The word refugee has become somewhat explosive in recent years, not least in the UK, three syllables that amount to variously a warning, a threat and a political pawn. Immigration is unquestionably a sensitive and difficult issue and understandably creates diverging opinions, yet in the midst of all of the political wrangling and nationalist debate, what has been sadly lost are the human beings at the heart of the crisis and their stories – stories which oftentimes comprise unspeakable trauma, unthinkable tragedy and unbelievable pain, but which are muted by more powerful voices. Refugee Tales, which started life as an outreach project inspired by the experiences of men held in immigration detention at Gatwick and has since led to three books which share the stories of refugees, seeks to raise awareness of ‘Indefinite Detention’ in the UK and fight for those struggling in the system.

Refugee Tales: Volume III gives the voice back to this silenced group of refugees, asylum seekers and immigration detainees and the space to share their stories. In nineteen individual narratives, which encompass everything from The Orphan’s Tale, to The Embroiderer’s Tale and The Expectant Mother’s Tale, a variety of authors including Monica Ali, Patrick Gale and Bernardine Evaristo recount incredibly harrowing, unsettling and dehumanising life stories. Whatever your views on refugees and immigration, it is impossible to read just how terribly people have suffered and not be moved and shocked by what they have gone through. What is perhaps most shocking of all, however, is the treatment they endure in the UK itself. There is inevitably an immigration process that arrivals have to go through, however it is the bureaucracy, degradation and confusion that emerge in each story that reveal just how crude and unpleasant this process is. Every narrative reads like a Kafkaesque reality – where people are made to travel miles to reporting centres despite not having travel allowances, are suddenly detained and confined like prisoners, are questioned endlessly and repetitively without being listened to, and are moved around and relocated without any sense of when they may be released or where to.

The portrait of the authorities has a similarly Kafkaesque, even Orwellian feel; those in the positions of responsibility and power oftentimes depicted as incredibly obstructive and degrading, as the narrator of The Erased Person’s Tale defines it: ‘this attitude epitomises the environment of intentional hostility, the culture of disbelief, which those at the top are helping to encourage.’ There is a need for checks, for the correct processing, but there is also a need for empathy and understanding, which seems to be lacking. These tales each depict a person whose struggles are real, whose motives are honest and whose aspirations are hopeful, yet they are all tarred with the same brush. It is a sad indictment of where world and national politics has taken us that everyone must be treated first with scepticism and resentment, and with sympathy and respect only as an afterthought. The stories in this collection show that these people have already endured more than any human being ever should and when they believe their suffering is over, their journey thankfully complete, there is yet further degradation.

These stories opened my eyes not only to the harrowing realities of those who as The Social Worker’s Tale describes ‘have the disadvantage… of being born in the right country at the wrong time’ but also the stark reality of the systems and structures that underpin the British immigration system, which sadly come across as archaic, insensitive and, crucially, inhuman. Refugee Tales: Volume III is a really laudable and invaluable book that has the power to make people aware of situations and circumstances they may not have been familiar with and to encourage them to rethink, question and transform their attitudes and understanding. Inevitably, immigration remains a contentious issue, for which there is no hard and fast remedy, but this small but mighty book is a necessary reminder that behind the news stories, the scaremongering and the stereotypes, there are real people, often with heartbreaking experiences who deserve, in the very least, to be treated humanely.

J. Craddock 5/5

Refugee Tales: Volume III
Comma Press 9781912697113 pbk Jul 2019