Collaboration is all the rage, particularly among groups and charitable foundations who are looking for the magic solution that can achieve social justice – but what does it mean? How do we recognise and address cultural differences which exist between different groups, their priorities and approaches to change making? This blog is based on the debates and conversations that some of the Unlocking Detention team had while preparing for #Unlocked19. Eiri Ohtani is the Project Director of The Detention Forum. She tweets at @EiriOhtani

Before summer, a group I had never heard about got in touch with the Detention Forum over Twitter. They said they would like to run workshops with people to create handmade butterflies for people in immigration detention, to raise awareness, to show they care and build solidarity. Would the Detention Forum like to collaborate? 

I was sceptical, to say the least. I famously delegated my home economics assignment of making a skirt to my grandmother (“I will make sure that the stitches are uneven, so your teacher won’t notice that I did this”, she helpfully said) – I had no interest in sewing. And generally, my lexicon doesn’t include fluffy stuff like butterflies. Why on earth make pretty butterflies to challenge immigration detention, which should be won by the sheer strength of our rational and moral arguments?  

Seeking change through different routes

But our rationality demands that we keep an eye open for any new avenues that can trigger the change we desire. Our morality forces us not to turn away from the fact that immigration detention continues to exist, as a practice and as a structural reality. There is, of course, a growing momentum for change, but there is also a sense that whatever we as advocates, campaigners or activists have been doing hasn’t been enough. It is our responsibility to put our personal feelings aside and stay open-minded. Personal attachment to activities that feel comfortable can distort and limit what really needs to be done. So, with that spirit of adventure, I set out to stare deeply into my prejudices, and begin to unpack how I am culturally conditioned to approach my own work. 

This action planned by The Friend Ship combines quietly ruminative craftivism and an invocation of an image of hope. Quietness, contemplation and the butterfly are probably the polar opposite of a set of emotions and approaches of our textbook anti-immigration detention activities. What can craftivism and the butterfly do for anti-immigration detention campaigns? 

The Friendship Project | Unlocked19

First port of call was a podcast by Sarah Corbett of Craftivist Collective. Corbett describes craftivism as a considerate, compassionate and emphatic act of protest. It is built on the philosophy that if we want the world to be beautiful, kind and just, our activism has to mirror that. In that physical act of making craft, which by necessity calls for carefulness and bodily engagement with material, activists meaningfully and holistically engage with the problem at stake and try to advance solutions. 

Corbett says something provocative about our propensity to name and shame the perpetrators and angrily demand that they do what we want them toShe calls out the violence that sometimes creeps into the language of activism and questions whether such a polarising approach is the best way for transformation in the long-run. Do we believe that change happens by force or by desire (i.e. desire to change)?  We often discuss this in my circle of close colleagues but opinions remain divided.  

As Corbett herself acknowledges, other forms of activism such as protests, petitions, ‘email your MP’ actions for example, do have roles to play in bringing about change. They can draw attention to the issue quickly, can bring people together to build on their common concern and articulate their demand. But she also patiently, and in my view rightfully, points out that thoughtfulness is also absolutely necessary if we take ethics seriously. There is an argument that craftivism can foster an inquiring mind that critically investigates how collectively we can be part of the world we desire and hope for.  

Communicating around hope?

However, hope gets a bad press in some quarters within our circle too. Our mode operandi and prevailing wisdom is that unless we continue to fuel righteous anger by reinforcing and reiterating  how terrible everything is and how it’s only getting worse, people will stop paying attention to the problem. Even when there is a glimmer of hope or something is improving, it can be hard to vocalise it due to a fear that it will look out of alignment from the rest of the community. (If you are interested in hope-based communications, have a look at this webpage by Thomas Coombs.) 

In that context, the image of a butterfly is also jarring – or is it? In the USA, where its unique and well-organised migrant justice movement led by undocumented migrants has long been an inspiration for many in the UK, the butterfly came to defiantly symbolise migrants’ hope for the future under the banner of “Migration Is Beautiful” in 2012. 

The idea was conceived by Favianna Rodriguez, an artist-activist, who is also CultureStrike’s Executive Director. The butterfly image and tagline quickly emerged as an approachable way to reimagine borders as permeable rather than militarized, reinvigorating a metaphor that many migrants have looked to for generations.’

In the film ‘Migration Is Beautiful’ produced by Pharrell Williams, Rodriguez shows how the butterfly, symbolising freedom, hope, possibilities and beauty, became a focal point for rallies and protests by communities that were being torn apart by ever increasing immigration enforcement and threats of deportation. The butterfly image was used on flyers, posters and even as an eye-catching protest costume that drew in people in a way that words and speeches alone cannot. 

Roberto Lavato, writer and strategist, interviewed in the film explains why symbols are important: “We are not machines. We can’t just be programmed to do things. We have to have meanings and understanding that leads to action.” And perhaps butterflies stir us to act in a way that no briefing paper, policy document, meeting, statement or conference can do. 

The Friend Ship’s choice of the image of the butterfly perhaps follows the logic of the US strand of migration justice movement. Its quiet symbolism of hope offers a potent counter-narrative to immigration detention, where, one expert-by-experience said ‘Hope goes to die’. Reading through feedback from the Butterfly Effect workshops at Latitude Festival in July 2019 where these butterflies were made, it’s clear this burst of craftivism left a profound impression on people who made them and touched the way they see the world. 

‘So we were not abandoned.’

Returning to my original question, is this the right way to approach immigration detention? My honest answer is, I still don’t know. It probably depends on the context, people involved and what happens next. What I do know is that that the world we want to see, where migration justice does exist, is yet to be born and we just don’t know how we can make it happen – and we should be prepared to try whatever the means available that can ease that process of transformation. 

Just as I was about to finish writing this blog, I received an email from Emma Skeet, who runs The Friend Ship. She said: ‘I posted 200 butterflies to Brook House today (they had 160 detainees when I last enquired but I sent more in case more had arrived. We had contributions from people aged 5-75 years old through workshops at Latitude, schools, University of East Anglia student STAR action group, and community groups.’

We don’t know whether these butterflies will in fact reach people in the detention centre, or what their response might be. Will they know that strangers paused, reflected on the human cost of immigration detention and wished to send hope that change is possible? Will they dismiss these butterflies, as I might have done, as a gesture of superficial sympathy, when what people in detention really want is tangible freedom? 

Here, I take strength from a little tale someone I had never met generously told me some time ago. I don’t even know the person’s gender, let alone name or nationality but they said that they had been detained in a detention centre in the middle of quiet woodlands somewhere, but not in the UK. Only after release, they found out that there was a group of people standing on the other side of the wall, every month, to protest against detention. They said, in closing this little tale, ‘So we were not abandoned.’


And here’s Emma’s initial response to the blog. What’s your response?

‘Dear Eiri,

Your article is great – really interesting. The only thing I would change is it puts forward artivism and political action as opposing options. I think an important point is not to ask ‘is this the right way to tackle detention reform’ but to emphasise the importance of different ways of raising awareness working alongside each other – not as alternatives or a choice of which is the best way. Surely all activity which raises awareness of, and support for, the issue is welcome? One important point to make, which shows how any activity which helps is needed, is that the majority of the general public (festival goers from teenagers to adults), parents at Norwich Schools of Sanctuary workshops and University students, who helped make the butterflies did not know that the UK had indefinite detention or how to act on this injustice. Many people feel overwhelmed by the huge array of social, environmental and political injustices in the world and do not feel able to help make a difference. Artivism provides a way in. A way to take time to talk and learn about an issue while creating something to raise awareness and potentially share with those who we do not feel sorry for, pity or see as victims but rather send symbols of solidarity and hope as, in another life it could be you or it could be me. And I know I would want both, activists fighting for change on the political agenda to establish a new way of handling immigration with dignity and respect, but also to know ordinary people were thinking of me.

 Best wishes,



Further reading

About craftivism:

About the butterfly and migration justice:

  • CultureStrike’s webpage on ‘Migration is Beautiful’
  • ‘What do butterflies have to do with open borders? Migration is Beautiful’ by John Lee Read.
  • ‘Monarch butterflies a lesson in sustainability, social justice’ by UIC Today Read.

Thinking about how positive change can happen:

  • Becoming Unstuck With Relational Activism’ by Becca Dove & Tim Fisher Read.
  • ‘From slacktivism to ‘feel-good’ protests, activism is broken: Here’s how to fix it’ By Antony Funnell for Future Tense Read.
  • ‘Brain research suggests emphasizing human rights abuses may perpetuate them’ By: Laura Ligouri Read.
  • ‘A Guide to Hope-based Communications’ by OpenGlobalRights Read.