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Listening to Refugee Tales on the Pilgrim’s Way

The act of listening and the power of voice constitute the ‘act in the dark’ which can unite us and re-shape the punitive and hostile immigration landscape in Britain.

Agnes Woolley
28 September 2016
 Refugee Tales)

Refugee Tales walk (Photo: Refugee Tales)This time last year, I joined the Refugee Tales collective of activists, volunteers, refugees and ex-detainees as they started a week-long pilgrimage along the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley in solidarity with refugees. Walking with others always seems to invite storytelling, and as we traversed the Kent countryside in easy conversation, it seemed as though the borders that often divide people and places were temporarily lifted.

The week-long walk, with its evenings of storytelling and performance, is currently underway again, this time tracing a route from Canterbury to Westminster. This year, under the cloud of a referendum fought largely on the issue of immigration and that UKIP poster which seemed to put our shared values into question, it is more important than ever.

This year the event began with a ‘day of thought performance and action’ on the issue of indefinite immigration detention. Working to end detention is a central plank of the Refugee Tales project and arises from the tireless work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and Anna Pincus, a co-founder of the project. The good news is, as Jerome Phelps noted in his introduction to the issues at the beginning of the day, that this is a fight that’s making progress. As well as the successful legal challenge to end the Detained Fast Track system, led by his organisation Detention Action, two Immigration Removal Centres have been closed in the past year, and controversial plans for the expansion of Campsfield have been dropped. It remains the case, however, that the UK is the only country in Europe (still, just) that has no time limit on immigration detention. This means that unlike the prison system, detainees are not given a release date. Most IRCs are run by private security companies, whose profit driven management means that detainees face daily infringements on their health and wellbeing. Over the course of the day, we heard from a number of ex-detainees whose accounts of daily life inside these highly secretive institutions painted a picture of a dehumanised, and dehumanising, system. 

Opening the day, poet, academic and co-organiser of Refugee Tales, David Herd, described the walk as a ‘peripatetic forum’; an image which suggests the mobility and translatability of ideas framing an alternative way of treating those going though the UK’s tortuous asylum system. The conversations of the day he said – which included readings, performances, testimony and thought-provoking interventions – will act as a catalyst for those undertaking the week-long pilgrimage. For Herd, one of the main aims of Refugee Tales is to change the language with which we choose to address human movement in our culture. The underpinning ethos of the project is the idea that the acts of listening and of telling are able to change the terms of the conversation.

The terms of the conversation as they currently stand about the place of refugees and asylum seekers in UK society is bleak. In May this year, the new Immigration Act came into law and, in new Prime Minister Theresa May’s words, it is designed to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in Britain. Among the most punitive of its measures is the removal of the governmental obligation to accommodate asylum seekers who are on immigration bail. Not only this, but the bill makes it illegal for them to access private rental accommodation; a change which is likely to dramatically push up rates of destitution, already a serious concern among this group. Just now, in the wake of the referendum, it feels like May’s ‘hostile environment’ is finding its fullest expression. The fears and anxieties of a divided country are bubbling to the surface and have been played out most fully in the conversations around immigration that have shaped the campaign.

In light of this, thoughts turned throughout the day to the question of what stories we should be listening to - and what stories we can tell - to counter growing anti-immigration rhetoric. Why, the poet and critic Ben Okri asked, do we not have a positive counter image to the poisonous campaign poster put out by UKIP?

Storytelling and listening might, it was suggested, be one mode of resistance to the opportunistic anti-immigration sloganeering we have heard so much of in recent months. Crucially, it is the stories of those who have experience of the asylum system, and immigration detention in particular, which sheds light on aspects of the British immigration process that much of the public knows nothing about. We heard from a number of ex-detainees on the day, and all spoke of how the experience of detention changes people. In the words of David, a man who has spent time in nearly all of the UK’s detention centres, ‘the experience never leaves you’; it is a condition that haunts people and shapes their lives even after release.

Listening to people tell stories about these experiences, it becomes apparent that it’s not only the uncertainty of detention that has long-lasting damaging effects, but also the petty institutional and individual cruelties, and bureaucratic mechanisms prevalent in detention centres that wear away at people’s capacities for self-belief and resistance: the rationing of toilet paper and soap, the lack of adequate access to healthcare and, in one story, a man left on the floor after fainting in the queue for food. It’s this kind of detail that we don’t often hear. Getting a sense of how a seemingly abstract system works in granular detail, it becomes all too clear how the daily injustices of detention affect individuals. 

Telling one’s story is also an act of agency in a system which, as philosopher Angie Hobbs pointed out, works to deprive refugees of the ability to be autonomous agents of their lives. In indefinite detention, detainees are denied the capacity to shape their futures; to even imagine a possible life on the outside. In a chilling anecdote, the psychiatrist, Cornelius Katona recounted the sentiments of one detainee he spoke to who said that the difference between detention and prison is that in prison you count the days down, but in detention you count the days up because there is no end in sight.

For author Ali Smith in particular, as Patron of Refugee Tales, the act of listening and the power of voice constitutes the ‘act in the dark’ which can unite us. For Smith, ‘Language is an instrument of transformation’. Refugee Tales started with the act of listening. Co-organiser Anna Pincus and others at the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group sought to find ways of disseminating the stories of detainees about their experience in detention. The GDWG began to work with other local groups and writers, to get the stories of detainees into the public consciousness. From there, the project has gained momentum and this year a book – Refugee Tales – has been published which features stories from, among others, Ali Smith, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Inua Ellams, who worked in collaboration with those who have experienced the asylum system.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is both inspiration and model for this project, and walking and poetry have deep connections. But the communal nature of Refugee Tales differs from the archetypal image of the lone, literary walker. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to ‘psychogeographic’ walkers like Iain Sinclair, the Romantic image of the literary walker is one of individual contemplation. Refugee Tales by contrast, explores how walking can be about solidarity rather than solitude. It’s through walking and talking that the project seeks to re-shape the landscape of immigration in Britain. In Herd’s words, the aim of the walk is to re-fashion the environment from one of hostility to one of welcome.

To make English sweete.

That’s why Chaucer told his tales.

How badly we need English

To be made sweet again

-       From ‘Prologue’, by David Herd

This article was first published on openDemocracy 50.50 in July 2016

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