Here is my essay from AGENDA Vol 50 Nos 3-4 February 2017 The Power of Poetry
Poetry and Immigration
Instant responses and ill-chosen words flash round the world with seismic consequences. A photograph of a drowned Syrian child can move the world to action (albeit temporarily) – another of refugees queueing to cross a border can inflame the EU referendum debate. As poets our craft is to choose and think about words with meticulous accuracy and care; to contribute the thought provoking, the deeper and more carefully considered words into the frenzy of comment and passing concerns. No subject requires more thought and precision than the immigration debate, it carries with it a responsibility to speak out and sometimes to remain silent.
For the last fifteen years I have worked as an Immigration and Asylum caseworker for a London MP. I am also a poet. In this vast area of words, I have tried to write about what I know; where I believe I have knowledge, a perspective to offer. It is good and positive when journalists wake the world up to an issue and people feel compassion to act; but refugees need more than a whimsical response that blows with the media trends. They need stability and justice. They need lawyers and campaigners to find pathways through the law, but they also need poets and artists to harness the power of words to change public opinion in a positive and sustained way, to influence governments and to affect policy.
A few years ago I switched computer system and found I had 32,000 separate pieces of correspondence with the Home Office to transfer! My book, ‘The Immigration Handbook,’ published this summer by Seren Books, distils into poetry these thousands of encounters with asylum seekers and migrants. Themes of chance, the randomness of Home Office decisions and the limbo of waiting all weave through the stories people tell me. There are multi-layered accounts to be unpicked, told in faltering English: the stories the person believes the system wants to hear, the way the story needs to be told to fit the rules; and somewhere – buried deep under trauma and sometimes shame – the story that actually happened that sometimes cannot be told or may need to be forgotten.
I have found the Home Office to be a vast, dysfunctional ‘failed state’ that can break the lives of these already fragile people. People who have navigated difficult and dangerous journeys to seek protection in the UK, only to find themselves at the start of another long and spirit-sapping journey through government bureaucracy, where someone can be stuck for a decade unable to resolve their immigration status or begin their life anew.
In poetry, like law, credibility is everything. The accuracy of words, the phrasing of an asylum claim – the need to recount in the most precise detail an event that happened in panic in a faraway country in the act of fleeing – can make the difference between having your claim accepted and being sent back. Language and timing is vital for the appellant in an immigration case; if you are a day late in submitting an application you can be forced to leave the UK where you may have lived legally for years, yet the Home Office is cavalier in its own handling of people’s lives even writing that “there is no timescale for dealing with this application”. I have seen the bewilderment of a family asked 9 times for a set of the same photographs, their files lost, random decisions – two siblings with the same circumstances but processed by different caseworkers: one refused, one granted leave. It is an inert, passive-aggressive system struggling to process the complexities and uniqueness of fragile human lives, but instead overwhelming them with arcane, ever-changing rules.
In my poem ‘Selection’ I focused on the opacity of the phrases used by the Home Office – their deliberate obfuscation in order to disguise the true nature of their meaning.
I have found poetry in the juxtaposition of ‘found words’ and poignancy in the ‘official phrasing’ set against the raw experiences of asylum seekers lives. An official report, dry and formulaic, deals with the trauma of amputating a human hand but in the midst I find recorded. ‘The interview was stopped so that the interpreter could go and feed the parking meter’. Layers of language with different uses, words of intensity against the urbane but humanising code of a shared action.
A form: subheaded ‘Option Picker’ gives boxes for the decision maker to tick: ‘leave’ or ‘refuse’. So much is packed into these codes, but they remain inadequate to translate into law and systematise the actual complexity of people’s lives.
Words matter, they can be explosive and critical in determining the fate of someone’s life – a judge unconvinced by the claimant who cannot name the airline she travelled on, but persuaded by the clinching detail that the air stewardess wore “sky blue and saffron”. Fragments of poetry that enables a woman with no documents, to save her life through the eloquence of her words.
This year the number of refugees and internally displaced people world-wide has risen to 65.3 million and is higher than at any time since the second-world war. The issue of migration is the most pressing and complex issue of our time, yet behind the statistics are suffering people who are looking for security and a chance to live a fulfilled and peaceful life.
I have found my life has become interwoven with the people I work for – the date this woman claimed asylum was my wedding anniversary, my son was born the day the old bridge in Mostar was reopened in Bosnia. Many who attend the immigration surgeries have no voice, some are afraid to be heard, just existing in a shadow, in a parallel world. But on finding stability and security, they also find their voice and begin to participate in society – to speak. Theirs are the voices that need to be heard and listened to in the immigration debate. Theirs the rich experiences and the poetry from which we will all learn more about our world and ourselves.