At this year’s documenta 14 and Venice Biennale, a number of artists tackled the issue of migration and some even involved refugees and asylum seekers in the production of their works. Notable projects included Bouchra Khalili’s video The Tempest Society (2017), a restrained but absorbing video in which an international group of performers tells the stories of immigrants arriving and building a life in Athens; and Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light (2017) project, in which refugees, asylum seekers and members of the public produce environmentally-friendly lamps and take part in educational activities.
The question of how to respond to the current and unprecedented scale of global migration carries with it concerns around the ethical implications of placing the suffering of others at the core of one’s art. This is a live issue in many senses, with ongoing and heated debates about who is entitled to create art on behalf of – or using – oppressed groups. It seems obvious that any such work of art would need to begin with the act of listening, something fundamental to the Refugee Tales. A hybrid project that combines walking and storytelling, it was started in 2015 by Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help. Its stated mission is to bring an immediate end to the use of indefinite detention in the UK, the only country in Europe that detains asylum seekers and refugees without telling them how long they will be held – a treatment, incidentally, that is illegal when it comes to suspected and convicted criminals, including terrorists, and which amounts to holding refugees outside the law.
Indefinite detention means that someone who has fled their country because of ethnic, religious or sexual persecution, or to escape rape, war or famine – in other words, a person who has already suffered severe trauma – can be detained in conditions comparable to prison for an unknown length of time. (A foreign student or graduate whose visa has run out is prey to the same treatment.) Over five days last week, some 60-100 people per day walked 50 miles from Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, to the Supreme Court in Westminster, stopping along the way for talks about ‘due process’ by lawyers, academics and activists, and readings of tales shared by detainees with writers including Ali Smith, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Helen Macdonald, Patience Agbabi and frieze columnist Olivia Laing.
On 5 July, in front of Rivercourt Methodist Church, where some of the group had slept, I joined a throng of people as we prepared for the final leg of the journey, from Hammersmith to Westminster along the river Thames. As we walked, a young man from Tanzania, who had spent three years in detention, told me that many of his friends being held had ‘topped themselves’, and that they were paid £1 per hour to staff the detention centre. He he wanted to know what had brought me to the walk, but he didn’t volunteer any details of what had led him to flee his own country. Another man, from Sierra Leone, wondered if I knew where his country was, and joked, ‘Yes, yes, war and Ebola’, but he didn’t tell me much about himself either. British teenagers on the walk smiled for the camera and held hands with their new friends, but later I saw one of them weep uncontrollably at the unfathomable injustice of fate. That’s why the two volumes of anonymous tales the project has published are so valuable – they are the result of hours of difficult conversation in which detainees and former detainees spoke the otherwise unspeakable, telling their stories to writers who shaped them for a wider audience.
In the past few years, the public rhetoric around immigration in the UK has been extreme. Politicians and the media have compared refugees to vermin and to criminals, and the result has been a surge of xenophobic attacks since the EU referendum. In 2015, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, set out her intention to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants to the UK. In 2016, her Immigration Act came into force, prohibiting refugees from working or studying, and in many ways making post-detention life as unbearable as that which came before. Take the ‘azure card’, a credit card that holds the weekly £35 allowance, which can only be spent in certain outlets and then only on basics – not including public transportation – and which writer Ali Smith described as ‘a credit card that debits your dignity’ in Azure (2016), a film she made in collaboration with Sarah Wood, which was screened at the walk’s final event at the ICA London on Wednesday evening.
But it would be simplistic to pin the current situation on May’s actions alone. As Shami Chakrabarti, the former director of the human rights organization Liberty, and current Shadow Attorney General said when she addressed Refugee Tales walkers: ‘indefinite detention is almost torture … I will never recover from the fact that my generation allowed this cruelty to happen.’
As we walked, David Herd, professor in literature at Kent University and, with Anna Pincus, one of the founders of the project, told me about the Refugee Tales’ ambition to transform the language around migration from one of hostility to one of welcome. Refugees’ stories are doubted and discredited at every turn, and the hearings in which their cases are settled are not recorded. The absence of official transcription weakens appeals and amounts to a failure of due process; a disregard for the basic principle that all people are entitled to recognition under the rule of law, which was enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215, and again in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and again in the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, a document Theresa May intends to render invalid in the United Kingdom. But the organizers of the walk are optimistic. This year, for the first time, a number of parliamentarians joined the walk and its events. For Herd, ‘this is a sure sign that this issue is moving closer to the top of the agenda.’
Along with an increase in the movement of people across the globe, the past 12 months have seen a sharp rise in the number of protests and marches, with the record-breaking Women’s Marches in January, the March for Science in April, and any number of rapid-response gatherings around the globe. But protest can be vicarious, and it is often the case that those most affected by the protested issues are least able to attend demonstrations. The Refugee Tales feels different: it’s an epic procession that evolves over time and through space, modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It made the visible those people the current government renders invisible and brought stories and debates to assorted communities along the way. Although the project does not announce itself as an artwork, as the group crossed the land and people exchanged their stories, a community was formed. Trauma and segregation was turned into joy and solidarity. As one of the walkers put it: ‘to be truly welcoming is to allow people to contribute’. That begins by allowing people to tell their stories.
More on the Refugee Tales campaign can be found on their website here.