Aston academics undertake innovative research on refugee journeys and humanitarian crises in Europe

Why is this research needed?

Refugees and migrants often flee their home countries due to life threatening circumstances such as persecutions or human rights violations. During these journeys, refugees and displaced people can be forced to live in poor and sub-standard refugee camps where they lack food, medical care and sanitation. They often become subject to numerous forms of violence at borders and camps in European countries. This violence, which includes physical harm, denial of support or aid and displacement from urban centres, is often used tactically as a form of border control in an aim to prevent asylum seekers and immigration.

This violence has a significant effect on the experience of displaced peoples journeying through European borders as the aid they can access is heavily shaped by EU border policies. The existing inequalities, violence and inappropriate camp conditions lead to further problems including detention, restrictions for asylum applications, destitution, lack of medical care, and public health concerns, which have been made acutely worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The research team

Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. Her research focuses on post-conflict contexts and how they reproduce power and inequalities through peace building mechanisms and border policies. 

In 2015, Dr Obradovic-Wochnik initiated research programmes focusing on the experiences and solidarity aid of displaced people along the Balkan route in South East Europe. This research team at Aston also consisted of Dr Amanda Russell Beattie, Dr Patrycja Rozbicka, Karolina Augustova and Dr Gemma Bird from University of Liverpool. 

Together, the team has a background in Politics and International Relations, with Drs Jelena, Amanda and Patrycja forming part of the Aston Centre for Europe (ACE). They are currently researching how people’s movements and journeys are obstructed through deployment of border policies, violence and infrastructure.

Jelena is also working with Dr Arshad Isakjee (University of Liverpool) and Dr Thom Davies (University of Nottingham), on related research forming the core of the impact case study. Their research focuses on the different forms of violence used in border management. The team has created a short-animated film with artist Avishkar Chetrri, which summarizes and shows the key problems refugees face from poor camp conditions to violence and denials of asylum.

The research process

Conducting field research (2015-present)

In 2015, the team conducted significant field research which led to a total of ten field trips to Serbia and Greece documenting the experiences of refugees. Through this documentation, the team was able to show stories of refugee journeys through exhibitions, policy briefings, evidence submissions to Parliamentary inquiries and articles on platforms including The Conversation, The Independent and Open Democracy. The team authored five peer reviewed articles in leading journals including Political Geography, Cooperation and Conflict and Global Policy.  

Refugee Journeys exhibition

The research contributed to the changing of public narratives about refugees and highlighted the continued crisis which lacks widespread media coverage.

To highlight the research activities, the ‘Refugee Journeys’ exhibition was presented at the Tate Liverpool Gallery; University of Milan; Centre for Social Innovation, Toronto; Orebro University, Sweden and University of Wellington, New Zealand. The three ‘Refugee Journeys’ exhibitions were targeted at the general public and gained around 3,500 visitors.

The exhibition incorporated visual storytelling that narrated the violence refugees experienced whilst attempting to cross borders. It told of the conditions of refugee camps, reception centres and detailed the support provided by independent activist led aid groups. The exhibition also consisted of photographs, artefacts and various installations of items such as protest banners.

These artefacts highlighted the team’s core research findings: that journeys taken by displaced people are unsafe and that border crossings are increasingly violent. It showed that refugees travelling across Europe are predominantly reliant on activist and volunteer-led aid, and that refugee camps are varied in their quality and safety, with some camps resembling prisons with inhumane conditions. The team’s research links camp conditions directly to EU border security policies.


Impact on policy

The research findings in this project have been presented at briefing events in both Brussels and London. The team submitted evidence to the UK Parliament Select Committee on Irregular Migration, and their research has been referenced in the Committee’s final report. Research has also been utilised by the European Council for Refugees and Exiles in a report about human rights violations at EU borders.

Research from this project has been referenced by organisations including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Athens Field Office) as well as NGOs working with refugees such as Samos Volunteers and the Mobile Info Team. 

Impact on public opinion

The ‘Refugee Journeys’ exhibition was aimed at the general public and gained around 3,500 visitors which successfully influenced attendees by allowing them to engage with the research and gain a deeper understanding of the ongoing humanitarian crisis which has disappeared from the media.

One visitor noted that the exhibition was ‘rather eye opening and in many ways an antidote for the toxicity spread by the media. It does show the sadness of the refugee crisis, yet it also shows hope in forms of the people who are helping. This exhibition showed me that there are people fighting for human rights and to help others.'

Why is this research relevant today?

The research carried out by the team has had tangible impact in increasing public awareness and generating a deeper understanding and empathy of how ‘closed border’ policies create ongoing humanitarian crises in Europe. 
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the team continued their research activities remotely and have submitted further evidence to a Parliament Select Committee on the impact of Covid-19 in refugee-hosting countries. They warned that the pandemic is merely one in a series of issues faced by refugees and that it exacerbates the already poor living conditions and violence. The team highlights that public health in refugee camps must be funded as a priority. 

Through the articles and exhibitions, general members of the public as well as policy makers have been made aware of the harsh living conditions and violence that displaced persons are frequently subjected to. Research in this area is therefore essential to understanding the severity of the violence against displaced people as well as taking the necessary steps to actively tackle the crisis.