Refugee tales

Inspired by Chaucer’s great poem and calling for an end to indefinite detention, this year’s Refugee Tales embarks from Runnymede. Join all or part of an uplifting journey, writes Josephine Henderson

The Chairman’s Column on indefinite immigration detention in the March issue of Counsel sparked huge interest, and readers may also be interested to know about a walk from Runnymede to Westminster from 1 to 5 July 2017. 

The walk is part of Refugee Tales, a project organised by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), David Herd, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent and Anna Pincus of GDWG. Described as ‘A Walk in Solidarity with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Detainees’, it calls for an end to indefinite detention.

Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s great poem of journeying and story-telling, the walk is now in its third year. Each year we have been joined by former detainees, authors, academics, journalists and actors such as Ali Smith, Ian Sinclair, Jeremy Irons, Patience Agbabi, Ben Okri, Jonathan Freedland and Sheila Hancock.

Performance tales from Runnymede to Westminster

This year, by starting at Runnymede, we begin with the birthplace of the rule of law and site of the establishment of due process (the link encapsulated in the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law report on immigration detention by Michael Fordham QC et al). From there we will stop at Walton, Kingston, Brentford and Hammersmith. Each evening there will be performances of two public tales: one, the tale of an asylum seeker, former immigration detainee or refugee; the other of a person who works with people seeking asylum in the UK. Each tale is a collaboration between an established writer and the person whose tale is being told. We will be joined, at various points, by Sorcha Cusack, Neel Mukherjee, Vahni Capildeo, Helen Macdonald, Sameena Zehra, Alex Preston, Ali Smith, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Olivia Laing, Sheila Hancock, Ian Duhig, Marina Warner, Angie Hobbs, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Hugh Muir and some brilliant musicians. Walkers have different backgrounds, beliefs and political views but we share the view that indefinite detention is fundamentally unfair and inhumane.

Join the call – join the walk

The call for an end to the indefinite detention of migrants has received cross-party support. The Joint Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration called for a maximum period of 28 days. As the Inquiry observed: ‘We believe that the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of upholding justice and the right to liberty. However, the continued use of indefinite detention puts this proud tradition at risk.’ Recently the panel commented on ‘the growing evidence that indefinite detention has an extremely negative mental health impact, costs more to the public purse and is less effective than alternative immigration enforcement models’.

People speak on the walks of the interminable uncertainty of it all; of waking up each day not knowing if you were going to be taken for deportation or released; if you will be one of the 280 or so who stay more than six months, or of the nearly 100 who stay more than a year (last year’s figures). They talk about not being able to count down the days to release; how it could be days, weeks, months even years but it might be today. A visit from a detention officer bringing news gives only minutes to prepare, for deportation or release. Not understanding the process is the norm, as is not knowing if you’ve been forgotten. Most things are bearable if you know there is an end to them. In his book The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill said of World War II prisoner of war camps: ‘Prison camp life would not have been so bad if it weren’t such an indefinite sentence.’

Movement echoes migration

I have found the walks uplifting and inspiring. You can easily drift in and out of conversation or just walk in silence. Movement echoes migration. The land tells its own story: the Pilgrim’s Way, Runnymede, the River Thames. We are aware of physical boundaries, common land and connected territories. We are affected by the power and beauty of the spoken word. Stories of all kinds are carried along the walk and belong to us all, stories for which responsibility is shared. Blisters, aches and pains feature (like the London Legal Walk), but remember your friend has suffered worse. Most who walk are profoundly aware of the value of freedom, the rule of law, fairness and justice. As a barrister I’m reminded of the responsibility of holding a story and of the great privilege of listening and giving voice to the unheard

Next steps

Contributor Josephine Henderson, Five Paper Buildings

Author details: 
Josephine Henderson

Josephine is at Five Paper and has a social housing practice.