Imagine being a young man, not much more than a boy, keen to live your life with your friends and family, and make your way in the world.
You have already faced hardship, fear and danger, loss and loneliness in your short life, both in your home country and on the journey, and now you are in the UK, placed by the authorities in a place with bars, and guards, and desperately unhappy men.
You can’t use skills or gain qualifications in work or education. You ask what is happening and when you will be able to leave. The guards shrug their shoulders because they don’t know. In 2021, 24,497 people entered immigration detention. This is but one of many refugee tales.
A summer walk in Sussex
On Saturday 8 July 2023, a group of people will set off on foot from Three Bridges, ending up at Worthing five days later via Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Brighton and Shoreham. En route, there will be stories told, readings given, conversation and live music, as well as convivial meals – evoking the experience of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.
Refugee Tales is a registered charity, the aim of which is a future without immigration detention, and was founded as the outreach branch of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG). I met GDWG’s Marygold Lewis, who told me about the welfare work, and the joy of the summer walks and events with Refugee Tales. A community is formed around a monthly walk, open to anyone who would like to extend a friendly welcome to refugees, at the same time building up their stamina for the five-day annual event in the summer.
The UK: a place of suffering …
Refugee Tales started walking in 2015 to raise awareness of what life was, and is, like for migrants who have fled to the UK, and to raise funds to help. The reality is that the UK is now the only country in Europe that allows people to be detained indefinitely.
The GDWG was founded in 1995 to support those held at the Brook and Tinsley detention centres near Gatwick. GDWG arrange visitors and legal advice for people who are detained, and help those released with clothes, supermarket vouchers and mobile phone top-ups. The centres were designed to house men for a matter of hours or a few days at most, but many are held there for weeks, months and even years. The Brook House Inquiry, opened after the 2017 episode of Panorama that exposed the poor treatment of men held there, has yet to report.
Meanwhile both centres, now named immigration removal centres, remain open, as do at least eight others. They are now run by Serco instead of G4S, and there are now apparently leisure facilities such as a gym and library. However, an outcry about the £6mn per day spent on accommodation for those seeking asylum – with numbers rising thanks to global conflict, climate change and a large backlog in processing claims – has led to the kind of suggestions that bring to mind grim Dickensian squalor. If people are housed in large numbers on barges and in disused military barracks, last year’s outbreaks of diphtheria and scarlet fever are unlikely to be the last.
… and a place of asylum
The UK is clearly no longer the same country which readily gave citizenship to many – as it did to the parents of past and present home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman – thereby providing the opportunity for their children to flourish. Even Theresa May, home secretary in 2012 and responsible for creating the hostile environment, has stood up in parliament to decry the government’s illegal migration bill.
The bill has caused alarm among human rights groups and is likely to breach international law, which appears to be a badge of pride for Braverman. The political rhetoric against ‘lefty lawyers’ and ‘invasion’ is extreme. When this was pointed out on Twitter by the sports broadcaster and former England footballer Gary Lineker, he was suspended by the BBC, until their entire sports schedule was decimated by his colleagues walking out in solidarity. Thirteen years after the Conservatives came to power, and seven after the Brexit referendum, immigration is more of a divisive issue than it has ever been.
Marygold Lewis is in no doubt as to why both GDWG and Refugee Tales are needed. To deny people agency in their lives for an indeterminate period of time is “dehumanising, and a waste of life”. It also damages mental health in the long term, particularly when it compounds traumatic experiences that they have already undergone.
“The walks are special,” she tells me, “because people just find they get along. We all have things to offer, and things to share”. The four volumes of tales produced by the walks, some told with the help of celebrated authors, and relayed on screen by actors, celebrate her conviction.
At the time of writing, there are few tickets remaining for the walks, but the evening events can be joined separately. Details can be found at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/refugee-tales-the-walk-of-2023-tickets-492352638997
Refugee Tales can be found at www.refugeetales.org, on Twitter @RefugeeTales or on Instagram as refugeetales. To find out more, to donate or to volunteer, the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group can be reached at www.gdwg.org.uk, on Twitter @GatDetainees, by emailing [email protected], or on Instagram as gatwickdetaineeswelfaregroup