The show must go on:
The reinvention of Migration Matters Festival

Side by Side community drama group, Migration Matters Festival 2019.

The lockdown has shown what life is like when you [are restricted], but asylum seekers have always had those restrictions. When you walk in the street, no one can see the restrictions imposed upon you, and it’s like Covid in that way, this hidden force which keeps you in one place. If people want to understand what it’s like to seek asylum then lockdown is a great example.

– Pride Mbi Agbor, Sheffield-based refugee and former sanctuary seeker

The above quote suggests that the Covid-19 lockdown presents an opportunity to better understand an experience that is distant to many: what it is like to be an asylum seeker in Britain. It encourages those of us with privilege, who are far removed from the realities of border zones and feel unable to relate to those navigating our immigration systems, to put ourselves in their shoes and shift our political mindset and interpersonal interactions accordingly. Lockdown measures have ignited feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, anxiety and fear, despite an understanding that the situation is temporary. The indefinite timescale and related feelings of insecurity, with no guarantee of a positive outcome or an end to the anguish, has sobering parallels with the experience of the UK’s immigration processes.

This epitomises just how important it was for Migration Matters Festival – a festival coinciding with Refugee Week that celebrates Sheffield’s important status of the UK’s first City of Sanctuary… ‘made vibrant by its diversity and interconnecting cultures’ – to continue despite the Covid-19 pandemic. As the largest Refugee Week festival in the UK, this fortnight-long event usually monopolises a number of Sheffield’s cultural and creative hubs to celebrate the city’s diverse community and provide a platform for marginalised artists from migrant diasporas.

Established in 2015, the festival has seen the likes of Lowkey, Benjamin Zepaniah and Nikesh Shukla pay homage to international theatre productions, traditional and eclectic music and dance, and has raised awareness of the uncomfortable, pressing issues which threaten the wellbeing of our community. Whilst Sheffield is a City of Sanctuary, only 46% if residents support this status, and 65% of Sheffield-based responders feel either indifferent or uncomfortable at the thought of an asylum seeker or refugee moving onto their street.1 This, alongside 2018/2019 statistics that show that of the 2,727 hate crimes that were reported to South Yorkshire police, 69% were racially motivated attacks,2 indicates that Sheffield is not always as welcoming and tolerable as this title suggests.

Within a broader socio-political climate dominated by right-wing rhetoric, we are now seeing how Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ translates into the everyday lived realities of migrant communities in England. In 2020 alone, this has been evidenced in numerous ways: the government’s initiation of the ‘new’ points based system against the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee (who warned the new system would prove hazardous for not only the lives of migrants, but also social and health sectors); the way Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting BAME communities, who are twice as likely to die from the virus; and the increasing calls for closures of immigration detention centres and greater funding for those with no recourse to public funds under the pandemic. All highlight the risks posed to migrant communities across the UK.

Live Zoom broadcast of Phosphorous Theatre’s ‘Pizza Shop Heroes’, Migration Matters Festival Online, June 2020.

Festivals such as Migration Matters that stand in solidarity with those most vulnerable in Sheffield have never been more significant. They raise awareness of the importance migration has played in shaping our cultural landscape and advocating for the continual commitment to do so across the city. Despite a physical festival no longer being plausible under social-distancing conditions, Migration Matters adapted by transforming the festival into an online and digital programme. Spanning six days between 15 and 20 June, organisers saw an opportunity in adapting to digital for a wider and more inclusive audience engagement, enabling the festival to ‘bring people together across the world’.

Festival Founder and Director Sam Holland emphasises the importance of continuing the festival, explaining that ‘between being depressed by seeing the cancellation of every cultural event almost overnight, and the further challenges posed by Covid to refugees and sanctuary seekers, I couldn’t let the festival become another casualty’. Knowing how much the festival means to people who have struggled to find connection with Sheffield and the UK in general, Holland maintains that ‘for people to know there’s a festival that celebrates what they bring to the country, it sends a powerful message’.

The move to an online festival was not without its challenges, which involved exchanging  theatres, cinemas and galleries for Vimeo, Facebook and Instagram. Holland says that ‘making our website into its own arts centre has been a surreal journey, but one which I think we’ve managed pretty well given the tight turnaround’. He also tells of protecting against the occasional online troll, dealing with dodgy reception and creating a guide and map for audience members ‘who are just as confused by [technology] as we are’. Some productions experienced minor technical difficulties, connection issues and the occasional audio problems, and for the small team at Migration Matters Festival the digital format comes with ‘a new playbook’; they’ve had to teach themselves the online language ‘in order to make it clear to everyone else’.

This hard work and determination resulted in an engrossing programme which launched with ‘Pizza Shop Heroes’, a live theatre production by Phosphorous Theatre starring four refugee men. Throughout the week subsequent events included dance, installation, film, music, spoken word, theatre, talks and workshops including ‘Is Covid Racist?’, a panel talk hosted by Stand Up to Racism and ex-Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid, ‘Poetry in Conversation’, a politically infused spoken word performance by poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and African Fusion dance workshops by Mulembas D’Africa. The festival culminated in a momentous closing party hosted by Barang! featuring special guest East African DJ Kampire along with resident DJ’s playing soca, afro, gqom, house and techno.

‘Resist, Remember, Repair’ discussion, part of Migration Matters Online Festival, 2020

Whilst the intimacy that is shared when experiencing a live performance was sacrificed in the transition to digital, as an audience member a night at the theatre or a dance workshop in the safety of my home was a cathartic experience that also offered some structure to my day. In a poignant discussion with African Voices Platform and Racial Justice network titled ‘Resist, Remember, Repair’, Migration Matters was described as an ‘Artivist’ festival, a platform which uses art in all its forms for social justice. Tchiyiwe Chihana, Penny Wangari-Jones, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Ndungi Githuku highlighted the role of artistic allyship in the anti-racism movement: ‘for artists who are not in the human rights struggle, it is the time for them to realise that their voice matters… you don’t have to see yourself as a human rights activist, you just have to see yourself as a human being, and once you see yourself as that you should speak for all human beings. And if you have talent, you should use that talent to speak for the people’. Referencing the sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, the phrase ‘struggle while you stand’ was used to emphasise the importance of using whatever influence you have to support the human rights movement.

Holland reflects on the success of the online festival:

The fact that we have been able to reach people across the world has been an awesome factor in all this and something we’ve never really been able to do. We’ve probably had more traction through these means than we could have dreamed of as a festival rooted in Sheffield venues, and in our programme we have acts spanning Taiwan, Uganda, Iran, USA and many other places. People are hungry for events and festivals not just because they’re bored but because it’s soul food, and it’s been so lovely hearing how excited people are to know something is happening. There’s also the bonus for punters that once a show’s gone out they can experience it again as it’s all on video, so we’ve staved off disappointment.

Migration Matters has set the precedent for Sheffield’s diverse and inclusive creative scene; adapting and affording the community a space in which they can thrive. In some ways this role has been strengthened by the online format. Holland envisions that ‘the virtues and the benefits of what an online festival brings makes me feel like this should be a part of the festival every year’. Organisers are currently exploring how they might run two parallel festivals so that they don’t lose touch with the global community and networks that have been fostered through this year’s iteration.

Otis Mensah, Migration Matters Festival 2019.

In persevering despite a global pandemic Migration Matters Festival once again represents the solidarity and resilience of Sheffield’s communities in the face of adversity and sets an example for its participants and audiences. The learning potential of the festival is summarised by one viewer who states, ‘watching “Pizza Shop Heroes” reminded me that these issues are quite literally on my doorstep. It inspired me to become more involved, and I’m learning how I can positively contribute in my local area’. The online adaption of the festival during Covid-19 calls for a re-examination of what it means to be a human, a community and a society, in order to ensure our city is a safe place for asylum seekers and refugees, and other migrant communities.

As the festival draws to a close, my drive for social justice has been rejuvenated by its inspiring content. Watching nightly theatre productions and panel discussions instilled the same sense of unity and motivation that I felt at Sheffield’s #BlackLivesMatter march, only this time I wasn’t surrounded by thousands of people on Dev Green, I was on my own in my house. That speaks to the power of Migration Matters Festival.

Migration Matters Online Festival took place 15 – 20 June 2020. To support the festival, see their donation page.

Evie Muir is a Sheffield-based Sociologist, Anti-Racism Activist and Domestic Abuse Specialist (specialising in BAMER women’s and marginalised communities’ experiences of Domestic and Sexual Abuse). She is also a freelance journalist, Community Manager of the Racial Justice Hub at Restless Network, and Staff Writer at Aurelia Maga zine.

This review is supported by Arts Council England as part of Corridor8’s 2019/20 critical writing programme.


  1. Office for National Statistics, hate crimes recorded in England and Wales, 2018 to 2019.
  2. From a poll commissioned by BBC Radio Sheffield in 2017, for which 750 people in Sheffield were quizzed about refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

Published 02.07.2020 by Lara Eggleton in Reviews

1,842 words