Neel Mukherjee, a Refugee Tales Vol II writer, and Mary Barrett, a representative from Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, talk to Nomia Iqbal at the BBC Asian Network discussing Refugee Tales Volume II, indefinite immigration detention and the importance of sharing the stories of detainees and asylum seekers. Listen here (1:22:40 minutes in) or read the transcript below:
Nomia: Welcome back to The Big Debate on the Asian Network, I’m Nomia Iqbal. Now the average journey a refugee will take to get from one place to the next varies a lot. You know we hear about people travelling for days, for months, and miles, in all kinds of terrible conditions. And one group is hoping to get people to think about this by also taking a walk. The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group has organised a five day walk from Surrey into Central London with a project called Refugee Tales. So at each resting point writers and musicians will share stories they’ve had with refugees and detainees. So, really getting a sense of what these people are going through. To tell me more I’ve got Mary Barrett from Refugee Tales and also Neel Mukherjee who is one of the authors, with me this morning. Welcome to you both.
Mary/Neel: Thank you.
Nomia: Mary, can I just start off by talking a little bit about refugees and migrants and detainees. Do you think there’s a lot of ignorance around these people and what they’re going through?
Mary: I think there’s a great deal of ignorance. I’m, actually, a volunteer visitor for the small charity with a long name, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, been visiting people held in immigration detention, and although there are many people living in our country who are refugees and migrants, you probably wouldn’t notice who they were if you passed them in the street. They’re probably very poor, they have hardly any money, they’ve got very poor housing, but the people held in detention are totally invisible. I mean, as you take off on your holiday from Gatwick Airport you will pass two large buildings and they are Brook House and Tinsley House and are Immigration Removal Centres and they hold 700 men. So right next to the runway at Gatwick, 700 men at any one time are being held in detention. And the really awful thing about that is the people held there don’t know how long they’re going to be held.
Nomia: And where are these men from?
Mary: All over the world. However, if you think about the parts of the world where there are the most significant problems, they are the ones that have- the most being held.
Nomia: And these are young men? People from all different backgrounds?
Mary: Young men, middle aged men, there was a man the other day I saw who was well over 60 and had probably been living in this country quite a long time. A lot of people from the Indian sub continent.
Nomia: So what’s happening? Are they waiting to be processed or are they just waiting?
Mary: Well they have been told that their papers are not in order and that they are likely to be removed from the country. Um- and their papers are being processed. Some of them will have legal challenges, some of them will just be waiting to fly, some of them will be in the long process of seeking asylum that is actually being processed. But in the meantime they’re being held in detention. We are the only country in Europe that holds people indefinitely, so they have no knowledge of how long they’re going to be held and it can be days, months and years.
Nomia: They’re given no information?
Mary: They’re given no information and that is a very, very, very hard thing to be able to endure.
Nomia: And that’s the kind of thing you’re hoping to raise awareness of with this walk. Tell us a little bit about it.
Mary: Well the walk is, as you said we’re walking from a very historically significant place, Runnymede, which is where Magna Carta was signed, to Westminster. So we are carrying with us the knowledge of this country and it’s great political, legal traditions. And as we walk, we talk. We talk to each other, to the visitors, the people who come and walk with us-
Nomia: So anyone can come along and walk with you?
Mary: Yes, you have to sign up and book. I think today is the last day you can book to walk and we have with us about a dozen guest walkers. Who are people who’ve been held in detention themselves and are now living in the community. They walk with us and they are a really important guests who are able to talk to us, to anybody, about their experience.
Nomia: And Neel this is where you come in because you’re one of the authors who spent time with a detainee, I believe?
Neel: Yes, they came up with, GDWG and David Herd of University of Canterbury, came up with the very canny idea of linking some of these detainees and asylum seekers with writers and poets; who would then listen to the stories of these detainees and then write a tale. Like, based loosely on idea of Canterbury Tales, y’know this whole walk and stuff. So they team you up with, well each individual writer is teamed up with a particular asylum seeker or detainee. In my case, I was teamed up with a soldier from Eritrea and I listened to his story, then I wrote a story for the book, Refugee Tales. And I think this is a canny idea, as I mentioned, ‘cause once you get away from generalisations and such, y’know a ‘swamp of immigrants’ or a ‘hoard of migrants’ and all those terribly toxic headlines – which the British press has been injecting into the mainstream for God knows how many decades – once you get away from the general idea and move to the individual, if you can listen to or hear or read someone’s individual story, who may be part of that hoard or swamp, suddenly that humanises the whole tale for you.
Nomia: They’re not just a statistic.
Neel: They’re not a statistic, they are an individual. And you know this is what I think this sort of fiction, the novel or the short story, does so well. It gives you a human angle on what could’ve just remained a statistic or a terrible headline.
Nomia: I appreciate you can’t go into too much detail about the soldier, what really stayed with you about his story?
Neel: Oh, lots of things actually. The fact that he was illegally conscripted in Eritrea, which has a long long history of forcible conscription. He was told by his commander that he would only fight in wars for six months and that became six years. When he said ‘I want my freedom’ he was banged up in an underground prison. From which he and eight other men escaped and they walked all the way from Eritrea to Sudan, and in Sudan he was an illegal immigrant. Obviously, because he had no papers, and then he was trafficked from there to Libya. Hearing all these stories you think you really don’t get to know how this part of the world lives. I mean, we are told by the toxic British press that these people are all coming into Britain to scam the social security system and you think, a person who has a life like that, the last thing on this person’s mind is how to get into a country to actually play their social security system. It’s absolutely the last thing, they want to survive in the world, y’know?
Nomia: To pick up on the ‘toxic’ comment you make, this I imagine, sort of, is concentrated on a specific part of the press. We don’t want to name names but I’m sure our listeners will probably get an idea of what you mean. How do you overcome that? Because I know people who do have this view point that we just don’t have room for people here. Or if there are people being detained, ‘well so they should be until we find out what use they are to the country.’ I’m being really harsh here, by the way, I’m really putting forward to you a viewpoint that does genuinely exist out there and I’m sure you’re both aware of that. I wonder how you overcome that, I guess doing this is one way of it.
Neel: Doing this is certainly one way. The other thing to do is, as I always think, is education and knowledge and awareness. You can actually combat the lies that are put out about these people. Of course, infinite immigration is neither feasible nor desirable and it’s simply not a sustainable thing to do but Britain has become a terrible place for taking refugees in. Y’know, in the most recent Syrian crisis, when all countries in Europe signed up for a certain amount of refugees to be taken, Britain took the lowest number of immigrants and only after a huge outcry. So on moral and humanitarian grounds it’s failing in a very big way and I feel if this moral and humanitarian ground could be argued more forcefully and could have more play and more mileage amongst people, I think people would actually change their minds. Those very people that think no we can’t take everybody everyone in – no of course we can’t take everyone in but you can take some people in, right?
Nomia: You’re nodding along to that Mary.
Mary: I agree because I really believe in the basic humanity of the British public. The British public are- have this really long and noble tradition of welcoming people who are desperate and seeking asylum. There’s a whole history of it, living in London you know that, you can see it every time you walk down the street. And I think, as Neel said, the story of the man who was a soldier and who escaped, his story when you listen to it, you cannot help but be moved. And I think it’s the individual and that’s why Refugee Tales concentrates on the individual, it concentrates on the language of welcome, not of hostility. We are welcoming people, that’s why the evening tales and the free events that we hold in the towns along our route are so significant. Members of the public are encouraged and invited to come along and listen. Then the book, which is again the tales told in print form, is again another method of trying to disseminate this and trying to change views, change opinions. Because I think that’s the only way you can do it, incrementally you can only just try to get support. We’re working with a number of MPs actually, to try and get indefinite detention looked at in detail in parliament. So that’s our goal because it’s only by a change in the law we can get people to stop the atrocious, expensive, and really unfair detention of people.
Nomia: I guess, a lot of people don’t know it’s going on and when they do hear about it, and I come back to this point you mentioned about humanising the story, I think that’s so key. For example with the refugee crisis that we saw, it took the picture of that very small little boy, Alan Kurdi, for suddenly people to think ‘oh there is a face, there is a name’ and I guess, just going back to what you’re doing, that’s what you’re trying to do here.
Neel: And the idea of welcoming people into a country and making a home for them, these people are going to work, assimilate and pay taxes and become part of the fabric of the country and make it more diverse, more plural.
Nomia: If you don’t mind me saying Neel, you’re a good example of that. You came to the UK from India in 1992.
Neel: Yeah, exactly, and this country was generous enough to give me a home and I consider Britain my home now and I hope I’m giving something back to the country. Y’know, the idea of staying in this country and sponging off it’s systems is unthinkable to me, as it would be unthinkable to all these people.
Mary: Yes, precisely because they don’t understand that we have benefits systems, all they want to do is work. They want to work, they want to be able to live, they don’t want to be- y’know exile is difficult and challenging and very often they’re separated from their family, probably forever because in some cases the opportunity to go back is not there.
Nomia: It’s a shame we don’t have a government minister on here to take on your points. But in terms of getting people involved, you were saying that you have to sign up for this, right? If you want to take part in this?
Mary: If you want to walk you have to sign up to walk because for safety reasons we can’t have too many come along. But you can come to our evening events, we’ve got a fantastic website and I’ll tell you the names of the places we’re stopping in. where each night we will have an event where you can come along, free. In Bolton-on-Thames, Neel is reading his tale for the first time.
Neel: And you are fed at these events by the way.
Mary: Oh no, not everybody does.
Neel (laughing): Sorry!
Mary: Only the walkers are getting fed.
Nomia: Love it, you’re like ‘guys, free food.’ That will get people out.
Mary: So that’s Saturday night, the first of July. Second of July we’re in Kingston-on-Thames, right in the centre of Kingston. Then we cross over the river, we’re in Brentford on Monday night and then Tuesday Night we finish in Hammersmith at the Polish Cultural Centre, a very famous place in the centre of Hammersmith. Our host that night is Sheila Hancock. And I should mention who some people might know, Sameena Zehra, who is a well known stand-up and is hilarious but also very supportive of us. She has been our host three times on our walks, so Sameena is appearing at Brentford on Monday evening and many are welcome.
Nomia: And did you say that there will be people who have been in this situation on that walk?
Mary: Absolutely, yes, yes.
Nomia: But Neel, you and other authors will be representing quite a lot of the stories.
Neel: I will be reading my soldier’s tale in Bolton-on-Thames on Saturday. And the other writers will pick up and will be reading on the subsequent days.
Mary: Yes, we’ve got the mother’s tale, we’ve got the teacher’s tale-
Nomia: So really breaking it down and hearing from all different people involved. And in terms of the actual book, when is that book out? So if they want to read your story, Neel.
Neel: Well I don’t know actually, that’s what I was just asking Mary. When will it be out?
Mary: The book’s official launch is in the middle of July, I think it’s about the 14th of July. However, the book will be on sale at all our events next week, from Saturday onwards. So we will be able to have the book distributed then. But it will be in sale from book shops in mid-July.
Nomia: And you have a twitter, @refugeetales.
Mary: We do indeed.
Nomia: It’s been so lovely talking to you both.
Neel: It’s been a great pleasure, thank you.
Nomia: And I wish you best of luck with this. We’ll hopefully check in with you.
Mary: I hope so, yes, love to.
Neel: Thank you very much.
Nomia: Thank you. That’s Mary Barrett from Refugee Tales and Neel Mukherjee, who is one of the authors that’s involved in writing a story for Refugee Tales. He spoke there about a soldier from Eritrea whose story he shared.
Refugee Tales Volume II is now available for pre-order directly from our website!
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