16 June 2015

Who Is Who

Text: Jessica Sicking

The news is currently dominated by the fate of refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, but we can be sure it won’t be long before these stories cease to be newsworthy, replaced by fresh tales of horror. For those concerned, however, the terrible experiences at the hands of people smugglers, at sea and on the road, are not the end but just the start of an odyssey through temporary accommodation and refugee camps that can last years or even decades. For others, it is the beginning of an endless period spent in all kinds of European cities, waiting for recognition or deportation.


At this year’s What Design Can Do, a social design conference held in May in Amsterdam, the refugee issue was dealt with as part of the accompanying programme. The three graphic design students Lizzy Steller, Lynn Smit and Kim Terpstra from the University of Arts Utrecht (Netherlands) developed “Who Is Who”, a game based around the status of refugees and the associated recognition or illegality. Based on the life stories of actual refugees, the performance game was designed to reflect on the specific functioning of Dutch immigration law – standing for immigration laws across Europe. The game revolves around key questions: Who is allowed to stay? Who is a real refugee and who is not? What is the difference? Who is allowed to become a legal citizen? And who is allowed to make these decisions?

Laws deal with these questions in precise terms. In the game it quickly becomes clear that although such laws exist, they appear neither comprehensible nor just when one is faced with the “immigration authorities”. The game picks up on this: viewers become “refugees” and experience how it feels to go through the process of making applications and being rejected. And it feels unfair. Just because one has lived through horrific events (assigned by a playing card representing a travel document) one is not automatically selected from among the players. When one is not rejected, receiving the status of a “legal citizen”, one literally feels the power and apparent arbitrariness behind the system.


The game unfolds as follows: once all the players have been given a travel document and T-shirt with their name, they stand in a playing area. One by one, various entry criteria are called out. Those who do not fulfil the criteria must leave the playing field and wait in a fenced-off area. Those left over at the end are allowed to go before an “immigration authority” modelled on the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) where they receive a verdict that may be positive or negative. All of the leftover players are given a so-called Bed Bath Bread bag, containing precisely that: a blanket, a toothbrush, and some bread. And then they must wait again, for the next round. Things get more uncomfortable still in front of the tribunal at the immigration authority when the applicant’s story is read aloud and the players become acquainted with all the details of this individual’s horrific, fact-based fate.

With simple means, the game allows the students to convey their message: refugees are not anonymous, helpless, passive shadows – it is the system and the way we approach the issue that makes them appear that way.


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