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UK asylum: Fit for Purpose?

Over four years a young dramatist’s curiosity drew her into the UK’s asylum system. Her new play previews in London on Tuesday.

Over four years a young dramatist’s curiosity drew her into the UK’s asylum system. Her new play previews in London on Tuesday.

We spread out across the room forming a world map on the floor, each person standing in their country of origin. We sing: 'The river is flowing/ Flowing and growing/Flowing and growing/ Down to the sea/'. We imagine we are standing on the banks of a river we remember in a place we know well. We say the name of the river and in our minds we are there.

That was Deptford, 2006, part of Greenwich and Lewisham Young People's Theatre's Voices programme. I worked on a daytime arts and English learning club for young new arrivals (both asylum seekers and migrants) waiting for a place in school. Some had been waiting for six months, isolated and unable to learn English. I was impressed by how quickly they began to be streetwise, sociable and confident in English once part of the group or in school.

Working with this group inspired me to start the research for a play. I didn’t know how it would begin. Then, one morning in November 2007, a BBC Radio 4 interview with Rahila Gupta made me sit up in bed. It concerned Gupta's book Enslaved: The New British Slavery and focussed on the experience of a woman referred to as Fahria Nur, forced to be a slave for the family of a man who abused her. Arriving in Britain she ends up as a slave for various women in the London Somali community.

What struck me most about Fahria's story was that her Somali interpreter had told her not to mention being raped in her asylum claim. This omission damaged her claim, especially since the authorities treat suspiciously any information added later. Like so many, she ended up living in limbo, waiting for a long time for an answer to the appeal, unable to work and facing destitution and depression.

Fahria’s story inspired the central character in my play.

I met an asylum lawyer in London in October 2007. He gave me a glimpse of what was going on behind the razor wire in Britain’s detention centres. One client hadn't seen a lawyer during two years in detention. The man had originally been detained for damaging his fingertips (allegedly so that his fingerprints could not be traced to a third country in which he’d already claimed asylum) but the lawyer could see no sign of any damage. The lawyer explained how very tight time constraints on claims and appeals worked against asylum seekers who are often deeply traumatized and may need a lot of support and counselling before they can begin to talk about what has happened to them. The mother and daughter at the centre of my play are exhausted and traumatized by the time they arrive here and like so many have no energy left to fight.

I watched the BBC documentary, Detention undercover The real story. Detainees were woken up by the song ‘A Little Mouse with Clogs on’ being played into their bedrooms at full volume. A guard came in and forced a man to get out of bed shouting at him, “You won’t do what I tell you coz I’m white. My grandfather shot your grandfather and nicked your country off you for 200 years.” The man is then dragged out of bed. A woman who runs the centre explains that they put people in solitary confinement for “fence watching” — looking outside is taken as evidence of intent to escape. Such incident and dialogue went straight into my play.

In January 2010 I interviewed someone who works for the UK Border Agency, processing asylum claims. This helped me to understand the challenges facing people working in the system. She talked about the enormous pressure on time, the tough targets and the pressure to refuse asylum. She explained that the UKBA management fail to appreciate the diverse needs and experiences of asylum-seekers, citing the one-size-fits-all interview duration as one example of the lack of understanding.

By this point I had written and rewritten the play several times, but something important was missing: an element of hope. Then I met the All Africa Women's Group, a group of asylum seekers based at Crossroads Women's Centre in London’s Kentish Town.  They support one another, provide legal support and campaign for fairer treatment of asylum seekers. Twice I went with them to lobby parliament. They spoke of their experiences of detention and the asylum system.

The first visit in January 2010 focussed on their Mothers’ Campaign, a petition for better treatment of families. One member told me how she had had to leave behind her children when she fled Rwanda and they were very young, but that her asylum claim had remained unresolved by the government for so many years that her son was nearly 18. A key point in the petition is to allow families to be reunited. The second lobbying effort, in June 2010, focussed on the treatment of those women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre who had gone on hunger strike in February 2010. 

In a letter to the Guardian the hunger strikers wrote: “We were attacked by guards, ‘kettled’ for hours, denied access to toilets and water and locked outside in freezing conditions.” Women were removed to Holloway women's prison for provoking disorder. These strikes attracted more media coverage than previous hunger strikes and debate on the ethics of detention.

My play is supported by the End Child Detention Now (ECDN) campaign that started in late 2009. They have helped me find sources and I’ve represented the campaign at events such as the Diana Fund’s celebration of the young people whose stories are told in the Frances Lincoln 'Refugee Diaries' series. Several times in the past year ending detention looked achievable, making my play a piece of history. Nick Clegg campaigned on a promise to end child detention, it was in his manifesto, and the Lib Dems pushed that pledge into the Coalition agreement. Then in November Clegg announced that no child would be detained over Christmas, but that wasn't true and families are still detained. Hopefully at some point soon what happens in my play and the detention of innocent people will in fact be history.

Fit for Purpose by Catherine O'Shea previews at the Pleasance Islington on 19th and 20th July at 7.30. It is then at the Pleasance Attic in Edinburgh 3rd - 29th August at 12.45. For tickets www.pleasance.co.uk. The play has been awarded the Charlie Hartill Special Reserve Fund for 2011 and is supported by End Child Detention Now.


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