The year in images: from war in the Caucasus to US street protests

In 2020, openDemocracy’s reporters captured how the pandemic transformed the lives of asylum seekers and the struggle for abortion rights in Europe.

23 December 2020, 3.41pm
Racial justice protesters in Los Angeles. 2020 was a year in which the visual gained a new importance.
Harley Geffner

This year proved challenging for reporters with coronavirus restrictions making it more difficult for journalists to reach people around the world. That’s why, in part, many of the images you see below are not just photography but also infographics and illustrations, which offer a different – but no less evocative – visual perspective on people’s stories. 

Photography remains more important than ever in a year where a focus on statistics risks overlooking the human impact not just of the pandemic – but of wars and demonstrations. The images below don’t tell the full story of 2020, but they offer a glimpse into a year of crisis that changed our lives.

War in the Caucasus

Image: Tom Mutch

In the middle of the pandemic, war broke out in central Asia. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for six brutal weeks over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but traditionally populated by a majority of ethnic Armenians. The war ended on 10 November, after Russia brokered a ceasefire, but clashes have been reported since. 

On oDR,  five Armenian refugees from the conflict told their story in their own words

“We never lived in fear before this war. In April 2016, the short war lasted only four days and we thought that this time it will last a few days and we will get back to our normal lives. Nobody could have imagined that the war would move from the frontline and reach the capital of Stepanakert. The war has always been around us,” Mary Javadyan (pictured) told openDemocracy. 

Young Syrians on finding education

Pictures by Maher Tarke / Christian Aid

Before the war, almost all of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, but today the country's school enrollment rates are among the lowest in the world.NAWA spoke to Syrian schoolchildren about their struggles to attain an education.

Dalal (pictured) said, “Whatever the many circumstances, the difficulties, the displacement and the wars, my dream to become a doctor has not changed. I will fight these circumstances and resist them, and I will achieve my dream".

Life as a domestic worker in Lebanon

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Winnie leaves her family to work and follow her dreams to one day get enough money to go to university. | Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

The Kenyan journalist Winnie Linet wrote about what it was like to be a worker in Lebanon’s exploitative kafala system, here illustrated by Alexandra Nikolova. Under this scheme, foreign workers are entirely dependent on their employer’s approval to remain in the country.  

“All over Kenya, there are young people like me willing to give up everything for a better life. When you are hungry and have no food on the table, you do not care what life abroad may be like, only knowing that you must accept any offer that could change your situation,” she writes.

The fight to decriminalise sex work

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Much has been written about the decriminalisation of sex work. This series, published by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and produced together with sex workers, explores how sex workers’ interests and rights can be advanced beyond decriminalisation. “Our goal was to find what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be done better,” write its authors.

Dancing on the streets in Manhattan

Image: Aaron White

After the police killing of George Floyd in May, millions protested across the US. OurEconomy’s Aaron White was in New York where young people, angry by their government’s failure to take action on racial injustice, occupied parts of the metropolis. 

“The occupiers painted their dreams on large sheets of canvas; hosted radical reading groups; watched civil rights documentaries from the 60s; and fed the hungry and the homeless,” reported Aaron.

“A healthcare station was established: no deductibles, no copayments. People cared for one another unconditionally.”

Large-scale demonstrations also took place on the West Coast. Harley Geffner reported from Los Angeles where activists set out a radical new political programme far beyond reforms of the police and criminal justice system. 

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Disarm and defund sign, Los Angeles | Harley Geffner

Asylum seekers trapped by pandemic

Refugees warm themselves by a campfire in a refugee camp on Samos, Greece.
Refugees warm themselves in a camp on Samos, Greece. | Angelos Tzortzinis/DPA/PA Images

The pandemic has left already vulnerable asylum seekers on the Greek island of Samos – who are living in makeshift shelters with little running water – in a dire situation. Victoria Noble visited the camp and spoke to its residents about the appalling conditions they face.

For asylum seekers, “self-isolation means being locked in a shipping container with dozens of people – including some who are likely to be infectious. Being told to wash your hands is meaningless when there are no toilets or running water,” Noble wrote.

In the UK, the pandemic has also made life more difficult for asylum seekers. Amandas Ong heard firsthand from one woman how accommodation, which is outsourced to private contractors, is overcrowded and dirty. “I had to share a bunk bed and there were bugs everywhere. I was bitten all over my skin,” Sarah told openDemocracy.

Despite living in such poor conditions, Sarah now volunteers every weekend with the Food Alliance, an emergency response service set up by food redistribution charities in London. Asked how she finds the energy to volunteer, Sarah told us, “If I can put a smile on somebody’s face, I am happy.”

Overcrowding, bed bugs and terrible food: what life is like in temporary accommodation.
Overcrowding, bed bugs and terrible food: what life is like in temporary accommodation. | Chris Manson, all rights reserved

The millions spent on rolling back the rights of women and LGBTIQ people

In October, 50.50 revealed that US Christian right groups, many with close links to the Trump administration, have spent at least $280m in ‘dark money’ fuelling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTIQ people across five continents.

The team’s groundbreaking investigation was the first to track this spending on a global scale and was nominated for journalism awards. Human rights advocates and transparency campaigners called the findings “alarming”, and a “wake-up call” for democracies.

This infographic compiled the vast dataset to show from which organisations the millions have come from and where they’ve been spent.

Abortion protests across borders

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Pro-choice activists have continued to demand the right to abortion in Poland throughout the pandemic. | Illustration: Oreofe Morakinyo

In response to Poland’s dracronian anti-abortion laws, a group of women from across Europe launched a bold new initiative to help women seeking an abortion. Claudia Torrisi spoke to members of Abortion Without Borders about how they have helped thousands of Polish women have safe abortions. 

Should we allow artificial intelligence to manage migration?

How is artificial intelligence being used in governing migration? What are the risks and opportunities that the emerging technology raises for both the state and the individual crossing a country’s borders?

Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and openDemocracy have teamed up to host this free live discussion on 15 April at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Ana Beduschi Associate professor of law, University of Exeter

Hilary Evans Cameron Assistant professor, faculty of law, Ryerson University

Patrick McEvenue Senior director, Strategic Policy Branch, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Chair: Lucia Nalbandian Researcher, CERC Migration, Ryerson University

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