The Exuberant Diversity of the Refugee Tales – Stephen Collis

A line of blue-shirted walkers files along the edge of a field, oak and hawthorn close on one side, the expanse of blond grain on the other. Skirting the northern limits of London, the group will soon vanish into the shade of Epping Forest, only to reappear in Stoke Newington and pass on into the heart of the city.

The blue shirts are worn by an exuberantly diverse group. This is the Refugee Tales pilgrimage—a walk in solidarity with refugees, detainees, and asylum seekers, now in its fourth year of calling for an end to the shockingly inhuman practice of indefinite detention that the UK visits upon thousands of individuals each year. Many of the walkers are themselves former detainees, living lives in an indefinite limbo where they can neither work nor travel, neither leave the UK nor remain in it, at least in any way resembling a ‘normal’ life. Others are their supporters. Still others are curious companions. Together we are a mobile community, embodying the sense of welcome and belonging that the UK’s border practices continue to reject.

I have walked each year since 2015—and still it is difficult to put into words what this project actually means. We walk for five or more days, usually more than ten miles per day. We take our meals together and sleep together in churches and halls at night. And each evening we share the stories of detainees and their supporters.

The tales themselves are harrowing. You don’t leave your home, alone and with nothing, and take desperate flight to an uncertain haven, unless you are truly motivated. When a building is on fire, you do whatever you can to get out—even jump. These are the stories of the jumpers who survived, only to be cast into the living hell of indefinite detention once they arrive on the shores of the UK.

I trust that anyone reading this can look up what, exactly, indefinite detention is. What I would like to focus on here is what the Refugee Tales project feels like. Because this is what I think it means: community, healing, love. The catharsis is extraordinary, as the group shifts repeatedly from the tragedy of the detainees’ stories to the joy of our simply being together, sharing a joke, laughing, dancing. I see these people just once a year, for less than a week, and yet every time I return, it is as though I never left. The intensity of our relations is acute, because the situation is dire. We are a family under fire.

There are so many arguments in favour of more open borders and immigration. What my mind turns to is, perhaps, a strange connection. Anthropologist James C. Scott, in a recent book called Against the Grain, notes that what we call civilization began in a rich estuarine environment which presented inhabitants with an ‘exuberant diversity’ of resources. This is what enabled us to settle at first (with intensive grain dependence only coming much later). Such exuberant diversity, Scott argues, kept people free, because it is difficult to oppress a people who have options for achieving their basic needs. Sadly, much of subsequent history is a story of attempts to limit such options.

Today, I want to say that the refugee and asylum seeker is the most resiliently civilized person on the planet, as they enlist their exuberant diversity in order to move to survive. Their journeys are epic. Their love is boundless. They want only to have the chance to contribute to our collective flourishing. And I think this is what we all want in the end: the feeling that we are a part of something, of a community, that we are working together towards a better world in whatever small way we can, doing our part, propping up those we are able to, and being propped up in turn by the collective efforts of our community. The Refugee Tales embodies these values emphatically. It is an extraordinary enactment of mutual aid—where such mutuality is forbidden by governments determined to exclude. As always, I cannot wait to return to walk with my family once again.

Stephen Collis