BETHANY RIELLY recommends a powerful series of accounts by refugees seeking asylum in Britain
Refugee Tales II
Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus
(Comma Press, £9.99)
BORDERS are not just fences and rivers.
They are the incomprehensible jargon of immigration law, regulations that prevent asylum-seekers from working and rules that trap them in a terminal waiting room for years and years. Although the physical border has been crossed, asylum-seekers who come to Britain still exist on the outside of society, frozen at the edges.
Moving from detention centres in Canterbury, Westminster and Runnymede, Refugee Tales II communicates the experiences of those who are going through Britain’s cruel immigration system. Their tales are expressed through the pens of writers, academics and poets. Although this format takes the story out of the refugee’s control, the sensitive and extremely poignant way the accounts are communicated does them the justice they deserve.
Modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the collection is divided under anonymous headings such as The Smuggled Person’s Tale and The Lover’s Tale because naming the story tellers could damage their asylum applications. Each explores a different angle and narrative within the immigration system, from the refugees themselves to a barrister, social worker and even a Home Office official but there is a distinct message throughout — to expose the cruelty of the system and demand an end to indefinite detention. Britain is the only country in Europe that carries out this practice and although most refugees are held for less than a month, some have had years stolen from them in these traumatic centres.
A few of the story-tellers have been waiting for over a decade in this carefully constructed limbo that has one disturbing purpose — to make them leave. The story that epitomises this painful process is the Voluntary Returner. After 15 years of living outside of society the African protagonist decides he cannot bear his interminable life of waiting any longer.
When he comes to Britain he’s unlucky enough to be confronted by an immigration officer who strip searches him and places a black mark by his name. It is only when he learns English that he realised this man had “killed” his hopes for asylum as soon as he touched down on British soil.
For the years that follow, he still has to sign in every month at a centre 24 miles away from his home without money to pay for travel.
Losing case after case, appeal after appeal and going in and out of detention, his hopes are eventually ground into nothing: “Better die at home than continue like this.” The writer describes this process as “bureaucratic abuse” and “slow violence.”
This is the reality for refugees who have fl ed unspeakable horrors only to fi nd themselves trapped in a system deliberately designed to make their lives impossible.