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Migration Matters Festival offers sanctuary through culture

This year’s programme, featuring online and in-person cultural events, looks to replace the biased, racist rhetoric around migration with a celebration of the contribution and value of migrants.

Migration Matters Festival 2021

The 2021 Migration Matters Festival takes off next week.

The two-part format – online during Refugee Week (14-20 June) followed by in-person events (9-17 July) – is uncompromising in its message. Inspired by Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary designation, founder-director Sam Holland seized the moment to launch and maintain this creative vehicle, aiming to change both the visual images and the narratives of asylum, the umbrella concept which includes migration and refugee communities.

Tchiyiwe Chihana, Trustee of Migration Matters with responsibility for audience development, told us that “the preventable deaths of those seeking passage through the Mediterranean sea have been weaponised to cause alarm by media and politicians”.

This singular narrative not only leads to unnecessary deaths by those forced to flee, but also aggressively contributes to deteriorating relations between host communities and migrants in Europe and all around the world.


For this reason, we are keen to use our platform to celebrate the contributions and value of migrants in host communities through arts and culture among many avenues, in a world where these stories and lived experiences are erased by the biased, racist rhetoric of both the media and politicians alike.

Whilst mindful of the pan-human devastation wreaked by Covid, the Migration Matters community experienced an unexpected positive outcome in respect to its activities. Last year, the festival’s rapid switch to an online-only programme resulted in an exponential audience reach to 99 non-European countries. New partnerships with NGOs in Italy and Finland are now extending their remit.

The everyday language of Covid provides many previously overlooked words which are now in our daily lexicon – ‘mask’, ‘distancing’, ‘shielding’. For the team, the focus is heavily on ‘isolation’. If our common experience during the virus era has been social isolation, then this is ramped up to the highest level for those individuals who have experienced a perilous journey to the UK and subsequent marginalisation in their everyday lives.

As support networks were closed or interrupted during the pandemic, the most marginalised suffered the most. The root work of Migration Matters is to maintain the ‘essence of home’ by re-defining the concept, creating a powerful platform from which those people who have experienced the story tell the story, with no gate-keeping.

This year, the festival further grasps the ‘cultural wave’ as a game-changer within the asylum community. Migration – a global issue which becomes visible at the local level – requires the artists and performers to match and the festival line-up delivers that message loud and clear. The virtual programme, starting on Monday 14 June, includes a 3D virtual photo exhibition depicting life in informal migrant camps in Calais, an audio exhibition of letters written to people’s future selves, and an interactive music event with the refugee torture survivor collective Stone Flowers.

More than ever, this year’s priority is for those connected with asylum to share and include communities with no or little experience of a disrupted existence. Non word-based media – dance, music and visual art, in addition to poetry and writing – remove, wherever possible, intermediaries of any kind, giving performers the choice to express in their first language.

Tchiyiwe notes that migration is commonly portrayed in the context of ‘first arrivals’, masking the multi-layered spectrum of asylum. Third generation migrants, for example, own stories enriched by their reflections of the places they now call home. Alongside the raw and recent accounts of long and often treacherous journeys, from terror to uncertainty, these provide an important contrast to mainstream imagery of migration. Static communities so clearly benefit from the cultural mix brought by individuals and groups not of immediate origin. Through the work of agencies like this festival, migration is celebrated – and celebrated for the purpose of inclusion, acceptance and understanding.

As for the ongoing endeavours of the Migration Matters team, Tchiyiwe has an equally strong message for the future.

We want to genuinely accord a platform to the underrepresented and uncelebrated creatives from minorities communities in Sheffield and around the country.


Through showcasing arts and culture, Migration Matters Festival wants people to recognise and respect each other, and be appreciative of our shared lives. The values we uphold as a festival should resound through everything we showcase.

Learn more

Migration Matters is running two programmes in 2021 - online-only events during Refugee Week (14-20 June), and both in-person and online events from 9 to 17 July.

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