In conversation with participant homemakers, courtesy of Ashraful Alam
In conversation with participant homemakers, courtesy of Ashraful Alam

Migrants and more-than-humans: stories from the margins

Climate change induced displacement is a grave concern for many within the resource scarce world creating challenges for integrating an increasing number of rural migrants into cities. Khulna city, being the major regional centre of south-western Bangladesh is no exception with many climate migrants entering Khulna with very few assets and living in informal settlements.

Ashraful Alam, a final year Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Planning, knows that migrants and their stories are often lost when they are reduced to the ‘slum dweller’ stereotype. This stereotype informs regimes of planning that fall short of meeting the specific needs of the urban poor.

‘You cannot just call someone poor for the sake of planning,’ Ashraful said, ‘by pointing to someone’s economic vulnerability, you immediately disenfranchise them from their homes and urban spaces, and restrict their opportunities to flourish otherwise.’

Ashraful has prior training as an architect and urban planner. Through his doctoral study he wanted to bring a real change to the profession.

‘The unique intellectual environment at the Department of Geography and Planning transformed me,’ Ashraful said, ‘I’ve been exposed to a rich body of feminist, post-colonial and Australian Indigenous scholarship that is shaping my research philosophy. My supervisors gave me the freedom to rediscover myself and my research. I now see myself more as a storyteller of the margins than a top-down professional. If I tell the stories then changes will follow.’

Ashraful is working on a more-than-human concept that identifies non-humans (such as, plants and animals) and non-living elements (such as, earth and water) as having vital political agency in shaping human places and practices. His work focuses on particular migrant communities that are informally sheltered on vacant land in Khulna’s urban fringes. In exchange, they take care of absentee owner’s land. Yet every now and then they face eviction.

To explore these migrants’ precarious existence, Ashraful has involved migrant women, the most vulnerable cohort, to use disposable film cameras as a method of documenting and explaining their home and homemaking practice. This method, he is publishing as ‘photo-response’, has highlighted the importance of non-humans to community wellbeing.

Demonstration of disposable camera, courtesy of Ashraful Alam
Demonstration of disposable camera, courtesy of Ashraful Alam

Ashraful’s study provides valuable insights on migrants’ locational choices in Khulna city beyond the ‘slum’ stereotype. In the absence of formal rights marginal communities have built rich connections to urban landscapes that offer emancipatory possibilities. Non-human agencies of urban land both materially and metaphorically shape migrants’ home beyond the stereotypes of the urban poor. In uncertain and informal circumstances, mobility is an important competency of homemaking through which migrant women contribute significantly in negotiating habitable spaces in cities. Ashraful’s research highlights the critical need to consider non-humans in urban political ecology and planning in order to develop more inclusive urban forms.