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Review: Migration Diaries

A review of Migration Diaries, a digital archive of migrants' stories from the Northern Indian Ocean, directed by Aarthi Sridhar and Annu Jalais

Published onFeb 26, 2024
Review: Migration Diaries

Migration Diaries

Project Directors
Aarthi Sridhar, University of Amsterdam
Annu Jalais, Krea University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Neelofer Qadir, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Project Overview

Aarthi Sridhar and Annu Jalais

Migration Diaries is part of the Southern Collective (SC), a Northern Indian Ocean transregional collaboratory that came together during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with support from SSRC’s 2020 planning grant. The Collective’s mission is to build and sustain long-term collaborative partnerships aimed at democratizing knowledge production around the Indian Ocean’s (IO) marine worlds. The SC was started by Aarthi Sridhar, Annu Jalais, Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, and Alin Kadfak — a group of anthropologists and social scientists with strong field connections in coastal and marine realms.

Sridhar and Jalais took the lead on Migration Diaries. Its central objectives are to curate diverse insights into migrants’ life worlds and experiences of mobility and to serve as a platform for scholars to experiment with collaborative “immobile” research. We undertook this project with the aim of shaping shared narratives on the vastly culturally connected but digitally disconnected expanse of the IO. Towards this, we built an online portal. Dakshin Foundation, a non-profit organization based in India, serves as the coordinator for Migration Diaries. The audience for our site includes migration scholars, policy makers, civil society members, researchers, and migrant workers. For the latter, Migration Diaries is an important arena to express what they find significant in their stories. The site invites contributions from all; these go through a vetting process by an editorial team comprising the project directors and assistants. 

Migration Diaries is hosted on WordPress and uses the Divi design plugin. All migration stories have personalized pages with consistent tagging for content, such as migration reasons and stressors. The site has a mapping plugin to link specific locations to relevant stories for an interactive user experience. This can be done through pin code inputs, map placements, and forms, allowing Migration Diaries to visually showcase migration patterns and tell geographically anchored stories. User-inputted tags automatically filter migration stories based on criteria like location and reasons for migration. Migration Diaries offers two distinct views for users to explore the stories: an interactive, filterable visual map allowing viewers to spatially contextualize various stories and a collection of scrollable story cards with overviews of each narrative that can be filtered. Having two distinct views caters to a broad user preferences and improves browsing experiences, with the flexibilities afforded by visual, textual, summarized, filtered, and appealing presentations of migration stories drawing in and accommodating users with different viewing needs, requirements, and preferences. 

While Migration Diaries was conceptualized and steered by Sridhar and Jalais, it included early career researchers, such as Vani Sreekanta, Madhurima Majumder, Moyukh Mahtab, and NGO practitioners, including Khushi Kabir and Azhar Jainul Abdeen, who contributed to creating the website and its content through active collaborations with migrant workers and their families from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka as well as various parts of India. We share common interests related to coastal and marine challenges in the region and a desire to both promote as well as build meaningful South-South collaborations and partnerships. 

Given that Migration Diaries arose from the fundamental objective of building a transdisciplinary collaboratory, one of the key tasks we undertook was designing the process to do just that. Taking cue from our core values of equity, transparency, and reflexivity, our process design is deliberative and iterative. Our process is simple and includes obtaining consent in context-sensitive ways. We hold online meetings with our collaboratory partners, participate in and share expectations and insights into sustainable partnerships. Our migrant collaborators’ insights helped us gain greater awareness of the possibilities our kind of South-South collaboration can offer. Our basic website acts as a rudimentary communication space for all of us network partners. We have also harnessed social media platforms to further our collaboratory’s aims; it now has a Twitter handle with hundreds of followers. We hope to launch our Instagram and Facebook accounts in the coming months to tie in with our other project components and to build partnerships between academic and non-academic audiences using multilingual features. 

Project Review

Neelofer Qadir

Migration Diaries is a project of the Southern Collective, a “transregional collaboratory,” funded in part by the Social Science Research Council. Helmed by social scientists working in the coastal and marine regions of the Northern Indian Ocean, the digital space archives stories of migrants’ lives, including highlighting family members who remain rooted in the migrants’ home communities. Co-led by Aarthi Sridhar and Annu Jalais, two of four founding members of the Southern Collective, the project seeks to re-present the lifeworlds of migrants who, in their words, are often fixed into binaries of “tragedy” or “resilience.”

the WordPress-hosted portal presents 18 stories that audiences can access either in “card view” or “map view.” Card views highlight a visual of the profiled subject and a core feature of the story through a headline that accompanies a tagging system indicating the motivations and stressors underpinning migration. Map views, at a glance, emphasize the regions from which migrants are departing (red pins) and the areas where they are finding work (green pins). Both categories allow audiences to filter through an increasingly specific classification scheme: categories (such as “following fish” or “war and conflict”), ecosystems (for instance, “estuarine” and “urbanized shorelines”), and ecosystem stressors (from “biodiversity” to “habitat loss”). On individual story pages, readers are greeted by an overview card that outlines the profiled person’s languages, family, migration locations, and types of work, along with information about the author of the page. Next, users can readily see the stressors, ecosystems, and reasons for migration alongside the featured narrative. The bottom of the page directs audiences to related stories. 

The project is one of tremendous promise for the ways it directs our attention to circular migration, a far more common migration practice than unidirectional migration. While there are a couple of stories that profile migrants with financial security (e.g. Abu Md Jehangir and Ahmed Ilias), the prevailing focus is on migrants and their families who encounter significant dispossession, primarily due to deteriorating habitats and extractive industries. Thus, a number of the people featured have been made to abandon heritage professions (which are, in some cases, caste-based) and their migrations — while necessary to provide financially for their families — have compounding impacts, including prolonged family separation and challenges in personal well-being. 

For example, Gauri Behera, author of several stories, tells readers about migrant workers from Odisha’s Ganjam district who are working in shrimp processing plants in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Seema, Sujata, Aarti, Bijaya, and the other young women from their village face significant difficulties in accessing nutritious food as they must eat in company canteens due to the lack of cooking facilities in their accommodations. Illness, too, is commonly exacerbated by workplace conditions such as the extreme cold required to keep the shrimp fresh. These workers are, therefore, forced to spend the little money they do not remit back to families on expensive medical care from the company doctor (costs of which are dedicated from their pay automatically). The largely male migrant workforce on sea fishing trawlers report similar challenges. Gareya, who contracted dengue while working on a trawler, said, “I felt like I was a prisoner, in an open cage.” 

The stories gathered here are at their most powerful when the migrants and their families speak to the readers directly as Gareya does above. Another compelling instance is when an elderly couple, Surukulu Potamma and Surukulu Shriram, who make a living collecting and selling clam shells, tell us, “We are orphans today despite having a son and daughter. No parent should ever experience these.” The direct address powerfully indicts corporations, policymakers, and their broader societies in local, regional, national, and international contexts. Yet, such direct quotations of the migrants and their families’ are rare. Typically, the stories are narrated by the researcher or practitioner with whom the migrants are speaking. Since the project welcomes migrants to tell their own stories, as indicated on the “contribute” page, and positions migrant workers as one of their core audiences, they might consider adding multimodal storytelling components that feature audio. An added benefit of oral dimensions to the website would be a more multilingual presentation than we are afforded currently. Presently, the “languages known” that appears at the top of each story is both inconsistently completed and reveals an expansively multilingual group of migrants. I encourage the project team to take more seriously how to share the language wealth of the migrants and their communities. 

One other aspect of the project would benefit from additional consideration and revision is how the Migration Diaries team publicly describes their process for obtaining consent and communicating authorship on the stories. Although the “Contribute” page says the consent form is available in several Asian languages, which languages they are and where one accesses that consent form is not readily available. The disclaimer that accompanies each story — verifying compliance on consent and ethical protocols outlined on the “Contribute” page, combined with the declaration that the project is not responsible for authenticating accuracy — produce confusion as they at once attribute autonomy and affirmation to the subject of the story, while introducing defensive language with juridical tones. These choices introduce ambiguity about the process and the terms of engagement where transparency and clarity would be preferable.

Further, the project highlights that the submission of stories is highly mediated by the English language and access to the researchers and practitioners on their team and, therefore, it is less likely that migrant workers and their communities are meaningfully a part of their audience or authors of their own stories in this space. Because we need these stories to be aired more publicly and in greater volume, I invite the project team to make space for the context-specific ways in which they gain consent and to share with their audiences more explicitly the intellectual and political commitments that underpin their important work. Alongside the stories of the migrants and their communities that have so much to teach us, so too do the details of how ethical scholars and practitioners create platforms on which these stories circulate. 

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