When I decided to write a play about interpreting within the UK’s immigration and asylum system, I steeled myself for a mountain of research. I knew little about the ins and outs of this complex legal and bureaucratic system, and even less about what it feels like to be inside it. What I had been told was that here I would find the kind of dark comedy and absurd everyday-language games and riffs that I’ve always pursued as a means of asking difficult social and political questions.
The immediate revelation of the research that Mark (Maughan – the play’s director) and I did was that the reality of the UK’s immigration system is absurdity. In the bleakest possible way. One of the most sobering moments we had was at the Hatton Cross Immigration Tribunal Courts, where we witnessed two men Skyped in from nearby Detention Centres to hearings that would determine whether their indefinite incarceration (for the crime of being here) should be ended or not. They sat silently in windowless rooms, watching through a screen, as British people of different ethnicities debated, sometimes with shocking coldness, the value of their lives. One of their lawyers was over an hour late; the other had forgotten to bring a pen.
We spent time with James*, a man persecuted because his story was too category-defying for the Home Office to comprehend. They’d hounded him for months (it’s since turned to years) trying to reduce him to the category of ‘foreign national criminal’ despite the fact he considered himself British, having been here so long he couldn’t even remember anywhere else. Like many, having already been through hell, James lived in a limbo of detention, applying for asylum, rejection, re-detention, appeal, tribunal, applying anew. A circular process that for James really seems to have no end. He shared his documents with us: letters with his name misspelt three different ways, sent in near-duplicate within days of each other but stating opposite outcomes of his case; transcripts of his substantive interview, a standardly several-hour long ordeal of both repetitive and tangential probing designed to wear down the ‘claimant’ and force mistakes.
We met John* and Mary*, softly spoken individuals with completely distinctive stories that both got simply reduced by the system to the category of ‘overstayer’ and lined up for ‘removal’ (deportation). As they offered shards and fragments of their experience to us, a perfectly human jumble of every day details and quirks, panicked decisions, twists of (ill) fate, it struck me how inhuman it was to expect well-told stories from people in their kind of position. To expect an explanation of who someone is and what has happened to them to be delivered with impeccable coherence, consistency and credibility (the Home Office’s watchwords for what they deem a ‘successful’ claim).
What people like John and Mary shared was that they’d been through trauma and received little support; they’d been given cause to distrust officials and questions for fear of their lives; they’d been manipulated and used; and a lot of this had happened here in the UK, where they – like countless others we met – had been for some time. Just as very few people seeking asylum have a neatly coherent and consistent tale of how they came here, few have the required information and support to begin their claims as soon as they arrive. For Mary, for several months, she heard rumour of the Home Office, but ‘only as something to fear…I didn’t know what they were, but I knew they were bad’.
In offices, church halls and cafes from Southampton to London to Stockton, we shared so many cups of tea with people who knew the asylum system from the inside. We tried hard to listen, not lead. Each story was as different as the human being who owned it, but each told the same very sorry tale about our asylum decision system in general, and the particular hell of the substantive interview at its heart. And it is that interview around which The Claim relentlessly revolves.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
But all this research also forced me to confront my own position. Sitting across the table from so many people who’d gone through something I could only begin to imagine, it felt very much like this wasn’t just a problem simply for or about refugees, but a collective problem. The more people we met, the more I felt that the substantive interview, with its haphazard questioning based on outdated country information, Wikipedia searches (this is standard interviewer practice) assumptions and reductive categorisation, was a crucible of attitudes and problems we think we’ve moved on from. Prejudices we think we no longer hold, privileges so old we take them for granted. It’s a bleak comedy that unfolds daily in places and people we barely notice that we are choosing not to fully see as we witter and worry on about our own ‘first-world problems’.
It would have been wrong for me to go away and write a play that tried to just emotively tell a refugee story. Instead Mark and I have created a play about both sides of the table. About what can happen when different levels of privilege collide inside a rigged system. What started as research became a continuing conversation, a programme of participation and feedback between the play, its makers, and those who’d experienced what it was about. One crucial week of workshops, involved sessions with refugee/former refugee members of groups like Write To Life and Counterpoints Arts. We built lasting relationships by exploring the ideas (and early draft) of the play through creative exercises, chats and games – and by sharing lots of food and drink together!
Now, two years later, Write to Life members have created a brave and eloquent audio installation that travels to each venue the play goes to. We have legal surgeries, workshops, talks and more happening everywhere the production goes this winter. What initially was supposed to be a few weeks of research has turned into an ongoing engagement and lasting relationships. No easy answers: but the conversation continues.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
The Claim UK tour runs until 2 February including Shoreditch Town Hall, London: 16–26 January 2018