (...)

27Interviewees were from Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Nigeria and Sudan. Some interviews were conducted on a one-to-one basis with open questions such as “can you please tell me about your life before arriving in Wales and your life here now?”. Other interviews were done while spending some time with women in mother and toddlers’ groups or community group activity days. Some interviews were facilitated by the South West Wales Racial Equality Council, a partner in this funded research. These people were aged between 20 and 63. Out of the 50 interviews, about 20 interviewees felt confident about their future. The youngest interviewee was around 20 and refused initially to provide his country of origin and never gave his date of birth. In the course of the conversation and as trust was established, he explained that he was born and bred in Nigeria but found it difficult to live in a rural community where declaring his homosexuality could have led him to be killed. After a particularly traumatic experience, he had to leave his country of origin as a minor. He arrived in Morocco and was able to cross the Mediterranean aboard a vessel with many other young people. The details of his journey remained a difficult subject during the interview. He wanted to focus on his life in one of the detention centres in England where he had spent the most difficult moments of his life. Risking his life in West then North Africa then having to endure extreme circumstances that involved several assaults proved to be less harrowing than the disappointment he faced when he arrived in Britain and the hopelessness he felt in that centre. The loneliness and the utter desperation were linked to the view he had of Britain. The disappointment that followed when he realised that his life in the UK was not what he thought it would be ignited severe depression. The humiliation and violence he suffered in the centre and the lack of hope for his future had led to several suicide attempts. He noted that the overall atmosphere of violence, suspicion, and fear that his presence provoked once he had left the centre contributed heavily to the deterioration of his mental health. He explained that since he had been in Wales, his wellbeing had dramatically improved. He said he had found support in Wales with the help of SEWREC. When asked to elaborate about support, he explained that even though his status22 was still undetermined, he had found human support in the form of friendship amongst Welsh people. He had been made to feel that he could contribute in small ways to other people’s wellbeing. He had for instance engaged in sports, training young people as a volunteer or simply being ‘‘a spare pair of legs’’ during football matches. This young man’s story of integration in Wales was not uncommon. From the Sudanese mother of four who was initially reluctant to share her story without her husband, to the 55 year old medical doctor who settled in Wales 20 years ago, the ability to provide space for the newcomers to contribute in ways they deemed themselves relevant had played a major role in their mental health and sense of worth. Recovery was aided by physical contribution in most cases.

28Becoming part of the social fabric in Wales by providing services was not necessarily about having a paid job and being a law-abiding migrant. Some interviewees were struggling with uncertainties about their legal status. Some were asylum seekers who had been denied a refugee status and were forced to live on the margins. Yet they were able to have access to food and shelter offered by churches and communities of helpers. In some cases, they have lived in derelict buildings before being offered a settee to sleep by other migrants or refugees. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Daily life remains precarious for these groups of people and their contribution to Welsh society is often done on a voluntary basis. Nonetheless, the overall sentiment was, that beside fighting for their status to be recognized, life in Wales was still ‘‘worth living’’. Most interviewees have attended schools in their countries of origins. Two of them were highly educated professionals who had left their countries (Nigeria and Zimbabwe) as junior doctors. They both had to undergo new trainings once in the UK. They had travelled considerably across the country and experienced various forms of discrimination despite their positions as health professionals. Yet, they both eventually settled in Wales and had children who are now in their twenties and in medical schools. The reason they stayed in Wales despite working in non-permanent posts at hospitals for years, was that they felt Wales more than anywhere else had valued what they had to offer. Human interaction yet again had played a key role in their decisions to settle.

29For some of the interviewees, language had been an issue when they arrived especially when coming from French speaking parts of West Africa. Yet, they have learnt English with the help of various community initiatives put in place by local authorities. They could converse in more than two or three languages in addition to English. The gender distribution was unequal. Refugee women (mostly from Sudan) were often married and some had children. Most interviewees who had travelled alone were men except for one example. Interviewee B. had come to the UK as a visitor from Zimbabwe and was about to go back home when the now deceased president Mugabe’s supporters attacked members of her family. Feeling unsafe, she had stayed and struggled to obtain the right to remain in the UK. Eventually, with the help of various sponsors from the local community, she returned to Zimbabwe and applied for a student’s visa that allowed her to come back to the UK as a student in Wales. She chose to study sports and health sciences. Her way of giving back to the community was to continue to train mature women and help them regain confidence through sports. Able to gain a permanent employment after her studies, she was granted the right to remain in the UK.

30When examining these interviews in detail, one could not help but notice recurrent patterns. The stories revealed that interviews formed a base for a collective memory that rested on a specific theme: overcoming suffering. These were mostly stories of resilience. A pattern of resilience that was being provided to the interviewer. It was as if these stories needed to have a happy ending. A narrative of integration was not uncommon when it came to stories about asylum seekers and refugees.

31Some of the associations that have provided space for these interviews rely heavily on funding. Others need councils’ approval to occupy empty shops that have become common in the centre of many Welsh cities.

32Funding may have played a role in these narratives of integration. The Welsh Assembly Government had funded some local organisations and charities and one could not help but wonder whether that meant the funder expected a positive outcome. The Welsh Assembly Government has a Refugee and Asylum Seeker’s Delivery Plan which is very detailed with intended outcomes in various areas (Welsh Government, 2018; 2020). These priority areas are, for example, housing and advice services, health and social care, maternity and children, unaccompanied child asylum seekers, education, and employment. The Assembly also looked at areas that were not a priority a decade ago, such as gender-based violence, hate crime, modern slavery, community cohesion and the importance played by the arts, culture and sport for integration and wellbeing.

33It thus appeared that a ‘‘happy ending’’ narrative could be a way to measure satisfaction and integration into the Welsh social fabric. The term used in the Assembly’s literature was ‘‘integration’’. Policies and groups’ aim, and objectives also used the same terminology. The Welsh Assembly had been keen to look at practical ways to achieve integration. They set up a list of intended outcomes for refugees and asylum seekers. These, for example, ranged from providing them with information about ways to access accommodation, to other ways of avoiding homelessness. The Assembly has been working with third party providers, such as care homes and housing associations.

  • 23 The trust those interviewees put on me was based on the fact that I have been engaged with these (...)

34To measure how successful the third parties were in helping meet the Assembly’s objectives, a series of reporting systems was put in place. These were essential measures for accountability for all institutions involved. However, continuous reports could be perceived as an uncomfortable monitoring process. These groups were supported but might have also been overly monitored. That led some of interviewees to tell me that constant monitoring was a double-edged sword. Monitoring was necessary but they noted that permission given to fourth parties, for example, researchers such as myself working on their narratives, could become invasive.23 Interviewees were allowed to refuse to participate in any research but they often felt that they should contribute by cooperating. The vast majority also felt that it was cathartic to be able to share certain parts of their past. Other interviewees confided that they were not comfortable having their stories used without seeing the benefits of those exchanges. They argued that monitoring showed they had not yet moved from the status of refugees and asylum seekers to that of ordinary citizens. They also contended that being interviewed years later, as former refugees, inscribed them into what they saw as positive local or national histories. Feelings about the past, even after 20 years in Wales, were painful but a sense of hope was key to these stories.

35When combining these interviews with the Welsh Assembly’s objectives, there seems to be no place for divergent stories. We are presented instead with the following pattern: hardship, migration and integration. Do these stories offer a full picture of lived experiences of integrated refugees and asylum seekers from Africa? What happens to those on the verge of the integration ladder who have not made it in the ways that are deemed acceptable? Researchers often have the stories of those who can and will talk. Those who have disappeared for various reasons, including because they could not stay in the country and were forced into being institutionally clandestine, are rarely recorded. Their stories disrupt the narrative of recovery after crossing continents because some of these people were faced with new struggles and fights of different kinds. Integration was more difficult because they had to master the language and understand the principles and rules of the new home or host country.

36Minutes and documents from the British Refugee Council and other bodies in England all present different stories. It is a story of the struggle to have the right to remain in the country; a story of changing laws that have impacts on the benefits perceived by asylum seekers and refugees. These archives previously mentioned present us with stories of people being fed by churches because local authorities could not always provide for them under specific schemes anymore. They are stories about the role of institutions in delaying or even disrupting integration. Letters, refugee employment training schemes, as they appear and disappear with the successive governments from John Major to David Cameron, as well as minutes, draft requests, from the British Refugee Council are documents that disrupt the notion of integration. The weight and symbolic violence of these documents challenge the notion of recovery. These documents also allow us to understand how metanarratives about integration function.

37The documents highlight the fact that quite often, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants could not take certain matters into their own hands and tell their own stories during their first year in Britain mostly, but not exclusively because of language barriers. That resulted in delayed integration, and financial barriers to accessing education, including higher education. However, delayed integration through lack of education and training was not the only issue. The need to mediate, monitor or even police these voices played a huge role in creating individual stories of integration. However, the Refugees Archives and Centre for Refugees Studies at the University of East London and other institutions that provide education for these groups in the country could become interesting places for new narratives. They helped produce new knowledge by becoming sites of memory. The Centre for Refugees, for example, supervised a great number of Master’s dissertations conducted by former refugees and asylum seekers. These pieces of research are about transnational stories, cultural practices, and cultural and collective memories.

38Through interviews and institutional literature, we noticed that silences and absences were meaningful. Absence plays a crucial role in understanding the tension between resistance practices and identities. By resistance practice we mean, the disconnect between these people’s past and their lives in their new home on the one hand, and on the other the lack of connections made by the majority group between the migrants, refugees or asylum seekers and the geopolitical role played by the host country. Few newspapers usually link stories of the Mediterranean with France, Britain and the United States’ intervention in Libya or France and Belgium’s roles in former Zaire. These events however shaped and continue to shape the identities and memories of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who were forced to flee their country of birth because of these events. The geopolitical dimension and impact on their lives are silenced in the narratives that focus on humanitarianism and stories about Britain providing a welcome home and offering a fresh start to those in need. These links are also silenced in interviewees’ narratives of resilience. The silences and absences are however residues lurking on the outskirts of these discourses. They reveal the power dynamic that exists between the host country and newcomers. They only came to the surface the few times I specifically asked the interviewees’ opinions on the subject.

  • 24 ‘‘UK Government post-Brexit plans’’, The Independent, March 6, 2017, accessed March 2017, https://w (...)

39The geopolitical backgrounds of some of these stories are linked to a broader debate about the role and representation of the past. It is about an ideological battle between those who know how the colonial and post-colonial ties shape their lives on the one side, and on the other, a number of people in Britain who believe that the country has mistakenly delegated those ties and the power that comes with them to the European Union. Brexit would according to some part of the British population, provide a favourable terrain to rekindle the allegedly glorious ties that date back to the days of Empire. Brexit would provide an opportunity to launch Britain’s new Empire or Empire 2.024. While the debate about Britain re-inventing itself outside the European Union continued to dominate the Brexit debates, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees were still used as scapegoats and still had to bear the brunt of negative stereotypes about immigration. Welsh integration of this population is invisible and often unrecorded, yet these stories of resilience are current and continue to play a role in transforming Welsh identity. These voices and successful yet invisible integration have an impact on the children of the Black Mediterranean whose parents settled in Britain two or three decades ago. Although away from the Mediterranean, stories of the Black Mediterranean moving up North, force us to rethink the way we conceptualise Black Britishness and African European identities in Europe.


40The Black Mediterranean has generally been articulated around countries that host migrants who crossed the sea in often dangerous and precarious ways. It is often about the so-called migrant crisis that put Black and Brown bodies at the heart of European policy and politics of immigration. The story has been told from two dominant viewpoints: it is either a narrative of invasion fuelled by tabloids images of imminent threat or stories of victimisation and powerlessness. The case study that we chose to present was about the experiences of people who are living thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean. Despite harsh migration policies supported by all European countries with European Border Agencie’s priorities on securing the ‘‘fortress of Europe’’ as well as extending the border of that citadel, migrants have been settling in some regions in Britain in an invisible way. Voices of resilience have survived various crossings, media violence, everyday racism and Brexit’s exclusionary stance, to tell different migration stories about Wales and integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

  • 25 Some of the interviewees who had come to Britain and have been former child soldiers, asked me spec (...)

41What this study of transnational histories reveal is that the question of fear of the other and the processes of rejection that we studied through British archives, and the overarching questions of otherness through racialised discourse and identities, remain important to historical debates. Yet the voices of resilience that challenge various dominant discourses of exclusion are about reclaiming the right to tell one’s story. Writing and telling one’s story is about sharing cultural memory through various forms of heritage, food, clothing, music, and other social and cultural practices. Despite loud voices of discrimination, part of Britain celebrates people of African descent in various ways. Celebration however only occurred when it is about exceptional individuals as exemplified by Olympic champion and former refugee Mo Farah. Other stories of integration exist away from the spotlights. They are about organic integration that happened alongside discrimination and the national rhetoric of violence. Some of these stories are about respectful silences25 that provide people with the space to go on with their lives and tell their own stories when and if they are ready to do so.

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1 From Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi, to for instance ways to decolonise the academy as explored by Cupples and Grosfoguel.

2 First published in 1949, Braudel’s volume has been annotated and republished in various editions and languages in the last few decades.

3 The idea of an official memory in democratic societies raises several challenges including the existence of an alleged ‘‘official memory’’. An official memory could however be understood as one of the many forms a collective memory can take. I am arguing that Counter-memory in the case of migrants in this case study, is a guerrilla tool and an alternative to dominant discourse but that is not exempt from power struggle within. Counter-memory as argued by Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, remains a useful means to understand the symbiotic links between memory, oppression, and resistance.

4 Trauma born from ancestors’ experiences of enslavement and colonisation, then poverty or exclusion and marginalisation in certain cases.

5 The Guardian, September 2016, accessed March 2019,

6 BBC NEWS, May 12, 2019, accessed May 2019,

7 ‘‘Taxpayers footing growing bill for asylum seekers’’, Hornsey and Couch end Journal, 21 May 1998, ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

8 Victoria Brittain, ‘‘Broken life of asylum seeker’’, The Guardian (Early edition), 31 July 1998. ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

9 ‘‘Child refugees ‘illegally held’ in the UK’’, The Independent (Early Edition), 6th July 1998. ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

10 ‘‘Immigrant put strain on police’’, Folkestone Herald, April 28, 1998. ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee.

11 ‘‘‘I won’t treat you!’ – row as GP vars asylum seekers’’, Birmingham Evening Mail, November 6, 2002. ‘’The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

12 ‘‘The point is, our island is crowded’’, The Evening advertiser, July 30, 2001. ‘‘The Refugee Council’’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

13 ‘Fox sets racist hare running’’, The Morning Star, August 5, 2003. ‘The Refugee Council’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

14 DHSS FILES: ‘Report of the effect of the DHSS Board and Lodging regulations on refugees’ (1989); Letter of Lord Chitnis, Chairman of the British Refugee Council to Nicolas Scott MP, minister of State for Social Security (1987).

15 Reader’s letter, ‘How much better it would be if Blair attacked the abuses that force people flee’, The Morning Star, November 5, 2003, ‘The Refugee Council’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

16 ‘‘Lock-up refugees’’, Northampton and Chronicle and Echo, January 28, 2003. ‘The Refugee Council’ at the Refugee Council Archives. Order: Refugee

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22  “Immigration officers contributed to death of asylum seeker, inquest finds”, The Guardian, November 5 2021, accessed in April 2022

23 The trust those interviewees put on me was based on the fact that I have been engaged with these communities over the last 20 years as a resident and as a volunteer in Newport, South Wales UK.

24 ‘‘UK Government post-Brexit plans’’, The Independent, March 6, 2017, accessed March 2017,

25 Some of the interviewees who had come to Britain and have been former child soldiers, asked me specifically to exclude their narratives to this research because healing was still a daily process. I thank them for entrusting me with their journeys. There is indeed power and recovery in telling one’s story.

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Olivette Otele

Olivette Otele is Distinguished Professor of the Legacies and Memory of Slavery at SOAS, University of London. Her area of research is colonial and post-colonial history and the histories of people of African descent. She holds a PhD. in History from Université Paris, La Sorbonne, France and received an honorary doctorate in Law from Concordia University in Canada. She is a former Vice President of the Royal Historical Society and has been a judge of the International Man Booker Prize. Her latest books are African Europeans: An Untold History (Hurst, 2020) and a co-edited volume Post-Conflicts Memorialisation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). Professor Otele also writes for newspapers such as the Guardian, BBC History Magazine, GQ, etc. She also contributes to BBC programmes and works as a consultant for documentaries and films in Britain and the United States.  

Olivette Otele est titulaire d'une chaire d'Histoire sur les héritages et la mémoire de l’esclavage à SOAS, Université de Londres. Son domaine de recherche est l’histoire coloniale et postcoloniale et l’histoire des personnes d’ascendance africaine. Elle a obtenu un doctorat en histoire (La Sorbonne) et a reçu un doctorat honorifique en droit de l’Université Concordia au Canada. Elle a été vice-présidente de la Royal Historical Society et juge du prix littéraire International Man Booker Prize. Ses publications les plus récentes sont Une histoire des noirs d'Europe (Albin Michel, 2022) et un volume co-édité Post-Conflicts Memorialisation (Palgrave MacMillan, 2021). Professor Otele écrit aussi pour des journaux tels que le Guardian, BBC History Magazine, GQ, etc. Elle contribue également aux programmes de la BBC et travaille comme consultante pour des documentaires et films en Grande-Bretagne et aux États-Unis.

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