By Shivaji Das
In the context of growing political and social antagonism towards refugees and lower wage economic migrants, the Migrant Poetry Competition was first held in 2014 in Singapore, in 2015 in Malaysia, and in Kenya in 2019.
These events have since been held every year and in December 2018, similar platforms in Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc., were brought together under the umbrella of the first ever Global Migrant Festival that was organised in Singapore, bringing together over 200 participants from 25 countries defined by borders.
Participants at GMF included noted Samsul Said, award-winning photographer of the Rohingya Refugee crisis, Refugee poets and activists Ziaur Rahman and Mwaffaq Al Hajjar, Paddy McLisky from Dosctors4Refugees, and Chinese poet Zheng Xiaoqiong who began as a domestic migrant worker. The panel discussion had attendance ranging from 15-50 people while the cultural programs drew between 100-200 attendees. In addition, live screening was done over Facebook for all the events. Overall, the festival’s session was watched by over 15000 people, primarily from Singapore, Kenya, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the USA.
The Festival and the Contests – organised by a group of volunteers led by myself – seeks to provide a platform for disenfranchised migrants to voice their issues directly instead of through media and local activists.
Over time, these contests have churned out a sizeable group of cultural practitioners among the less-privileged migrant communities who have not just excelled in the national cultural scenes – having published bestsellers and award-winning works – but have also inspired fellow migrants to be more socially involved in their host countries, thereby gaining greater visibility, awareness about their rights and agency.
The events and their year-round follow-up activities such as workshops etc. have helped to promote multi-culturalism while fostering greater interaction between civil society and disenfranchised migrants, a stark contrast from the past when only NGOs interacted with them that.
In both Singapore and Malaysia, the number of participants has grown by over ten folds as they have felt a certain power in speaking about their issues in their own voice. The migrants have taken initiatives to run cultural programs on their own as well and have become bolder with their works, frequently highlighting their plights to challenge the current system, and using social media to disseminate this widely among their new followers among local society to build a case for change.
The festival, contests and the follow-ups have received widespread recognition in both international and local media such as the BBC, the Economist, CGTN and The Straits Times. One of the unexpected outcomes of these events has been to foster camaraderie and cooperation among migrants from different source countries, thus bringing about a change in their past habit of living in siloes.
At the same time, the events and the spotlight it offers to its best performers has created some rifts within the migrant community. There have also been challenges in reaching out among local public to beyond the young and the more cosmopolitan audiences.
The organisers hope to run the next editions of the poetry competitions again in 2019 in the respective locations. The Global Migrant Festival will also be back in 2020.
Poem by Nyamad, a refugee from South Sudan, currently living in Kakuma Camp in Kenya. She was the winner of Migrant Poetry Competition, Kenya, 2019 edition
Poem by Sanyare, a refugee from Somalia, currently living in Dadaab Camp in Kenya.
Poem by Mwaffaq Al Hajjar, winner of 2017 Migrant & Refugee Poetry Competition in Malaysia. Mwaffaq is a refugee from Syria who is currently living in Malaysia
A poem my Shamshad Chaudhry, winner of Migrant & Refugee Poetry Contest in Malaysia 2018. Shamshad is a refugee from Pakistan, currently living in Malaysia