Interview by Julie Bull
Anna Sayburn Lane on Refugee Tales
The UK is the only country in Europe to hold migrants in indefinite detention pending deportation or decisions about their leave to remain. Around 27,000 people are held in detention centres in the UK at any one time. Many of them can be there for months or even years, under conditions that are, more or less, imprisonment.
Refugee Tales is an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. They believe indefinite detention to be a ‘cruel and debilitating’ practice and are calling for a 28-day limit on the time that people are held. Their campaigning methods—walking and storytelling—are at once ordinary, ancient and powerful.
The walks organised by Refugee Tales and the tales that arise from them are intended to ‘reclaim the landscape of South East England for the language of welcome.’ Anna signed up to join two days of the summer walk of 2017, having no real idea what to expect.
I had signed up for the walk and thought little of it until two days before. I turned up on the Friday night and was suddenly part of this huge group. I was immediately drawn in.
A walk will comprise over a hundred people; they are supporters, people involved with the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Project, some of the people are former asylum seekers with leave to remain who might have been through the system and in detention centres themselves. Anna talks about the fellowship and the encounters in the group.
I met people from Eritrea, Sudan. They are not the kind of people I would normally come across in my day-to-day life.
After a day’s walking, you arrive at the place that’s hosting the walk and there is food, there are events. It’s been said that we are like a mobile arts festival. There will be two stories told, they might be read by writers and actors, or even those whose stories they are. There is music and dancing. Then you go to your ‘dorm’, roll out your sleeping bag and start afresh the next day.
The sense of community comes about very quickly. There is an amazing feeling of people looking out for each other. Everyone gets footsore, you get tired, everyone needs a little looking out for at some point or other and that’s what they get. It feels like a lesson—like life could always be like this.
Just like the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a diverse group of people share a journey and talk along the way. The walking facilitates the talking.
There’s a lot of talking on the walks, but there’s nothing forced about it. It’s just a human encounter where you talk about whatever arises. People find it easier to talk while they are doing something else—i.e. walking, it’s like the intensity is broken. No one is obliged to talk about anything in particular, we can talk just as well about the weather as anyone’s life story.
The Refugee Tales as told in the books and recordings that come out of the project are written and told by some of our finest contemporary writers, based on the real life tales of detainees. Hearing some of them is hard, of course, People have survived terrible, desperate things—but there are always other things to counter that.
There is a symbolic power in the whole experience, as well as a personal one.
The walk is a kind of radical act. It is. It feels like we’re saying ‘Here we are, these are our hills and beaches, here is our hospitality, you are welcome.’ It’s a very different way of receiving people than our current hostile immigration system. It does feel radical in a way, to say welcome.
Photograph: Chris Orange
I ask Anna what she has gained from the experience of taking part now for two consecutive years (in 2018 she was one of the leaders of the walk from St Albans to London).
The experience has opened my eyes to the ways people live in this world. The absolute vulnerability of these people makes it a humanitarian issue. I had thought people who’d made it here were in a place of safety, but often a whole lot of new risks await them if they are held indefinitely in a quasi-prison without the support they need, including PTSD or other mental health issues.
The argument for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention seems to be gaining traction. It now has the full support of the Labour Party. Some opposition MPs have joined the walk or supported events along the way. Sadly though, there will need to be another walk in 2019 as the practice of indefinite detention continues. Anna is fully involved with the planning and practice walks along the south coast for next year’s walk. She’s pretty happy to remain involved and to keep on walking for as long as it takes.
Some of the people I’ve walked with have stories with happy endings and the things they’ve overcome, they are an inspiration. They’ll be the ones carrying kids on their shoulders when the walk gets tough, the ones carrying other people’s bags, the ones playing a game of football after walking twelve miles. They are amazing. I’ve got so much from this experience, it doesn’t feel like any act of sacrifice or charity on my part.
You can find out more about how to support Refugee Tales at refugeetales.org
You can hear some of the refugee tales at 28for28.org
Julie Bull is a writer who lives in South London and Sussex, which sounds much posher than it is. In another life she was a civil servant but now writes full time. Her short stories have appeared in MIRonline and the Retreat West Anthology, The Word for Freedom. She is currently working on a story collection. She is nothing if not nosey, so she finds interviewing people to be a great non-fiction writing opportunity. You can find her @juliebu72