Catherine O’Shea’s award winning new play, Fit for Purpose, has rightly been described by Scottish Life as one of the three best intellectual picks of the Edinburgh Fringe. In a festival that has increasingly become a recruitment fair for Britain’s got comedy talent, a play that deals with the mistreatment of female asylum seekers can be a hard act to sell. Yet when I saw the play for the first time on Sunday I felt that the moving depiction of Aruna and Kaela’s flight from Somalia and their shocking experiences in detention, played so wonderfully by Antoinette Tagoe and Zeni Sekabanja, should be essential viewing.
The play is the result of several years of careful research and collaboration by Catherine O’Shea with refugee campaign groups including the All Africa Women’s Group and End Child Detention Now. The characters and story lines are carefully reconstructed from the accounts of women who had been detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre where a hunger strike, which was followed by the violent removal of a number of women protestors to Holloway prison in January 2010 forms the background to Aruna and 13-year-old Kaela’s detention.
However, it is not until the end of the play that we discover the reasons for Aruna’s refusal to engage with the hunger strikers and her complicated relationship with Kaela. Director Tanja Pagnuco skilfully allows this story within a story to unfold gently and insistently in a tug of war between Kaela’s desperate need to make sense of her past life in Somalia and to claim even a broken and painful identity and Aruna’s desire to forget and erase a past which continually threatens to drag her back into a world of fear, exploitation and suffering.
For the UK Border Agency caseowner and the ‘Safeco’ immigration detention centre guards, Aruna’s story is greeted with immediate hostility and suspicion—‘Why have you damaged your fingerprints?’—barks the border guard before the two are handcuffed and sent under prison escort to ‘Fast-track’ detention. While in Yarl’s Wood we hear how the interpreter induces Aruna to remain silent about the extent of the trauma she faced in Somalia in order not to bring shame on her community. Because she is denied the help of legal representation, Aruna cannot know that failing to disclose such evidence in an asylum interview will result in her being ‘disbelieved’ and that she and Kaela’s asylum application will be denied. The brief hopeful experience of liberty after Aruna and Kaela are released from detention turns once more to despair as their appeal is rejected and all support from the Border Agency is withdrawn.
Families like Aruna and Kaela’s who cannot be returned because countries like Somalia lack functioning governments or even airports, are forced into destitution to reassure the British public that an asylum policy once seen as a ‘soft touch’ is now in former Home Secretary John Reid’s telling phrase—‘fit for purpose’.
At the discussion panel about the play that I took part in on Monday, one of the audience asked how we might confront the huge public hostility towards asylum seekers that perpetuates such inhumanity. It was encouraging that the panel — chaired by Frances Edwards of Edinburgh University Student Action for Refugees and which included Margaret Woods from the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, Labour MSP Neil Findlay, Nina Murray of the Scottish Refugee Council, and former child detainee Pinar Aksu — all agreed that grass roots campaigns to defend asylum seekers could be effective and that prejudices can be overcome when people see refugees not as some alien species but as their neighbours, fellow parents and class mates.
We all felt that Fit for Purpose had succeeded in making real and meaningful the experiences of detained women and children that would otherwise be ignored or denied. The Pleasance and the cast and creative team all deserve a huge round of applause for breathing new life into political theatre and for representing this challenging issue in such an inspiring and compelling way.