Number 16 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' explores art’s role in bringing awareness, relief, and hope to the global refugee crisis…

Every day over 44,000 people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. Though it may have dropped out of the news, the global refugee crisis and the suffering of displaced people continues today.

The UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) tells us that there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with more than half of all refugees coming from South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria. We may be used to hearing about it but this is not normal. This figure represents a population larger than the entirety of the UK and the largest number of displaced people ever - surpassing numbers after World War II, one of the most devastating events in history.

I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Ai Weiwei

In September 2015, a photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, lifeless and washed up on a beach in Turkey, echoed around the globe. At the time, the media was still referring to events as a ‘migrant crisis’ but this devastating image changed attitudes. ‘Migrants’ became refugees and the media began to pay proper attention to the horrors these people were so desperately trying to escape. Though there is a fine line to tread between raising awareness and exploitation, art about refugees can transform our perceptions.

High-profile artists such as Ai Weiwei (whose early childhood was spent in a Chinese 're-education' camp), Arabella Dorman, and Banksy have all created artworks to raise awareness and understanding of the refugee crisis. While these artworks help to call people to action, it seems that alone they aren’t yet enough. Given the lack of more recent media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that the measures taken last year by the EU have alleviated the crisis. But the number of refugees that have already reached Europe and those still waiting to reach us is huge.

Thankfully, raising awareness isn’t the only way art can help. Through organisations like Art Refuge UK, refugees are able to express their trauma, take steps towards healing, and to reclaim their identity and humanity.

I’m made of the same stuff as you… People should love me.

Young refugee in Calais, as recounted by Mary Rose Brady, British Association of Art Therapists

Through art therapy, refugees, especially children who may not have the language skills or confidence to describe the horrors they’ve experienced, can communicate their trauma, anxiety, anger and grief in a more natural and familiar way. Perhaps most importantly, they are offered the space and tools to feel safe and at ease.

There are many different examples of organisations across the world using art to improve the lives of refugees: from transforming camps and shelters through murals and colour, to offering the creative and technical skills needed by refugees to have a louder public voice.

Nevertheless, whatever we may (not) be seeing and hearing now, there is clearly a lot more to be done. While the ultimate answer is a shift in our own mentality and politics, art is still the best vehicle for hope.

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