Ice and Fire’s new play, "On a clear day you can see Dover", played to a packed audience of around 300 people of all ages and backgrounds at Wilton's Music Hall in the heart of East London, home to generations of London's migrants. The faded grandeur of the world's oldest surviving music hall - ornate ceilings and barley sugar columns contrasting with wooden floor boards and peeling plaster - offered an atmospheric backdrop to the free performance.
Sonja Linden, author of the play and founding artistic director, set up the Ice and Fire theatre company to explore human rights stories through performance education, outreach and participation. Her latest production examines the European dimension of immigration and asylum, weaving together factual information and stories gathered from talking to Calais migrants seeking to enter the UK, the people that helped them - and the people who resented and deplored the migrants’ presence. Sonia visited Calais for several days interviewing migrants and it is their voices, read verbatim by volunteer actors ,that make the play such a powerful and moving testament to human perseverance and the triumph of hope over experience.
In the play we follow the stories of half a dozen young men and boys from different war torn countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Vietnam. They endure beatings, torture, loss of loved ones - only to suffer unimaginable hardships on the journey and rejection and injustice on arrival in Europe. As one young man said “Even in a refugee camp in Darfur we were better off than being here in France. Here, we are treated like animals.”
Migrants tell of smugglers extorting up to $13,000 from desperate families who sacrifice everything to send their sons to Europe to provide them with the chance of survival and a better life. I was particularly struck by the youth and courage of the asylum seekers involved; many of them are just kids of 14 or 15, and they are at pains to protect their families from the reality that their journey has brought little improvement in their lives: "If this is Europe, if I knew it was like this, I wouldn't have come." Many have come via Greece, where conditions are notoriously inhumane.
Before its forced closure in September 2009 the makeshift camp known as “the jungle” was home to nearly 800 Afghan asylum seekers, who endured what one migrant described as “slave conditions”, subjected to arbitrary arrest, sprayed with tear gas and constant harassment by the police. "We are not criminals, we are just people without homes...we had to flee our homes because it was not safe in Afghanistan." Numerous acts of solidarity and simple human kindness give a glimmer of hope despite the brutality at the hands of the authorities: a volunteer who takes a sick and distressed asylum seeker into her home to escape the cold; a train conductor who lets three young Afghan brothers, all under 14, travel without passports and wishes them luck; volunteers who serve as many as 200 lunches at a time to migrants at feeding stations in Calais throughout the bitter winters. But there is a climate of intimidation in France against those who help migrants and try to make up for "the deficiencies of the state". Viewed as aiding and abetting the work of smugglers, it meets with draconian responses from the authorities.
In contrast, getting to England is seen as the big prize, the white cliffs of Dover are the symbol of an England associated in migrants’ minds with tea, cricket and tolerance. One young man tried 27 times to get to the UK and was returned each time. Inexplicably this fails to tarnish the myth of the welcome migrants expect to receive: “English people care; they have human rights.” They think of the UK as less hostile than France, but in practice, the difference between the asylum systems in the two countries is minimal, and in the UK, if asylum is refused, migrants are liable to be placed in indefinite detention.
Live theatre flowed into live post-performance debate between Sonja Linden, author of the play, French activist Lily Boillet, Jean Lambert, Green party MEP, and members of the audience. Jean argued that the idea of the Big Society much vaunted by the UK coalition government should be about taking a stand on human rights, and the sort of compassion shown towards migrants by some of the citizens around Calais. She urged governments to do more to ensure the dignity of everyone who makes a claim for asylum arguing that European legislation should be revised to include a "charter for migrants rights". She pointed out that while the asylum system is much debated, the causes of migration are not.
The audience that night responded enthusiastically; only one slightly sceptical voice - despite his evident sympathy with the plight of refugees - wondered whether there is a limit to the number of people the UK can sustain. Jean responded that migration is a fact of life; 1 in 7 people in the world are migrants, the UK is an aging population, and we need migrants to create a vibrant, economically prosperous society.
After the performance, as audience, actors and performers mingled in the bar and spilled out onto the pavement outside, I talked to the play's author Sonja Linden about the 'Jungle'. On the one hand it was a testimony to the inhumanity and injustice of Europe’s treatment and attitudes towards asylum seekers, and a suspected hideout for illegal traffickers; but on the other, it came to represent asylum seekers’ resistance, solidarity and perseverance. Sonja told me how moved she was by the plight of the people she interviewed there and with whom she makes an effort to keep in touch. Like myself - my father fled from Ghana as a political refugee in the 1980s under threat of imprisonment - and many others in the UK, Sonja’s family background is shaped by issues of migration, racism, prejudice, and ordinary people’s responses to it. This had a profound effect on her as she was growing up, and drives her sense of justice which she communicates so powerfully through her work .
The following day Sonja emailed all of us who saw the play to update us about Hussein, one of the asylum seekers whose story was featured. He was tortured in an Iranian prison as a member of an opposition party, and was being held in Campsfield Removal Centre Oxford, under threat of deportation. Gravely ill with cancer, he went on hunger strike, prepared to die rather than be sent back to Iran. Sonja appealed to everyone who saw the play to help break the cycle of inhumanity : “so often we feel paralysed by stories of suffering but here is something you can actually do to try and make a difference.” Sonja telephoned me today to let me know that at the eleventh hour Hussein’s deportation order has been stopped: “now we have to make sure that his case is heard in the UK.”
“On a clear day...” gives the concept of live theatre new meaning. Ice and Fire’s low tech productions offer a kind of theatrical “take away” that can be performed almost anywhere. Not only do the testimonies of asylum seekers have impact in their own right; migration and asylum continue to be very much “live” issues which engender the most hostile and prejudiced reactions. As John Grayson has argued, ' mobilising at the local level the broadest coalitions with asylum seekers, refugee organisations, trade unions, political organizations, religious and voluntary and community organisations can begin to challenge racist ‘common sense’ attitudes to asylum rights and migration'. The acts of compassion and solidarity with asylum seekers recorded in the play are an inspired call to all of us to get involved in how the migrants stories continue to unfold.