The Cast. Lydia Besong's play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury.

As this blog reaches it’s first anniversary the stories that have been whispering in my ear over the past twelve months are drawn together: 

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike. The forthcoming election. War and refugee movements. The unsavoury ways in which political parties capitalise on people’s fears about immigration.  A lack of funding for investigative journalism, censorship – and  recurring, stereotypical images of asylum seekers in the press.   

 Attending the “Arise and Shine” woman asylum seekers self-advocacy event in Manchester last week addressed all of these narratives.   

 The play and workshops were billed as a ‘Professional Development Opportunity’.  As a trained teacher in Adult Education as well as a journalist I had  a critical eye on how the event was organised. I was impressed from the start.   

The picture on the left, (copyright Shaheda Choudhury) – shows a cross-section of the audience as viewed from the Zion Centre gallery.   

Amongst the two hundred delegates – I found Sure Start staff, the manager of a hostel for homeless women, at least one NHS manager, members of the police force and the manager of a council unit responsible for child protection. Concrete proof that this event would be  reaching and educating vast sections of the community.   

"How I became an Asylum Seeker". Drama by Lydia Besong. Photograph Shaheda Choudhury.

 Having conducted interviews with hunger strikers at Yarl’s Wood and researched the fast-track asylum process – I found the story depicted through drama was tragically familiar.   

A woman and her family encounter extreme violence and oppression in their country of origin. If she is to save herself and her child the woman is forced to leave. And so she begins to navigate U.K. border control and the asylum system.   

The play is authentic. The actors tentative perhaps – but their performance will surely gain in strength as the cast tour other towns and cities such as Liverpool.    

"Taking the Details" Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury. Drama by Lydia Besong

For me the most telling moment of the play came when the main character reached an immigration detention centre. The actor in the yellow jacket is playing the role of the employee of a private security company in charge of taking the details of what has happened to our detainee.  

At first, I didn’t think this photograph was a particularly good one, simply because the clip board obscures the face of our main character. But then maybe it conveys the essence of the scene. The security officer is asking the woman for her mother’s date and year of birth. The woman says she doesn’t know – says she is too stressed to remember. Not just her face is obscured by the form the officer is filling in. The truth of her story is hidden too.  The audience quickly realises she is in danger of being dehumanised by the process.   

This is the violence of the fast-track asylum process. People are put in a position where it is extremely difficult or impossible for them to share their truth. And this is how our government makes judgements about their future.  

Watching this scene – I put myself in our main character’s shoes for a moment. I realised I don’t even know my own mother’s exact date of birth and would not be able to give that information anyway. How much more difficult would it be to hold things together and communicate clearly in the aftermath of rape, violence and the trauma of being separated from loved ones – in a language which is not your mother tongue?  

Responses to the Play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph Shaheda Choudhury

 In the hour long workshop that followed the performance we were asked for reactions to the play. You can see some of these in this picture:  

We were also asked to pinpoint how our perceptions had changed as result of watching the performance.  

Each of the workshop groups was attended by a member of the cast.  

In this next photograph I’m discussing perceptions and issues raised. One of our groups included a Sure Start worker.  A lack of child care hits asylum seekers and mothers with children under three particularly hard. Asylum seekers are not entitled the free fifteen hours a week provided by the state that other women living here can access as a matter of course. 

Women spoke of how their independence had been curtailed by the fact that they were not allowed to do paid work. In countries of origin it was not unusual for women to be the bread-winners in their families.  

Some delegates at the workshop had not known about the voucher system for asylum seekers and how it works. Asylum seekers can only use their vouchers at certain stores. They are often asked for I.D. On a practical level this means that each time you go shopping you run the risk that the whole store finds out that you are seeking asylum. Often the assistant holds up their hand and shouts for assistance from the supervisor. Vouchers cannot be used on public transport.  

Workshop. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury. Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury

One of the cast members I spoke to had a child aged one. I know from personal experience how challenging the birth of a child can be for a mother and her family.  

I’ve heard some mums describe this experience as nothing less a “bombshell dropping” on their lives. How strong then, did this brave young woman need to be – who was not only bringing up her child with confidence  – but who was also still dealing with the trauma of the violent situation she had left behind.  

Some of the issues raised. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Of the two hundred so so delegates that attended the conference – I was the only person displaying  press I.D. Why? This is a significant question, especially in a city like Manchester, where there are literally thousands of journalists, reporters, photographers and film-makers.
We know that editors and managers of newspapers are cutting back on travel expenses and training costs.
I mention all this as part of my virtual ‘feedback form’ for WAST and GAP the organisations who organised this event. I really hope that you’ll steam ahead with this important work – and succeed in getting more journos and perhaps the NUJ and even the entertainment union (BECTU) on board.
 Popular misconceptions about how journalists work (and how their work is funded) are directly relevant to the issues at hand. When I said I was a “journalist” the taxi driver who dropped me off at the Zion Centre asked me for a  “diamond ring”. Perhaps he’d been reading too many celebrity magazines. I didn’t tell him that in fact I wasn’t getting paid for attending the WAST event or indeed, for writing this blog post. And that’s part of the problem. Funding for quality journalism.
Managers of newspapers are increasingly curtailing the frequency with which reporters are sent out to the field and covering such events is often left to intrepid freelancers like me. We can be fairly certain a lack of access to professional development opportunities like this affects the quality of reporting in the long run.
 Immigration and asylum issues can be  complicated. If your boss says they can’t afford to send you to an event, you cannot be there in person and have to use the telephone and the internet – there’s a danger that your information will be second-hand.

Women Asylum Seekers Together. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Members of the media, the unions and the voluntary sector should be working together to counteract dangerous and misleading stereotypes through training. This type of event is really needed.
I’ll leave you with a few pointers about some really handy leaflets I picked up at the event.
The first one is called: “”Mobiles, money and mayhem. The Facts and Fibs about Asylum – a witty pop-it-in-your-pocket-guide” available from www.refugee-action.org.uk who will come and give a free talk if your organisation fancies finding out a bit more about asylum in the U.K. This page debunks the myth: “All asylum seekers are blowing their benefit on leather jackets”.

Mobiles, Money and Mayhem. The facts (and fibs) about Asylum. Picture by Frances Laing. Publication by refugee-action.org.uk

In reality “Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work they’re given basic  financial support to live on. In Britain if you’re a single person aged 25 or over and on Income Support you’re entitled to get £57.45 a week. But if you’re an asylum seeker in Britain you get 30% less than that. You get £40.22 a week. Which you’d probably want to spend on some of life’s essentials, like say, food rather than blowing it all on a leather jacket…
All asylum seekers come into the country with clothes on their back, and maybe those sporting a leather jacket got it from a market in Kabul rather than at the January sales…”
 

"WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers". Picture by Frances Laing

The last picture in this blog post features a booklet of interest to many of us. The WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers. Ideal reading material for Gordon Brown or Phil Woolas the immigration Minister…   

“Women’s Asylum News” Issue 88, published by the Refugee Women’s Resource Project tells us: 
 ” A culture change in the asylum system is urgently needed to ensure that women asylum seekers receive a comparable standard of treatment to women settled in the U.K. in similar situations”. 
 
Since the Women’s Asylum Charter was published in June 2008 at asylum Aid’s AGM the UKBA Chief Inspector stated that:
“gender will be a golden thread running through his inspections”.
 
Something tells me we’ve got a long way to go. Arise and Shine seemed a brilliant way to kick-start the culture change that is so desperately needed.
Useful websites:
The WAST and GAP event was funded by North West Together We Can.
The play “How I became an Asylum Seeker” was written by Lydia Besong and directed by Magdalen Bartlett. The event is being filmed for a DVD which will become part of an awareness training pack.
 

See this piece published by the Guardian online today:

Israeli air strike overnight