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The Refugee Tales: unheard voices


The author joins the solidarity 13-kilometre hike. by Michaela Whitton

‘There's really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’ – Arundhati Roy

It is a grey Monday morning and I am on my way to join a pilgrimage through Kent, the county known as the Garden of England. As we rumble through villages, ancient ports and seaside towns, I reflect on the day’s themes of movement and migration. People stream on and off the train with freedom to choose their journeys, and where and when they travel. Their days framed with the certainty of knowing their homes are waiting for them just as they left them, beds made or unmade.

As the train rumbles past the patchwork fields, I read Amnesty‘s latest damning report ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: A conspiracy of neglect’ which accuses world leaders of condemning millions to an unbearable existence. Over 50 million people have been displaced globally in the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War . I think about some of the people I’m about to meet, victims of brutal wars and selfish political interests with stories of exile, dispossession and perilous journeys seeking sanctuary.

The sun’s appearance welcomes us to historic Canterbury, rendezvous point for Day 3 of the Refugee Tales. Despite squeaky mattresses and reports of occasional snorers 3 nights of communal sleeping in church halls hasn’t dampened the spirits of the core group of 47 walkers, later to be joined by another 40 for the day’s 13-kilometre hike.

Following the British Immigration services’ crackdown and detention of people at Gatwick airport in 1995, a group of volunteers set up the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group. Twenty years later, 90 volunteers provide support to those in detention and 10 months of planning and hard work by staff and volunteers has given birth to the unique ‘Refugee Tales’.

Inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the 130-kilometre walk from Dover to Crawley is taking the stories of detainees on the road via paths trodden by the Canterbury pilgrims. The simplicity of putting one foot in front of another, at times through rightwing UK Independence Party territory, is used to celebrate the positive contributions refugees make to society whilst encouraging wider debates during Refugee Week.

Complementing the camaraderie of the pilgrimage are evening events of prose, poetry and drama. Leading writers have worked closely with ex-detainees using varied styles to retell their stories. Hundreds have attended the events, which have been described as ‘electrifying’ and ‘making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up’.

Britain detains 30,000 migrants per year in 10 centres across Britain, some run by the prison service, others by controversial transnationals such as Serco and G4S. Over half the detainees are asylum-seekers, their stories drowned out by the deafening roar of negative press, myths and scaremongering.

Britain is the only European country to practise indefinite detention. Detainees can be held for years at an average cost of $64,000 per head. In a system labelled ‘inefficient, expensive and a waste of human lives’, campaigners are lobbying for a 28-day maximum time limit on detention. ‘In prisons people count down the days; in immigration, detainees count up,’ reported one volunteer.

Reports of harrowing treatment of detainees emerge constantly. Undercover investigations into practices at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire have exposed what has been called ‘state sanctioned abuse of women’ and led to dismissal of staff. A dossier produced by women’s rights groups last week revealed hundreds of complaints by female detainees and concluded with a call to shut the centre down. Indefinite detention itself is proven to have a profoundly negative impact on mental health, and it is not difficult to imagine how traumatizing physical, mental and sexual abuse by those in power is for vulnerable detainees.

‘Everyone was staring at the black guy in handcuffs’

With visible scars from head to toe after escaping spine-chilling brutality, Mohammed made it to Britain against all odds. His refugee tale is harrowing. Handcuffed and stripped of possessions on arrival, he was then detained for his first 3 years in Britain. Despite strong criticism by the UN of the UK Border Agency’s detention of torture victims, Mohammed said he was humiliated and treated like a criminal. During his first 10 months in detention he attempted to take his own life 5 times.

Mohammed worked in the kitchen while detained, earning just under $12 for 10 hours’ work. Another ex-detainee who worked as a cleaner for $4.76 a day said, ‘I knew I was being exploited but I wanted to get out of my cell.’ In-depth investigations by Corporate Watch have shown private firms are saving millions by using detainees as cheap labour.

Mohammed described being taken into the town centre for an eye-test surrounded by 4 security guards. ‘Everyone was staring at the black guy in handcuffs,’ he said.

Now Mohammed awaits the outcome of his asylum claim and lives with 18 others in a block of flats he describes as ‘like a prison’. He is photographed on exit and entry and his landlords have a master key. Like other asylum-seekers, he is unable to work and lives on $58.66 a week via a plastic card only valid at certain supermarkets.

‘Animals here have more rights than us’

In another real-life tale, Ola was released and rearrested 3 times after 3 years in detention. He didn’t want to speak to me and became angry:

‘Why would I want to speak to you? What’s the point? Nothing changes for us; it doesn’t matter who we speak to, nothing changes. For years, my life’s been on hold, so what is the point in speaking about it?’ The guys tried to calm him as his voice escalated, ‘I may have been released from the detention centre but I'm still in prison,’ He yelled. ‘Animals here have more rights than us!’

It is not my intention to whitewash the complexities of the British immigration detention system with this short piece. Concerns over indefinite detention, accounts of exploitation by profiteering transnationals and the lack of physical and mental healthcare for detainees have been widely documented and warrant further reading.

Britain, famous as a mosaic of cultures, languages and religions, has pulled up the drawbridge. Promises to reduce annual net migration by creating a ‘hostile environment’ are being fulfilled. The claims are that the focus is on those here illegally but there is no such thing as an illegal asylum-seeker. If this is how we treat those seeking refuge, how are we treating those who are not?

Asked what he enjoyed most about the Refugee Tales, Mohammed became animated and his eyes lit up. ‘We went to a village and there was a church. People were waiting for us with coffee, tea and cakes. The welcome was so brilliant, I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing.’

After being in Britain for 4 years, Mohammed was incredulous at experiencing his first welcome.

For more on the detention of asylum-seekers in Britain and beyond, read the January/February 2014 issue of New Internationalist: Detained World.

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