On Sunday 21st June, I attended a fantastic evening at The Hawth: the main auditorium was full for ‘Refugee Tales’. The evening was hosted by the journalist and writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (MBE) and contributors included Ali Smith (CBE and Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize winner 2015), Shirley Williams (The Rt Hon the Baroness Williams of Crosby) and musicians The Young ‘Uns (BBC Radio2 Folk Award Winners- Best Group 2015) along with The Bridges Arts Group and other poets and speakers. The evening was organised by Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group who volunteer to support people who may be detained indefinitely at Immigration Removal Centres at Gatwick.
The evening was the culmination of a week-long walk from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury which mirrored Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales. In the same way that the Canterbury Tales were based on a wide range of participants telling their stories on a pilgrimage to Canterbury (the Miller, the Nun’s Priest etc) so ‘Refugee Tales’ was an opportunity for those detained as refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants to have their stories told.
Many of the people who are detained in these local Detention Centres have already had to endure traumatic and long journeys before their detention. Detention centres are similar to prisons: people cannot leave, they are locked in rooms at night and there are limited facilities and visiting hours. Research has shown that indefinite detention has a negative impact on mental health. Up to 600 people are held in the two Immigrant removal centres at Gatwick (Tinsley House and Brook House) and at the Cedars in Pease Pottage, where families and children can be held pending deportation. The Gatwick Detainees Support Group consists of volunteers who do what they can to support the detainees, many of whom have mental as well as physical health issues.
The UK is unique within Europe in that there is no maximum time limit on immigration detention. In France, for instance, the maximum time is 45 days. In UK, people can be and are detained for months or even years.
The big message of Refugee Tales was to ask UK government (for instance by writing to an MP) to impose a maximum time limit on such detention.
Professor Angie Hobbs (Professor of Public Understanding of Philosophy at Sheffield University) described ‘Refugee Tales’ thus:
‘The rhythm of walking, coming into contact with new people, experiences and stories, the glories of the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Countryside, the memories and echoes of the pilgrims who have trodden this path over the centuries – all these things inspire philosophic reflection on the kind of country and community that we want to create and the individuals we ourselves want to be.
We all need sanctuary at some point in our lives, be it physical or psychological. We all need help so let us give it when we can’.
Cllr Geraint Thomas