By Ellyn Toscano
We are living through a moment of profound disorientation, dispossession, dislocation. How the pandemic will end – and it will – and how we return to social, political and commercial life is uncertain and almost too difficult to anticipate. With no direct experience on which to call for guidance, most of us find it hard to anticipate or plan our future.
Millions of people are sheltering in their homes, isolated from each other and incited by fear to suspect others of bringing this threat into their world. Those nationalist movements that have been slowly gaining adherents to the view that globalization represents an incursion on safe, secure and homogeneous cultures are triumphant in the work that the pandemic is doing to close borders, incite xenophobia and restrict liberty. With so many ill and vulnerable, the attention of the paralyzed public to the plight of migrants huddled perilously closely in detention centers or migrant camps or prisons is diverted.
Not everybody has a safe home into which to retreat and resources on which to rely when work is lost. What will happen to people already displaced by war, famine, globalized climate change and nationalist governments? The world’s 25.9 million refugees already are in situations of conflict, often with no or rudimentary health care. In the US, 37,000 people were detained, unsafely, in government facilities; 6,300 migrants on its Mexico border were expelled using emergency powers to curb coronavirus spread. In one of Greece’s 30 migrant centers on the mainland, 23 migrants tested positive for coronavirus and residents, including 252 unaccompanied children, were advised to remain in their rudimentary temporary dwellings. Migrant workers, who travel long distances for work, including across borders, already precarious and marginal, are losing jobs. With borders slamming shut, people can neither stay put, nor return to the places from which they have fled.
The numbers by which we define this pandemic are staggering and hard to comprehend. Hundreds of thousands of people are sick and dying from COVID-19. Millions have lost their livelihood. Billions of dollars are lost and billions are appropriated to save the economy.
As always, the numbers have unstable meaning and elide the lived experiences of people. It is not that the statistics are unimportant: they tell us one truth. But, as always, truth is ambiguous. And ambiguity is the space of artists.
The work in Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History reminds us of the beauty and complexity of the lived experience. Art holds a space for the human story. These essays are an historical offering, helping us to think about home and loss, family and belonging, isolation, borders and identity – issues salient both in experiences of migration and in the epochal times in which we find ourselves today.
Women and Migration contains stories of trauma and fear, to be sure, but also the strength, perseverance, hope and even joy of women surviving their own moments of disorientation and dislocation.
Ellyn Toscano is co-editor of Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History (2019). The book is Open Access (free to read and download).