Shine A Light

Theatre of Inhumanity: a damning portrayal of the UK asylum system

A new play shines a light on the dark side of the British asylum system, portraying with brutal clarity the inhuman treatment dealt out to those drawn to this country by the hope for sanctuary
Liz Allcock
27 July 2011

As the lights dim, I am struck by the stark gloominess of the set of Catherine O’Shea’s new play Fit for Purpose: a row of chairs and a frame of prison bars, indicative of the cold, sterile environment of the Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) where much of the action is based. As the playwright describes in a recent piece for OurKingdom, Fit for Purpose is partly inspired by Rahila Gupta’s book, Enslave: The New British Slavery, and the work of the All Africa Women’s Group, shedding light on the dark side of the UK’s asylum system. Previewing at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, it highlights how the complexities of the system inflict pain and distress on already traumatised people who come to the UK seeking a safe haven from the abuse and harm experienced in their countries of origin.

Fit for Purpose is a powerful depiction of the culture of suspicion and disbelief within the Home Office, where time and target pressures often lead to bad and poorly-evidenced decisions. Lost in a system they don’t understand, the main character Aruna and her daughter portray an interesting dynamic between mother and daughter – the naivety of youth versus the solemn acceptance of the wiser elder. 

The backdrop to the storyline is the hunger strike that around fifty women participated in at Yarl's Wood IRC in January last year, in protest at their often indefinite incarceration and conditions of detention. “They are making it worse for everyone”, Aruna says, betraying the kind of resignation that comes from months of incarceration. Sleeping much of the day, the extreme boredom, stress and inevitable depression that ongoing detention causes is evident. 

Many subtle references are made to the disorientating nature of the asylum and detention system. Even the incongruous Abba song that plays during a set change gives the audience an indication of the bewildering predicament asylum detainees find themselves in. Moved around with no notice and a total lack of information – in one scene mother and daughter appear to spend hours in the back of a van, with no idea where they are headed – they are cut off from support or legal representation and placed under great emotional and mental strain. 

With references to dawn raids, strip-searches and verbal abuse from IRC staff, inhumanity is a constant theme. “Look at them. Still hoping”, shouts an experienced officer to her junior. 

With the passage of time comes a glimmer of hope – release – but the odds are set against the mother and daughter for both the initial asylum claim and consequent appeal. The storyline may not be new, particularly to those conversant with asylum and immigration issues in the UK. The simplistic language and expressive acting at times fails to reflect the resignation that one would expect detainees to display. But Fit for Purpose brings to life the vivid and horrific experiences that asylum seekers in the UK are forced to endure. Finally, what the play challenges is the very notion of having a one-size-fits-all policy for dealing with asylum seekers with distinct and unique problems. 

'Fit for Purpose' is at the Pleasance Attic in Edinburgh from 3rd to 29th August. Tickets can be bought hereThe play has been awarded the Charlie Hartill Special Reserve Fund for 2011 and is supported by End Child Detention Now.

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