Our country’s current asylum system is unfair and uncompassionate, but it can be hard to know where to begin in changing a web of policies, deep-rooted prejudice and ridiculous media representations. The societies STAR (Student Action for Refugees), Amnesty International and Visual Cultures at Sussex innovatively used art as a means to explore the issue of asylum and put across a strong message to the public in an event called ‘Sanctuary’.
Sanctuary is a term used by the Independent Asylum Commission with the hope of encouraging and generating support for a UK which is a safe place for people fleeing persecution. A recent poll showed that on average, the British public believes 23% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers are based in this country, which is nearly eight times the actual figure. Such grossly inaccurate perceptions can be seen to stem from the perpetual myth-making of the media, which consistently undermines the idea that the UK can be a place from which people can escape war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, rape or torture.
‘Failed’ asylum seekers are not people who have failed; they are people who have been failed by our country’s unfair system, a system which lacks the time necessary to listen to individual stories and boasts of its tough policies. In an article in the Daily Mail published in August, a spokeswoman for the UK borders agency defended the immigration system by saying: ‘Last year we removed nearly 65,000 people – one person every eight minutes…this year we will be adding to our detention estate with the opening of a new 420 bed immigration centre at Gatwick, and increasing capacity by 60 per cent overall.’
The article, donning the headline ‘Police forced to release asylum seeker captured after five years on the run – because immigration officers failed to collect him’ centred on criticisms of the UK borders agency’s lack of control on a so-called deviant man rather than on why somebody would be so desperate not to return to their country that they would spend five years escaping authorities, forced into destitution with no regular income or access to benefits.
It is difficult to keep faith in the idea of the country as a place of sanctuary when one examines the asylum system, the only legal system in which people are deemed guilty until proven innocent. Whilst attempting to gain asylum status people consistently have their credibility questioned, for example victims of violence can be asked to show not only physical afflictions but also proof of how scars were afflicted (the concern being that ‘bogus’ asylum seekers are so intent on getting into the country they would self-harm).
The suspicious and aggressive treatment of those seeking asylum, the systematic detention in prison-like centres of people (particularly families) needing a place of refuge, and the destitution forced on those whose asylum claims have been rejected are issues which need to be brought to public attention and addressed. Central to this, perhaps, is the need to remove the stigma and negative connotations with which the term ‘asylum’ has become burdened.
Such a stigma is of course common throughout wide segments of the British media, and this makes it all the more important to continue to tackle asylum issues through humanistic means that the public can relate to. Put on to coincide with Human Rights Day, ‘Sanctuary’s’ mix-up of drama, poetry, music and general merriment is an acknowledgment of the immense creativity that can come out of facing challenges and injustice. A quick glance at the music and arts scene in Brighton is all that’s needed to demonstrate the use of art as a political message-making tool. The Societies behind Sanctuary seek to make the most of bringing together a wide array of various types of story-telling under one roof and beyond, leaking the event out onto the street.
Recognising that artists, very understandably, often don’t want their professional identity to be embedded in the title ‘refugee’, the organisers of Sanctuary have aimed to sophisticatedly tackle any representation of refugees as victims by pulling together a wealth of different talent which explores the loosely bounded theme of human refugee experience.
We need more creative and more humanistic approaches to engaging people with important issues, humanistic both in exploring how people are affected by the issue at hand and in engaging with prejudices that need to be altered. There is plenty of potential for more innovative ways to get everyone interested in what needs to change within the world on their doorstep.