Refugee Walk // Part 2 by Inua Ellams
Refugee Walk // Part 2
Refugee Tales’ simple mandate is to put an end to Britain’s indefinite detention of immigrants. Britain is the only country in the EU that does this — that detains immigrants, essentially imprisons them indefinitely. Refugee Tales organises journeys by foot, from Canterbury to London, offering walkers ‘the opportunity to reflect on the long and dangerous journey that many refugees make fleeing war and persecution’. Along the route, at churches where they stop for the night, they invite speakers, musicians and writers to share work related to the aims and goals of the organisation. Refugee Tales ask writers to meet with immigrants and to write down theirs stories. This is how I first met the organisation. Last year, for my work in schools and with young people, I was invited to work with unaccompanied minors, with young people who made the treacherous journey from Sudan, through the Sahara desert, to Libya, through Europe and then to London. Working with them, attempting to write the story, was singularly the most difficult thing I accomplished last year. I was emotionally spent at the end. I was a wreck. You can, and should buy the first volume of the stories here.
What I half expected, catching the train to Rochester for the second leg of the journey to Gravesend, was to meet a sombre group of well-meaning folk, stood solemnly. What I met was much much more and filled with vitality, enthusiasm, humour, pragmatism and forthrightness … an excited and excitable bunch including refugees who’d come from across the country, and visitors from across the world, from Denmark, Canada, Iceland and America. The Icelandic lady heard of the Refugees Tales journey on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and knew that she had to be a part of it. She was in my group; we were divided into three sets and set off walking at a leisurely pace, pairing and scattering into conversations with each other on themes broad as the horizon unfolding in front of us, through town centres, backstreets, open fields and wheat farms, to St Mary’s Church in Lower Hingham, Rochester. This was the first stop, a public discussion on The Immigration & Asylum Act 2016 which Theresa May, about to become our next (unelected) Tory Prime Minister, had sanctioned. The speakers were Christine Oliver of Samphire and Richard Warren of Kent Law Clinic.
Theresa May’s simple mandate is to make Britain a hostile environment for immigrants. This is no approximation of her and the Home Office’s intentions, but a direct quote. Hostile. May passed The Immigration & Asylum Act 2014, which sent shockwaves throughout the Immigration Law communities, which lawyers are still, still grappling with. The 2016 Act updates and intensifies those draconian mandates. In a sense, one can describe May’s methodology as where David Cameron’s ‘big society’ plan meets austerity meets legitimised xenophobia. Influenced by immigration statistical myths, which captured Britain’s wild imagination, which led to Brexit, the new law states that, if an asylum application (which can take years — mine took fourteen) is denied, individuals have twenty-one days to make an appeal or leave the country, families have just ninety days, after which the state will cease all assistance and applicants will be thrown out of government-provided temporary accommodation onto the streets. In doing so, the Home Office shifts responsibility and expects local governments to provide for those they make homeless. 2014’s Act slashed financial and legal aid for asylum seekers, meaning that, in the little time they have in which to find legal defence and mount an appeal, they also need to find money to pay for lawyer fees. Here is where it gets worse. Immigrants who are caught in this quagmire find what little cash-in-had work they can do to pay their way, to find accommodation and to pay landlords rent. The 2016 Act makes it a criminal offence for landlords or people with spare rooms to provide such arrangements for the immigrant-homeless. The 2016 Act also grants powers to banks to freeze bank accounts of suspected illegal immigrants (or people in the appeal process), and request dentists and doctors working within the NHS to report such people. The Act effectively turns British citizens into immigration law enforcers. It internalises the UK Border Authority, it asks us to spy on each other, on the most vulnerable members of society. It is treacherous.
Under this cloud, we leave, journeying again into the Kent countryside beside the River Thames, walking past wild horses, sheep, ships sailing the river and discussing the various ways this act threatens our country, those we love and our lives. We tell stories to each other about ourselves, hiking to Gravesend, to the Methodist Church where the host, Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland, musician Haykmanot Tsefa and writers Josh Cohen and Kamila Shamsie are to draw the day’s walking to a close. Josh’s story, ‘The Support Workers’ Tale’, is about a centre run by the same Jewish synagogue Jonathan attends. It is about the interactions of its volunteers with the immigrants that travel into the warm embrace of the space they provide, about the real lives in limbo, about how the build a safe space. Haykmanot Tesfa’s music, played on an instrument akin to a lyre, is gorgeous and evocative, but Kamila Shamsie’s story ‘The Lover’s Tale’ is simply written, horrific and haunting. It tells about a man who had been tricked into killing his own brother by his government and forced to partake in genital mutilation, who escaped twice, was caught twice and tortured by them while his wife and children were exiled on pain of death; finding his way to England, the small law he broke – working a menial job to fend for his family – condemned him to fifteen years more of limbo and unconfirmed status, of fear and uncertainty. I left the church at that point. I could not hold back my tears. I ran out into the streets and three members of the congregation came after me.
Jonathan Freedland put it most succinctly when he said that, though everything seems dark and the social and political tide of this country has turned … public opinion changes and changes quickly. I walked back into the church and looked around at those I had marched with, at their effortless, freely-given, overflowing compassion, the eighty miles they had PAID to cover on foot, in solidarity with immigrants, with those as myself, thought of the fact that the British Medical Association plans to publicly and resoundingly renounce the Immigration Act 2016, and took comfort in the possibility of change. This story, Jonathan said, isn’t over yet, it is still being written.