LIVES SUSPENDED: An Essay on ‘Refugee Tales’ and ‘Refugee Tales II’, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

This essay is part of our Threat Levels series. In 2006, the UK passed from a seemingly more casual and non-specific BIKINI state to a more serious state of threat, varying from substantial to critical. The reference to the likelihood of a terrorist attack has manifested itself in our day-to-day and conversations, and “threat” as an emotion, rather than a factual state, has spread to many other aspects of political and social life. In this thread, we feature essays, interviews, long reads, short reads and other forms of political writing that engage with issues of public discourse that induce menace and threat.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus (Comma Press, 2016)
Refugee Tales, Volume II, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus (Comma Press, 2017)

By Tom White

The stories collected in the two volumes of Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, take place in the long shadow of a cruel and manifest injustice: the United Kingdom is currently the only country in Europe where non-citizens can be detained indefinitely. While those with citizenship cannot be detained without charge for more than fourteen days (and, in practice, are rarely detained beyond 48 hours), refugees, those seeking asylum in Britain, and other immigration detainees can be held indefinitely, often in detention centres operated not by the state, but by multination corporations, ultimately with little transparency or meaningful accountability. In theory, detention centres are where those whose application for asylum has failed are held, pending their deportation. Recent figures have shown that, in practice, less than half of those in detention will be deported, with the remainder released back into society, their detention having not served any purpose.  

A collaboration between the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help (to which all profits from sales of the books will be donated), and a wide range of poets, authors, academics and activists, the Refugee Tales project calls, in the first instance and in the strongest possible terms, for an immediate end to the indefinite detention of refugees, asylum seekers and immigration detainees. More broadly, it demonstrates that solidarity with those who have fled persecution, oppression, war or famine, or a combination of these factors, only to find their lives cruelly and unnecessarily suspended by the British state, begins with acts of welcome and listening, through which their stories can be heard and circulated.

As David Herd writes in the afterword to the first volume, the connection to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is therefore both geographical and structural. The pilgrimage at the heart of Chaucer’s Tales follows the well-worn route from Southwark to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral, crossing part of the country that is integral to a certain sense of English cultural identity, and that is also now the first sight of the UK for those who arrive via the road, rail and ferry routes between Calais and Dover. Through a series of walks, the Refugee Tales project has sought to traverse and occupy this space, and to fill it with stories once more. In 2015, a large group walked from Dover to Crawley, via Canterbury and along the North Downs Way. In 2016, the second walk travelled from Canterbury to Westminster, via Dartford. At the start of July this year, another walk took place, this time from Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, to the gates of the Supreme Court in Westminster (Ellen Mara de Wachter’s account of the most recent walk for Frieze magazine is here). Each walk provided the opportunity for those who have experienced detention at the hands of the British state, as well as interpreters, lawyers and activists who work with people seeking asylum, to share their experiences.

The two volumes of Refugee Tales are the published counterparts to these journeys. Some of the tales were performed as part of a series of events planned to mark the walkers’ progress along the route. All are the result of writers speaking with those who have intimate knowledge of the British immigration system and detention, hearing their testimonies and translating them into short tales. That the protagonists of these tales remain anonymous is important: some fear for the safety of family and friends in the country they have fled; for those whose immigration status is still to be decided, there is also a very real fear that sharing traceable details could lead to reprisals from the UK Home Office and Border Force (a fear that should provide a good indicator of the manner in which the British immigration system treats these individuals).

This principle of anonymity, which Herd calls a “shaping conceit” that projects like Refugee Tales should ultimately aim to render unnecessary, brings questions of mediation into focus. In reading the Canterbury Tales, we follow a narrator (a short, slightly overweight man called “Geoffrey Chaucer”) as he recounts the tales told by his fellow pilgrims as they make their way from the Tabard Inn towards Canterbury. Geoffrey also recounts the exchanges, occasionally fractious, always revealing, among the group as they travel. We can learn a lot about the varied cast of the Tales, both from the stories they tell and from these set-piece exchanges. We learn a lot about Geoffrey too, not only his appearance and demeanour, but also his opinions on his fellow travellers. Geoffrey claims the role of disinterested reporter, concerned only with relaying accurately what he has heard; yet it is in the gap between what Geoffrey tells us and what we can observe that much of the critical force and satirical humour of the Tales can be located. These elements all combine to produce a vast, though ultimately unfinished examination of language, literary influence, genre and form, and of the rapidly changing society in which Chaucer lived.[1]

In the Refugee Tales, we also learn something about the tellers from their tales, and a great deal about British society in the twenty-first century. Yet while the tellers mediate their stories – deciding on matters of voice, form and style – they are not responsible for them in quite the same way as Chaucer’s pilgrims are responsible for theirs. As a result, much of the force of the two volumes comes both from the specific events recounted, and the tellers’ unfolding realisation of the full extent of a system that is as callous and brutal as Britain’s current immigration and asylum policy. As Ali Smith writes in ‘The Detainee’s Tale’, having heard the account of a young Ghanaian man who had escaped human trafficking and slave labour, only to be detained, released, redetained and then rereleased by immigration services in the UK, “I am idiot. But I am learning. A mere hour or two with you … and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been taught is something world-sized.”

All the tales in the two volumes are at once deeply personal and “world-sized”, and the question of how best to convey both their specificity and their representativeness is clearly a significant one for the writers involved. There is also the challenge of conveying the myriad ways in which time itself can contract and expand in so many of these accounts. In a number of tales, the drama and tension of a hasty escape under the cover of darkness, of a day spent bailing water from a sinking raft adrift in the Mediterranean, or of clinging grimly to the side of a lorry as it hurtles through the Sahara, is quickly offset by the slow violence of the periods of crushing boredom, indignity and hopelessness of detention, and the interminable bureaucracy that detainees often endure once their cases have been brought (one tale recounts an asylum application brought before a judge on 18 separate occasions). Years and years of a person’s life can pass by over the course of a single sentence in the Refugee Tales.

A number of the writers who have taken on this difficult task opt for a relatively unobtrusive prose retelling, intercut with direct quotations, letting the people and events speak for themselves as much as possible. The short paragraphs of Olivia Laing’s ‘Abandoned Person’s Tale’, for instance, cover three decades of the life of a young man who flees oppression in his home country after involvement in student protests, but who is later indefinitely detained and threatened with deportation after spending a short time in prison. Much of the ‘Abandoned Person’s Tale’ is narrated in the second person, which appears frequently across the two volumes: “You are released, but you still aren’t at liberty. You cannot sleep … Sometimes you hear voices that tell you to kill yourself. Sometimes you talk out loud. You are depressed.”

There is a relatively wide stylistic and formal range to the Tales though, much of it providing an effective means by which to convey the wide range of experiences recorded across the two volumes. In alternating eight and six-line stanzas with a graceful, intricate rhyme scheme, Patience Agbabi’s ‘Refugee’s Tale’ recounts the plight of a family of Coptic Christians who have fled Sudan.[2] Earlier in the same volume, Carol Watt’s ‘Translator’s Tale’ details the role of translators in the asylum application process, and how whether an account is believed or not might hinge on the rendering of a single word. Through its jagged, irregular stanzas, repeated phrases, and shifts of subject position, the ‘Translator’s Tale’ examines what can happen when one person’s words “form the skin of another’s arrival.” Other tales thoughtfully intercut the events they describe with passages from a range of sources. Passages from recent critical writing on borders, migration and violence by, for example, Harsha Walia, offer contextualisation from within the tales. Elsewhere, Dragan Todorovic’s ‘Migrant’s Tale’ mirrors the story of Aziz, who has fled the Syrian city of Daraa, with passages from Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale’, a story of an Italian Princess taken to Syria and subsequently cast adrift in the Mediterranean. The Man of Law’s tale of a woman whose life becomes imbricated, through no fault of her own, with violent struggles for power forms an effective counterpoint to Aziz’s account of his flight from the Syrian civil war.

The style and form of the tales may differ, but all make clear that the current British immigration and asylum system, and its reliance on indefinite detention in particular, is gravely unjust and disproportionately violent. Britain is not alone in enforcing callous, inhumane laws regarding the treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In Denmark, for instance, asylum support payments have been cut significantly in recent months and a law passed that allows the seizure of refugees’ cash and jewellery by immigration officials. However, Britain is the most punitive nation in Europe by far when it comes to immigration restrictions and detention. That indefinite detention occurs in Europe only in Britain, a nation with such an over-inflated sense of its own virtue and respectability on domestic and international stages alike, is a grim irony. As Daniel Trilling wrote last year in a short but powerful piece for the LRB blog, while many Brits think of their nation as possessing a “proud history” of welcoming refugees, the reality is very different. For most of the 1930s, for instance, Britain steadfastly refused to accept Jewish refugees from Europe, and even when it did finally bow to pressure from Jewish and Quaker organisations, only accepted children and not their parents. Future generations will look on the current restrictions on the number of refugees and asylum seekers allowed into the country, as well as their treatment when they do make it Britain, with a comparable sense of shame.

That this system is often slow and unwieldy is perhaps not all that surprising. The callousness and mendacity with which it is turned against those it should be protecting is arresting, though. Intimidation and violence, in combination with the cultivation of a more general atmosphere of suspicion and hostility, are integral to this system. Hopelessness and desperation pervade many of these accounts. In the ‘Appellant’s Tale’, to take just one of many possible examples, an elderly Nigerian man who moved to the UK in 1984, working first as a journalist and then a plumber, details his treatment at the hands of the United Kingdom Border Agency. Arrested after an anonymous tip-off in a dawn raid, he is detained for 11 months. In his rented room are documents showing his National Insurance and tax contributions over the last three decades, but he is not allowed to leave detention to retrieve them as the UKBA suspect he has previously spent significant periods of time abroad (he hasn’t) and might abscond. In the meantime, his landlord rents his room to someone else and throws all his belongings away. Later, he is moved from a detention centre near London to one in Portsmouth, in order to disrupt contact with his solicitor. On more than one occasion immigration officials deliberately mislead a judge about the status of the case, on others they present the Appellant with documents to sign that would cause him unwittingly to invalidate his earlier testimony.  

Remarkably, though, the bag containing the documents proving the Appellant’s NI and tax contributions turns out not to have been thrown away after all. Indefinite leave to remain is granted after he writes to his local MP, who becomes involved in the case. It would be glib to say that the ‘Appellant’s Tale’ ends happily, as the physical and emotion toll of those months on the Appellant’s health cannot be undone. It does have a certain sense of resolution, though, something that is absent from the majority of the other stories in the two volumes. Indeed, many of the tellers seem especially struck by the impossibility of ending the tale they are telling in any significant or neat way. Some of the Canterbury Tales lack resolution because the other pilgrims, bored or annoyed by what they are hearing, cut them short.[3] In the Refugee Tales, stories remain unfinished, unfinishable even, for different reasons; they stretch without resolution into an uncertain future, a future in which cases move slowly, indefinite leave to remain is denied again and again, rules are changed and the law gets ever more labyrinthine, and in which each dawn brings the prospect of a raid by immigration services and further detention. One form of possible ending does appear with regularity in the Tales: for those who find themselves in indefinite detention, as well as those who have been released but have not yet been granted asylum, suicide is a frequent topic of discussion, a constant presence that is witnessed, contemplated, even hoped for.[4]

A number of the tales detail how the interviews that are integral to an asylum application operate within this system. In the ‘Arriver’s Tale’, a teacher who has fled persecution after vocally opposing the practice of female genital mutilation recalls being questioned by three separate interviewers over a period of five hours. Under the weight of their “stubborn and unruffled hostility”, a feeling of hope quickly gives way to a realisation of “what I had not thought possible over the three months I had been waiting. That they did not want me here. They did not like me.” Immigration officers are trained to hone in on any inconsistency in an account, any slip or backtrack, any fuzziness of arithmetic or dates, any reluctance or inability to provide yet more detail. All can be taken as evidence that a person is being dishonest about the circumstances or seriousness of their situation, as though it is reasonable or just to expect that people who may have endured periods of imprisonment, physical and psychological trauma, or witnessed the death of family and friends, should be willing and able to recount their experiences in an entirely orderly and coherent manner. As though memories can simply be stored away and then reproduced without pain, difficulty or reluctance. The burden of proof falls, to an entirely unreasonable and unjust extent, on the detainee to prove that they should be allowed to stay, rather than on the state to prove that they should be removed.


Yarl’s Wood Protest
(c) IDJ Photography, Flickr

This also leads to an important broader point about the way this system is administered. Remarkably, neither immigration bail hearings, one of the limited means through which detainees can secure release from indefinite detention, nor asylum appeal hearings are courts of record. That is, there is no written record of the hearing and the exchanges that lead to the judge’s decision (unless the hearing is attended by a representative of the excellent Bail Observation Project). Further, detainees routinely appear in court proceedings via video-link, rather than in person. Their access to the testamentary and archival functions of the written record, and to physical presence in the space where their case is being heard, are carefully managed and, all too frequently, cruelly restricted. Similar restrictions extend into the detention centres themselves: activists and journalists often recount how when they visit immigration detainees, not only their smartphones are confiscated but also any notebooks, pens or pencils. As David Herd notes in the afterword to the first volume of Refugee Tales, while this is in part the result of a catch-all policy that all pockets must be emptied, it also clearly serves a deliberate symbolic function: in a move that is replicated across the system, detainees are made to feel as though they exist outside the usual boundaries of the law and the language in which it is administered.

For those released back into the community, but still yet to have their application resolved, the dawn raid is another significant element of British immigration service’s repertoire of violent and intimidatory tactics. Marina Lewycka’s ‘Dependant’s Tale’ well exemplifies the crudeness and disproportionate nature of this practice. A family of four, including two young children, are subjected to dawn raids on four separate occasions. So-called “escorts”, private contractors employed by the government, crowd the house as they detain the family members, shouting at them as they do so. The lasting psychological impact of these raids is clear:

… that wasn’t the end of the nightmares. They carried on, always a bit different, but always the same. One night I had a dream I was lying on a sofa in the dark when a man walked in and started shouting to get up and hurry, they were taking us home. I woke up screaming, then I was realised that it was just a dream, and I fell asleep again. Then it happened again, and this time it was real.

The government claimed to have abolished child detention in 2011, though in 2016, 162 children were detained in the UK. As it details the plight of a family, the ‘Dependant’s Tale’ also provides a glimpse inside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre. Located near an business park on the outskirts of Bedford, Yarl’s Wood has become the focal point for much of the recent criticism of indefinite detention specifically and, more broadly, the British immigration system’s dependence on private companies. The history of the centre since its opening in 2001 speaks for itself: half of the facility was destroyed by fire in 2002 after a protest by detainees; in 2009, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported that children had been denied urgent medical care and treated violently by guards; in April 2014, Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from visiting the centre by the Home Office (under the direction of then Home Secretary Theresa May). It has been criticised repeatedly by a wide range of organisations and has been the focus of a number of large-scale protests calling for its closure. In 2015, a protest organised by Movement for Justice, and supported by Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, Sisters Uncut, Women for Refugee Women and Black Dissidents, gathered over 1,000 people at its gates. During another large-scale protest in March 2016, a banner was hung from a window in the centre alleging sexual impropriety by centre staff.[5] This was also the subject of an earlier, lengthy legal battle between Serco, the multinational company that owns and operates the centre, and the Observer, after the newspaper had tried to investigate repeated claims by detainees of sexual abuse by staff.

The lack of transparency with which these centres operate is entirely deliberate. Questions about the Yarl’s Wood facility and its staff are only accepted by the Home Office in the form of Freedom of Information requests, which can then be denied on the basis that any answers provided might infringe Serco’s commercial interests. However, the reports from both announced and unannounced inspections by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons are freely available. While these reports do not come from an independent body, they do provide some important information about conditions inside Yarl’s Wood. The most recent, the report from an unannounced inspection of the facility in 2015, repeatedly states that overall staffing levels are “inadequate” and that over a third of those that were employed lacked sufficient training. Just one member of staff in the entire facility knew the correct procedure for referring a detainee who was claiming to be the victim of human trafficking. Nearly half the detainees questioned stated that they felt unsafe. The report also records that at the time of the inspection, two pregnant women were being detained.

The role of private corporations in the British immigration detention system is a topic that surfaces on a number of occasions in the Refugee Tales, and is inseparable from any opposition to the way immigration detainees are currently treated at the hands of the British state. Borders and immigration policy and detention have become important revenue sources for a number of multinational corporations: of the nine detention centres currently in operation in the UK, seven are owned and operated by private corporations (G4S, Serco, Mitie, Tascor and the GEO Group), with the remaining two operated by HM Prison Services. Since the government started privatising asylum housing in 2012, those released from detention on bail often find themselves housed indefinitely in squalid, overcrowded housing blocks owned and operated by these same corporations.

Perhaps the most common (and also most benign) understanding of outsourcing and privatisation is that of a corporation taking over existing infrastructure or facilities and running them instead of the state. The operation of immigration detention centres runs on a different, more sordid basis. Yarl’s Wood, for example, was built by the Home Office in 2001 at a cost of £100 million, at the height of New Labour’s fascination with public-private partnerships, as well as its frantic and misguided attempts to “get tough” on illegal immigration and a sizeable backlog of asylum claims. It was always the plan that the operation of the centre would pass to a private company: this was purpose-built oppression, from which it was always intended that private corporations would profit thanks to a series of enormous transfers of public money into private hands. Originally operated by Group 4 Falck and then Global Solutions Limited, in 2007 the contract to operate the centre was passed to Serco, in a deal worth around £85 million. Despite the repeated accusations of racism and physical and sexual abuse at the centre, in November 2014 Serco signed a new £70 million contract to continue running Yarl’s Wood until 2022.

The revolving door for staff and directors between the large corporations that operate detention centres and the government and civil service is not difficult to track. As Antony Loewenstein notes in the chapter on the United Kingdom in Disaster Capitalism, his excellent examination of privatisation and outsourcing around the world, G4S, Serco and other companies have “routinely poached former civil servants who subsequently moved back into government” as part of a system “that incentivized all involved to protect it from scrutiny.” There are many alternatives, of course, to the current system of immigration detention, yet the scale of political change that will be necessary in order to root out and destroy these networks of influence should not be underestimated. The embeddedness, for want of a better word, of private corporations in the state will make dismantling this system a lengthy and difficult process, despite the glaring injustice of current rules around immigration detention.

The cost of this system can be measured in human lives. The 2010 killing of Jimmy Mbenga, an Angolan man who was being forcibly deported from the UK after his claim for asylum was denied, provides an especially horrific example of how this system operates. After a long campaign spearheaded by Mbenga’s widow, Adrienne Makenda Kambana, three G4S guards were tried in 2014 for Mbenga’s manslaughter. At the trial, the court heard how Mbenga repeatedly screamed “I can’t breathe” as the guards restrained him on the floor of the British Airways flight prior to take-off. This event was not a tragedy, not in the sense of it being an unavoidable or unforeseeable event. Instead, it was all too predictable. Three young men lacking appropriate training restrained Mbenga in a manner that whistleblowers at the company had already highlighted as being particularly dangerous. Two of the three men were found to have sent a number of text messages displaying hatred of refugees and Muslims. Incredibly, these messages were deemed to not have “any real relevance” to their trial. All three were acquitted.

Mbenga’s death, the resulting trial, and the refusal of G4S to accept any real responsibility, are representative of the workings of privatisation, which simultaneously enriches companies and serves to obscure accountability, enabling them to claim plausible deniability whenever anything goes wrong. As I finished writing this piece, the news broke that G4S had suspended nine members of staff at the Brook House centre near Gatwick airport, after a BBC Panorama investigation recorded footage of officers “mocking, abusing and assaulting” detainees.[6] A Home Office employee who was working for G4S at the time the footage was filmed was also suspended.

Predictably, G4S has effectively stated that these are the actions of a handful of rogue employees, rather than try to address the evidently inadequate levels of training provided to staff, particularly in terms of the treatment of detainees with mental health issues, and the broader culture of bullying and violence uncovered by the footage. Further, and as Loewenstein points out on a number of occasions in Disaster Capitalism, even in especially serious cases of mismanagement or heinous instances of abuse or neglect, a state will simply strip one company of a contract and then award it elsewhere (as happened at Yarl’s Wood in 2007). The logic of privatisation and its inherent flaws – that costs are kept as low as possible by reducing staff numbers and levels of training, with human lives as the inevitable collateral – are never seriously considered or questioned.


David Herd’s afterwords to the two volumes of Refugee Tales provide useful background to the development of the project, as well as important political and legal context for the collected tales. The first volume, published in June of 2016, appeared in the wake of the “migrant crisis” that briefly occupied European leaders and the mainstream media in the summer and autumn of 2015. After the shipwrecks off the coast of Libya in April and then, in September, the wide circulation of images of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, European leaders were finally forced to reckon with the results of an array of brutal border policies.

Herd writes of the way the discourse around migrants and refugees “decisively altered” over the course of summer 2015, from a tone of outright hostility to one somewhere closer to sympathy. The first Refugee Tales walk, which took place in June 2015, was narrowly “ahead of the historical curve” in this respect, in its “powerful spectacle” of up to 150 people walking across southern England. As Herd also notes, though, this shift would prove to be temporary. After one of the Paris attackers was found to have entered Europe alongside refugees via Turkey, the discourse around the migrant crisis and border policies solidified once more.[7] In December of that year Daniel Trilling wrote on the closure of the Balkan migration route in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks; the retrenchment and extension of previous border regimes was swift and decisive. “As the focus on security has sharpened since the Paris attacks,” Trilling wrote “the walls of Fortress Europe have grown stronger.”

The recent moves to “offshore” immigration processing is the logical next step in this retrenchment process. Plans to set up screening systems for migrants attempting to reach the EU via Libya in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan were discussed at a meeting of European and African ministers in July of this year. Precedent already exists for this kind of deal. In an arrangement that came into force in March 2016, billions of euros of aid are being poured into Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic rule in Turkey, in exchange for Turkey stopping migrant boats crossing the Aegean to reach Greece. The EU’s approach for countries with less strategic influence and power than Turkey is one of outright coercion. In September of last year, Afghanistan was told its EU aid payments would be cut if it did not accept 80,000 Afghan deportees from Europe.

Through an array of sordid deals, Europe is increasingly moving towards investment in preventing migration and safeguarding borders. The number of deaths in the Mediterranean increased significantly in 2016 to nearly five thousand people, though without anything like the media attention these deaths had previously garnered. As recently reported in the New York Times by Joe Penney, this increase has been mirrored by a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in the Sahara, as human traffickers abandon migrants without food or water, due to the increased presence of Nigerien police and military patrols. These patrols form one part of €610 million package from the EU, with the primary purpose of preventing migrants from crossing into Algeria and Libya via northern Niger. Of course, and contrary to the claims of EU spokespeople, these schemes do not serve to deter migrants from West Africa attempting to travel to Europe; instead, as Penney writes, they have simply “pushed the hazards of irregular migration further into the desert and out of sight of the media and global attention.” The protection of borders, not human life, is clearly the priority for the EU: international laws covering the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants stand for very little in Europe, or at its borders, in 2017.

The EU’s strong-armed deals with Niger and Afghanistan are representative of the type of relationship between the Global North and South that, if left unopposed, will come to predominate in the age of climate change. The displacement of vast numbers of people due to climatic factors is an increasingly important vector in discussions around migration, one that will continue to render the distinction between “economic migrants” and “asylum seekers and refugees” ever more unclear. Stephen Collis’ ‘Lawyer’s Tale’ repeats the prediction made over ten years ago by Norman Myers that there would be 150-200 million climate refugees by 2050, a figure that now seems optimistic at best. In this context, the ‘Lawyer’s Tale’ also gives poetic form to recent criticisms of the influential concept of the Anthropocene:

If we blame everyone, we blame no one
we give the guilty
– free passage –
and we bear burdens we did not bring on ourselves

A number of theorists and historians have called for a more nuanced, less Eurocentric account of the Anthropocene. In this vein, Andreas Malm, Jason W. Moore and others have argued that we might more accurately describe our current age as the “Capitalocene”, the age of capital and profit at any cost, rather than the “age of man.” This is a thesis with which I find myself in agreement, not least because it foregrounds asymmetries of wealth and the unequal ecological exchange between the Global North and South as foundational to the former’s prosperity since the fifteenth century broadly and the post-war period in particular (as has been examined by Vijay Prashad). The UK is both a historic leader in CO2 emissions (a result of imperialism and its hegemonic power in the nineteenth century) and remains the biggest contributor per capita to climate change.[8] When Black Lives Matter UK shut down London City Airport in September last year, it did so in order to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis disproportionately impacts people of colour, who are more likely both to live in areas of the world where climate change has already caused enormous damage and displacement, and to be subject to restrictions of movement and migration. As a banner displayed that day stated, “Climate crisis is a racist crisis.”

Herd’s framing essays also highlight the array of domestic factors impacting the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who do manage to make their way to the UK. In 2012, while Home Secretary, Theresa May stated that it was her intention to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migration” (a sentiment recently repeated by the Home Office, as leaked Brexit negotiation documents revealed).  May was careful to qualify her statement, but that it has been a long-term aim of the current government to create a more general “environment” of hostility and suspicion for all migrants, and to ever narrow the range of people that “really deserve” to claim permanent residence in the UK, is clear enough. May’s introduction of the UK Border Force around the same time is instructive here, in terms of the rhetorical, symbolic and institutional positioning of immigration alongside and often overlapping the domain of outright criminal activity. Border Force replaced the Border Agency as the organisation responsible for frontline border control. Its conduct is overseen by the so-called Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration; this position has been occupied since 2015 by David Bolt, a former MI5 officer who has also held senior positions at the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

A series of far-reaching changes to the laws surrounding immigration and asylum have taken place over the last decade. As the tired, overworked subject of the ‘Barrister’s Tale’ relays, there have been eight immigration bills since 2008 and 45,000 changes to immigration rules since 2010. The Immigration Act 2016 extends a number of existing provisions and brings a wide range of additional powers into effect (the act can be read in full here). The range of powers immigration officers now possess in terms of seizing and retaining possessions and documentation are particularly worrying. Further, this new act further curtails rights of appeal and severely limits the assistance that can be provided by lawyers, NGOs and activist groups working with people seeking asylum, to the extent that, as Herd notes, a number of groups have openly questioned whether they will be able to continue their work at all. This attempt to disrupt networks of support and solidarity, through restrictions but also through a deliberately cultivated ambiguity in the law, is one more element in the creation of a hostile and isolating “environment”.

We are all immigrants.
(c) Alisdare Hickson, Flickr

The extent to which the current government is prepared to go to monitor and enforce immigration laws seems to know no bounds. Under recent rules, schools, GPs, and landlords and letting agencies are all required to monitor the immigration status of people with whom they come into contact. There has also been a troubling complicity between some charities and immigration enforcement. As Corporate Watch have detailed, outreach teams from Thames Reach, St Mungo’s and Change, Grow, Live have conducted joint visits of rough sleepers with Immigration Enforcement Officers in a number of London boroughs. These visits have resulted in a number of homeless people being indefinitely detained or deported. The Immigration Act 2016 further curtailed immigration detainees’ rights to accommodation after being released on bail. Previously, the state supplied accommodation, as those seeking asylum or released from detention are not allowed to work. The new law reduces the availability of this accommodation significantly, propagating a vicious and entirely unnecessary cycle of detention and destitution that seems designed, at least in part, to force individuals into criminality so that they can be deported regardless of the merit of their asylum application.[9]

These changes to immigration rules, and the new and extended powers they have established, intersect with other areas of the law. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which included sizeable cuts to the provision of Legal Aid, has been devastating for those without the economic means required to seek justice via the courts system. Employment tribunals, for example, have been badly hit. Employees must now pay fees of up to £1,200 up front in order to bring a claim against their employer. In the two years between July 2013 and July 2015, applications fell by 70 per cent, with allegations of gender discrimination falling by 91 per cent. With a level of condescension, arrogance and class prejudice of which perhaps only a Tory politician is capable, Shailesh Vara, minister for the courts and legal aid until 2016, stated that this reduction was the result of fewer individuals “simply trying it on.”[10]

The interwoven areas of housing and immigration have been hit just as badly. A number of the Tales make reference to Legal Aid provision, and many register the devastating consequences of its sudden removal at the start of April 2013. On the 29th of June this year, the Law Society published a damning report on the results of these cuts. The Law Society’s report was released in the wake of an event that has shone a bright light on the realities of social inequality in Britain. On the night of Tuesday the 13th of June, a fire started in the kitchen of a flat in Grenfell Tower, a residential block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest in the city. Eighty people are now known to have died, though a final number is not expected until next year.

A tower block that had been clad in flammable panels to ease the view of nearby, more affluent neighbours, that was home to some of the most vulnerable individuals and families in the country, many of whom had fled conflict and were awaiting decisions on their immigration status or asylum applications, burnt to a shell over the course of a night. Its residents had warned in a now widely circulated blog post from November 2016 that only a “catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of [the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation].” Not only were their concerns about the refurbishment of the building ignored, they were also effectively barred from accessing the legal system, through which they may have been able to force their landlord to take meaningful action to prevent the risk of fire, by cuts to legal aid. It is difficult to imagine an event that could be more grimly representative of inequality in Britain, and London in particular, in the twenty-first century. The first victim of the fire to be identified and named was twenty-four year old Syrian Mohammed Alhajali, an engineering student who fled his home country three years ago. His brother Omar survived the blaze, telling reporters in its aftermath how fire-fighters had made it to their flat to lead them out of the building, but that his brother had become separated from the group and remained inside.

Dawn Foster’s reporting on the fire and its aftermath for the Guardian has been exemplary, both in its close conversations with residents and community groups in the area and the broader conclusions it draws on housing and inequality in Britain in the age of austerity. The events at Grenfell and the accompanying revelations of the number of empty properties elsewhere in the borough are powerful evidence of the current housing crisis; this, as Foster wrote in July,

has never been a crisis purely of supply and demand, but of shifts in legal tenure, the erosion of housing rights, the decimation of legal aid, the mass sell-off of social housing, and a growing callousness in attitudes towards vulnerable people.

The government’s response to the disaster has been woefully though predictably insufficient. The narrowness of the planned public inquiry, which began on the 14th of September, has been fiercly criticised by residents, and its restricted terms are indicative of the government’s refusal even to acknowledge, let alone seriously discuss, how the decimation of local authority budgets, social housing budgets and fire brigade budgets contributed to at least eighty people losing their lives. Anger also surrounds the hastily drafted and ill-conceived Grenfell survivor immigration policy. Only after demonstrations and public pressure has a “grant” of twelve months leave to remain been established for those who were living at Grenfell (the full publication is available here; immigration lawyer Colin Yeo’s useful summary of its conditions and limits is here). In short: applications had to be made by the 31st of August, the biometrics of all family members had to be provided (and will be retained indefinitely) and exclusions for previous misdemeanours or offences are in operation.

The act is clearly an insufficient response to the disaster, dependent as it is on a restricted timetable and conditions and broadly defined exclusionary powers. Yet for those unfamiliar with asylum and immigration law, it does at least serve to highlight some of the limited, cruel conditions under which all refugees and asylum seekers are expected to live. The right to work, for instance, which Grenfell residents have been granted for a limited period, is a topic that appears frequently in the Refugee Tales. Those released from detention are issued with Azure cards, a pre-paid card which can only be used to pay for certain products in certain supermarkets. This balance cannot be used to pay for public transport, forcing many to walk miles for their weekly or monthly appointments to sign in at a Home Office Reporting Centre or a police station. The Azure card seems designed not only to separate refugees and asylum seekers from the wider population symbolically, but also to immobilise and physically and mentally demoralise. The cards entitle their holder to spend only £36.95 a week.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that one of the “crimes” of which asylum seekers are often convicted, always with significant or even disastrous consequences, is working illegally. As the subject of Bergvall’s ‘Voluntary Returner’s Tale’ recounts:

One Christmas its stupid I want to get my step-boy a gift.
           I took on a packing job.
Driving back that night with friends we were stopped by
So stupid.
Yes I’m guilty yes I’m destitute yes I was working illegally.
At the station the police were kind and reassuring.
But the day of my hearing it was snowing so hard that we
               couldn’t get to the courthouse.
It counted as a no-show.
3 months on remand.
My case finally came up.
Lots of people had said you’ll get 6 months. If the judge is
               bad you’ll get 6 months.
He gave me 16 months.

The Grenfell Tower fire marked the end of a twelve-month period in which immigration policy, as well as broader discussions around race, labour and inequality, were brought into even sharper focus. This period, which also roughly coincides with the gap between the publication of the first and second volumes of Refugee Tales, began with the Brexit referendum of June last year, saw the election and inauguration of Donald Trump in the United States, and then the British general election of this year. Brexit, a proxy vote on immigration for many disillusioned and downtrodden parts of the electorate, was preceded by the murder of MP Jo Cox by white supremacist and far-right terrorist Thomas Mair, who targeted Cox largely because of her vocal expressions of support and solidarity with refugees fleeing Syria and Libya, as well as her criticism of the blockade of Gaza.[11] It was followed by a shocking rise in incidents of racist and anti-immigrant violence, including the murder of Polish man Arcadiusz Jozwik in Harlow. A similar sequence of events played out after the election of Donald Trump in November. After a campaign that crassly demonised Mexican immigrants to the US and then called for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country, the days following Trump’s election saw a spike in racist violence and hate crimes across the US. Trump’s attempted ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in the first weeks of his presidency was met by a wave of protests around the world, yet its anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee underpinnings were a portent of the reactionary xenophobia at the centre of his government.[12]

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015
(c) Mstyslav Chernov

By choosing a work of medieval literature as the model for a collection that traverses continents and foregrounds the voices of individuals of a wide range of ethnicities and faiths, Refugee Tales intersects in important ways with broader historical discussions that have developed in the wake of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the wave of hate crimes that have ensued. The medieval age, for which Chaucer is one of the most recognisable figures, plays an important role in the histories that white supremacists, white nationalists and far-right groups like to construct in order to justify their xenophobia and racism. Erroneously rendered as an entirely white, overwhelmingly masculine world, the Middle Ages becomes, in this reading, a millennia-long period of racial and religious homogeneity, one that provides the bedrock for a “European” culture that has since been degraded by multiculturalism, feminism and political correctness.

The appropriation of medieval iconography by white nationalist and white supremacist groups forms a central component of this wilfully and violently superficial version of history. The recent events in Charlottesville provide a good example of the abuse of medieval materials: on display was the usual array of medieval imagery (heraldic symbols and Old Norse runes in particular), misinterpreted and stripped of its context by groups intent on simplifying and misappropriating the varied and complex visual materials of the Middle Ages (as brilliantly demonstrated in this thread by @medievalpoc). As Paul B. Sturtevant writes,

white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis seem to love the Middle Ages. Or, more accurately, they love their race-fueled fantasies of the Middle Ages, which have nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages.

As a wide range of archival projects and scholarly studies have demonstrated, the “actual” Middle Ages were not a period of insularity, but of economic and cultural exchange; the medieval period contains complex, entangled histories, not easy stories that legitimise claims to racial or cultural supremacy.[13] By the time Chaucer came to write his Tales in the 1390s, the outline of a form of triumphalist, England-centric British history was coming into sharper focus (such that he could, in the decades following his death, be dubbed the father of something called “English Literature”). Yet England was still a polyglot land, and the preceding centuries were replete with the stories and legacies of contact between disparate peoples, to the extent that the British isles of this period are better thought of as a multilingual and even multiracial archipelago that was, as Jeffrey J Cohen writes, “as unsettled as it was multiplicitous, an unquiet expanse engendering the fluidity and compoundedness that contemporary scholars like to call creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, and hybridity.”

Herd writes in his afterword to the first volume of the Refugee Tales of the “deeply complicated geography” we often find in Chaucer’s works; this is a geography that indexes this “unsettled” and “multiplicitous” history of the British archipelago, as well as the cultural and economic exchange that took place around the Mediterranean and further afield, and it is one that we also find in a wide range of other medieval writing. This geography presents the opportunity to think seriously about ways of affirming both past and present as spaces of transit, heterogeneity and welcome, as well as to think about how ideas of nationality, race and ethnicity are constructed and buttressed over time, and about all the effort and violence that is required to render complex histories as simple stories of placid homogeneity.

Nevertheless, the notion that the medieval period was both a brutal, insular and dark time, and a necessary stage in the development of the modern world we now inhabit, continues to be influential. Further, the idea that, as Helen Young writes, “only Europe was medieval at the right time and in the right place”, is a powerful one, and its logic can be seen at work in the various ways in which Muslim or notionally non-European migrants have been cast as an existential threat to “European culture”. Exploiting the recent refugee crisis, Poland’s Law and Order Party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, have frequently positioned themselves as defenders not just of their countries’ borders, but of a notional “Christian Europe”. The medievalism of these claims is clear enough, but it won’t do to partition them as extreme or fringe voices when so much of European policy regarding migration is predicated on the kinds of border regimes discussed above, as well as domestic policies that enact various forms of physical and emotional violence. Further, the toxic and racist idea that there is some kind of fundamental cultural incompatibility between Europe and its Muslim immigrants is frequently and opportunistically deployed by politicians wishing to appear pragmatic and tough talking (as was well exemplified in the recent remarks in The Sun newspaper by Labour MP Sarah Champion on the child sex grooming ring uncovered in Newcastle).

Amidst the tumultuous events of the last two years, the general election of June this year provides one small beacon of light. Once the much-vaunted bedrock of “difficult” though “necessary” political decisions, austerity has largely been discredited as a political project, though of course that is not to say that it has come to an end (nor has its disproportionate impact on women (particularly those on low incomes), people of colour and disabled people). During the election campaign, Labour’s manifesto and the enthusiastic, if loosely defined political movement that gathered around it decisively altered the political terrain on which a number of issues were discussed. That this success also built on the tireless opposition to and criticism of austerity by members and MPs of the SNP, Green Party and Plaid Cymru should not be ignored, of course, and it seems likely that in the short to medium term these parties will be crucial both to the removal of the current government and to the establishing of a progressive, welcoming immigration policy.

In the wake of the general election and the horrific events at Grenfell Tower, a space now exists for a discussion about immigration and borders that, I think, could not have taken place at any other time over the last two decades. It is significant that Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly stated that under his leadership Labour will not pursue immigration targets, and his opposition to all forms of immigration detention is clear. While previous Labour campaigns had bowed pitifully to xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment masquerading as pragmatic, “legitimate” concern about, for instance, strain on public services and housing, Corbyn’s broadly pro-immigrant position has proven that such a stance is not incompatible with electoral success. The position of the Labour Party as a whole on immigration should, of course, still be the subject of strident critique. As Ash Sarkar has argued, precisely one of the issues here has been that Corbyn’s personal views on immigration, and his personality more generally, have been used as a shield against broader criticisms of the party’s position. For all its strengths, the Labour manifesto had remarkably little to say about immigration policy, noting only that it should be “fair”, without specifying what that might actually entail. The short-term strategic benefit of this equivocation in the context of the opening of the Brexit negotiations shortly after the election was clear, but it is equally clear that this is a situation that cannot continue, particularly given that, as Sarkar notes, “working-class BAME communities have been integral to the (relative) electoral successes of the Corbyn project” thus far.

With this relative success, though, the opportunity to present an assertive immigration policy that maintains free movement and ends detention is clear, and it is important that Labour supports the ongoing work of activists and pro-migrant groups by being ambitious in its arguments in these areas. Figures have repeatedly shown the extent of the misconception of the level of migration to the UK. Countering this misconception and the attendant demonization of migrants with the fact that immigration is a net benefit for society, economically, socially and culturally, and reclaiming from a progressive standpoint the connections between immigration, labour and welfare, should be central to a long overdue and fundamental shift in how immigration of all forms is conceptualised and discussed.[14] Even on the left, there is still a tendency to support immigration and even asylum in terms of “tolerance”; that is, society should “tolerate” immigrants and asylum seekers as long as they work, doing worthwhile, respectable jobs, as long as they measure up to a vague and shifting notion of acceptable, or even exemplary behaviour. This is not good enough: “civilised people don’t ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave” Dina Nayeri writes in ‘The ungrateful refugee’:

it shouldn’t matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet.

Or, as Josh Cohen’s ‘Support Worker’s Tale’ puts it, in a slightly different context and register, “the most fundamental human right of all is probably the right to be as much of an arse as anyone else.”

Tribute writing.
(c) ChiralJon, Flickr

Whether this kind of far-reaching reappraisal will take place remains to be seen and it is clear that immigration controls will not be abolished any time soon. However, by clearly articulating an achievable aim – the immediate end of indefinite detention – and forcefully demonstrating its necessity, the Refugee Tales project is helping to reshape the discussion around the treatment of those who have travelled long distances, often in unimaginably difficult circumstances, in order to find safety. In so doing, it has also served to highlight the broader injustices of the British immigration system, as well as of how it forms part of a vast network of exclusionary and violent border policies that stretches across and, increasingly, beyond Europe. Once the initial aim of ending indefinite detention has been achieved, the scalability of the project and its demands will become key. Herd closes his afterword to the first volume with the related demands around which future volumes of the Tales will be centred: the right to employment and the right to an education. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, we should also add the right to a comfortable and safe home. The right, in other words, to have the opportunity to live a good life and to flourish. They cannot come soon enough.


In writing this piece I have tried to include as many links to the work and social media handles of writers, journalists, barristers and activists as possible. Further links and groups are listed below. 


[1] The Tales was left unfinished and in disarray when Chaucer died in 1400, with the surviving manuscripts varying greatly in the number of tales they contain and the order of the tales. Medievalist Derek Pearsall once suggested that the Tales would be best published as a box of unbound fragments that readers could arrange and rearrange as they saw fit, with only the ‘General Prologue’ and Chaucer’s ‘Retraction’ fixed in place at the beginning and end of the sequence.

[2] Agbabi’s excellent Telling Tales, a “remix” of the Canterbury Tales for the twenty-first century, was published in 2015.

[3] For example, the Squire’s sprawling, ultimately unfinished tale of the conquests of “Cambyuskan” (Genghis Khan), replete with accounts of remarkable automata, talking birds and other wonders, suggests an eager young teller fascinated by chivalric romance and travel literature, though unable to shape his enthusiasm for the popular literary genres of the day into a coherent whole. After over 650 lines, and with no end anywhere near in sight, the Franklin steps in to take over, politely but firmly cutting the Squire’s tale short.

[4] Earlier this year, two detainees at the Morton Hall detention centre took their own lives in the space of just four weeks.

[5] In this context, it is important to note that the Tales can also be thought of as a counterpart to the long history of detainees’ direct action: the hunger strikes, demonstrations and other acts of protest that have been crucial to highlighting and opposing the manifest injustices of the British immigration system over the last decade, often with little or no coverage in the British media.

[6] The screening of the BBC Panorama report on Brook House on the fourth of September coincides with start of the new Shaw Review. The findings and recommendations of the first Shaw Review, conducted by Stephen Shaw, were published in January 2016. The narrowness of the review’s focus was criticised at the time of its publication and the Home Office has largely ignored the recommendations it did make.

[7] This sorry chronology is effectively traced in this sequence from Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe.

[8] Noting that even by 1980 Great Britain and the United States still accounted for 50% of cumulative CO2 emissions, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz recently suggested in The Shock of the Anthropocene that perhaps we would be better off calling the Anthropocene the “Anglocene”.

[9] These figures have been accompanied by a worryingly rapid increase in the number of EU citizens being detained and deported, as has been examined by barrister and author Adrian Berry.

[10] On the 26th of July this year, the Supreme Court ruled that these charges were unlawful and unconstitutional, after a long campaign by Unison. The government may be forced to repay around £32 million in fees, though of course there can be no compensation for the many people who left jobs due to harassment or discrimination and were unable to bring these issues to a tribunal.

[11] Henry King wrote on Jo Cox and Thomas Mair for the GRB in June of this year.

[12] It was also met by a barrage of opinion pieces on Trump’s “real” intentions behind the ban, which was variously interpreted as some kind of calculated diversionary tactic. As James Butler wrote around this time, it is important not to overlook the very real trauma and violence caused by these acts, in favour of formulating grand conspiracy theories about Trump’s headfakes” or political misdirection. “The exercise of power”, Butler writes, “is often brutal, inelegant and gauche – but it needn’t be delicate, and its indelicacy is no indication that there’s a secret double motive to it.” Donald Trump often looks like a shambolic racist because that is what he is, and his anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies should be opposed on those grounds.

[13] The Medieval Immigrants project, for example, has collated a wide range of documentary evidence in order to provide a searchable database of migrants in England between 1330 and 1500. This crowdsourced bibliography provides a useful resource of recent scholarly studies, blogs and articles on race and medieval studies. In its more politically progressive and unapologetically presentist modes, medieval studies has strongly reaffirmed the extent to which it is incumbent on its practicioners to vocally oppose the appropriation of medieval materials. As Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh writes, the “disruption” of white supremacists’ “attraction” to the Middle Ages should be one of the field’s main priorities, and Dorothy Kim’s recent piece, ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’, provides an eloquent summary of what is at stake in teaching medieval materials. As Helen Young writes, though, “[medievalists] work in a field which, at least until WWII, was used in overtly and deliberately racist ways to attempt to justify European imperialism, colonialism, and attendant white supremacy.” J. Clara Chan’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, featuring contributions by Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei, Jonathan Hsy, Dorothy Kim, Eileen Joy and Suzanne Akbari, provides an account of events earlier this summer at a large medieval studies conference in Leeds that foregrounded, once again, the need for medieval studies to address this history and its legacies.

[14] Criticising Corbyn’s recent comments on the “importation of underpaid workers from Central Europe”, Eleanor Penny has eloquently and forcefully argued for the importance of Labour maintaining a pro-Migrant stance. As Penny concludes, “Labour has not previously shied away from challenging the received wisdoms of the Tory administration; that austerity is necessary, that privatisation injects efficiency into a bloated public. It must do so again with the migration question, re-entering the debate not on the exploited migrants, but on policymakers and employers who permit this exploitation. If the Labour party wants to call itself pro-worker, it must also be brave enough to call itself pro-migrant too.” As Richard Seymour argues in the conclusion to a cogent and broad-ranging recent piece, Labour’s recent success also presents the opportunity to address the legacy of British imperialism and how current asylum and immigration policy intersects with “the decades-long, systematic, racist exclusions aimed at citizens of what used to be called the ‘New Commonwealth’.”


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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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