Launching today, Alison Killing’s immersive online documentary project migration trail lets you follow along in real time as two fictional characters make perilous 10-day journeys to Europe.
In late 2015, the shocking photograph of a toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey galvanized public attention on large numbers of migrants traveling to Europe, many by sea and under extremely risky conditions. Because of the surge in numbers of irregular travelers that year — more than 1 million — and the thousands of lives lost, media headlines at the time emblazoned the situation as a “crisis” in mainstream consciousness.
While the headlines have died down somewhat, large numbers of people are still steadily making their way in dangerous conditions from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and other countries, seeking to escape conflict, violence and poverty — and thousands continue to die. Meanwhile, the story also has a complex history going back at least 30 years, shaped in part by conflict in the Middle East, 1980s European border policies, and other factors that too often go unexamined.
Determined to give the European migration situation the historical depth, fuller context, and human intimacy it deserves, architect and documentary maker Alison Killing is taking a wholistic approach with migration trail, an online, immersive documentary project that makes innovative use of data, audio, maps and storytelling to more fully contextualize the individual journeys of two fictional migrants. Beginning today, their narratives will unfold in real time to anyone who tunes in. As Killing prepared to launch the project, she told us more.
When migration trail launches, you can access it from anywhere to follow the story of two fictional characters each taking a 10-day journey towards Europe. Their stories are told in real time, to convey urgency, as a live instant messaging feed that will appear on the website and in Facebook Messenger. At the start of the story, David, a 30-year-old from Nigeria, has traveled through Niger and Libya to get to the shores of the Mediterranean. His journey unfolds via the Central Mediterranean route from Libya and Italy, then up into France. The second character, Sarah, a 19-year-old Syrian girl from Turkey, travels via Greece towards Germany. Over the course of 10 days, their journeys will be charted in real time on a data visualization map. “If, for example, it takes five hours to get across from Rome to Milan in real life, it also takes five hours in the data visualization,” says Killing.
Meanwhile, anyone following along can zoom into the data visualization to get more detailed information about each character’s journey. “The more you zoom, the more the data becomes relevant to each character. Personal data might include how far they can continue to travel before their phone battery dies, or where they can get wifi, or how much fuel their boat has,” says Killing.
Zooming out reveals bigger-picture environmental data, such as wind velocity and direction. “This really important over the sea, because its effect on waves impacts the risk taken on each journey,” says Killing. “It also unveils social and political statistics that offer context for the individual stories. It includes such information as maps that show the success rate for Nigerians making asylum claims across various European countries, for example — or, say, how many refugees each European country has taken under the relocation program.”
Meanwhile, the fictional characters themselves will tell the stories of their own experiences, in first person — in the form of instant messages. As the character travels, audience members will follow the unfolding story via messages via Facebook on their phones and on their computers. “The message are written as if they were being sent to their best friend, boyfriend or family member. The audience will be getting these messages as the character travels and is sending them,” says Killing. To make it even more of an intimate experience, the messages will also be sent via Facebook Messenger. “You’ll be able to log in and get the messages coming to your phone.”
The messages were written by writers Elnathan John, from Nigeria, and Nadia Asfour, from Lebanon. “We had to work quite hard to understand how this experience would look and feel. An instant messaging feed is something that I think is reasonably well understood, but we still had to consider quite a lot of things — like the amount and type of messages that you need in order to tell the story. There’s a balance between too much and too little. If you have too much action, for example, it feels unrealistic. At the same time, if the Nigerian character isn’t seen for three days, he probably doesn’t have any phone reception. There’s a kind of gap in the story there which also would have felt unrealistic if we had filled up with messages.”
The two characters’ stories are a composite of the stories Killing had gathered during two and a half years of research on migration routes, where she interviewed people and gathered data. What was her starting point for choosing narratives? “When we started to think about the narratives that we wanted to tell, we started with the top ten countries of origin of people travelling to Europe in this way, and then whittled that down, trying to tell a diverse range of stories,” says Killing.
“There’s Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, but also many places in West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a lot of people coming from Nigeria, travelling through the central Mediterranean route, for example, as well as from Eritrea, Gambia, Senegal and Mali,” she says. “We wanted to have some variety in the routes they were taking, and to show what was going on in Greece and the Balkans.”
Not all the migrants are fleeing persecution, either. “A lot of the people making these journeys don’t have conflict they’re fleeing from. The 1951 convention definition for ‘refugee’ is that you have to be fleeing persecution, typically for political reasons, and you have to have crossed an international border. But we’re also telling the stories of some people who left their country because they just couldn’t make a decent living.”
“As the stories themselves show, these categories are far from clear cut. There are all sorts of deeper discussions about why people might choose to embark on this sort of journey and why they might choose to leave home for another country, in such a risky way,” says Killing.