Global Development Academy

The Asylum Monologues

This blog has been written by Dr Grit Wesser, a postdoctoral fellow in Social Anthropology at The University of Edinburgh. Here, she reports from a recent Asylum Monologues event in Edinburgh, which brought together performers, academics, students and the public to discuss this global human rights issue.

Immigration has perhaps always been – at least since the rise of nation-states – a contentious issue for policy makers, in public discourse, and around families’ kitchen tables. The so-called “European Refugee Crisis” has renewed a debate not on ‘whether’, but on ‘how much’ to control and limit immigration to Europe. In this process, the issue has been reduced to one of numbers.

But why do people cross borders and leave behind their home countries and loved ones? What does it mean to be an asylum seeker in Scotland? What new boundaries do migrants face, once they arrive in a country that is foreign to them – and treats them as foreigners? Could Scotland become their new home? These questions were being creatively examined through a performance of the Asylum Monologues, and in the panel discussion that followed.

Ice&Fire, a theatre company that explores human rights issues through performance, created the first script of the Asylum Monologues in 2006. Since then the company has recorded and performed various testimonies of asylum seekers, aimed at raising awareness of asylum seekers’ experiences by sharing their stories with the communities to which they now belong. The audience listened attentively to a Scottish script, launched only during Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2016.

The three Ice&Fire performers took turns in telling the stories of a Kurdish unaccompanied minor, a young Pakistani man, and an Iranian woman and their experiences in Scotland. These narrations were candid and often bittersweet, taking the audience on the asylum seekers’ journeys, oscillating between the fear of state persecution and the sensations of loss, hope, and homesickness. The stories evoked the grief caused by broken families and the joys experienced through new-found friends as well as the frustrations and struggles associated with having to start from scratch and the potentials and expectations that new beginnings hold.

The performance was followed by a panel discussion, chaired by Jenny Munro from Beyond Borders Scotland. The panel comprised Professor Anthony Good, Social Anthropology; Phil Jones, manager of the Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers; and Steven Ritchie, one of the three performers. The panellists were joined by two young men whose stories we had just heard: Tony and Aras.

Since Aras had listened to the script of his own story for the first time, he was eager to praise the performer: “It was great. You told it better than I could have!” Tony and Aras spoke to the audience about their new life in Scotland, while Phil explained how the Night Shelter’s work attempts to mitigate the difficulties faced by asylum seekers in Glasgow. Steven, who was also involved in interviewing asylum seekers, revealed more about the process of recording and retelling their life stories.

Issues surrounding the asylum process in the UK were clarified by Prof Good, who has frequently acted as an expert witness on asylum appeals in the UK and other countries. Contrary to the stories we had listened to, he elaborated, the Home Office structures its interviews with asylum seekers in a way that does not accommodate a chronological order of their experiences. Questions are often phrased ambiguously so that asylum seekers’ answers could vary, in turn leading to an intentional undermining of their credibility – a credibility required for gaining refugee status.

After a vote of thanks to the performers, panellists, and sponsors, the event ended with much applause and a donation appeal. The audience donated a total of nearly £200, which was equally split to support the work of Amnesty International and the Glasgow Night Shelter.

Aimed at making the people behind immigration numbers visible again, it was a successful evening – as one attendee later commented: “I’ve been to a few discussions on refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland, but this was the first to have a more creative take with the monologues, which I thought worked really well. It’s always helpful to have a more personal take, because numbers and places are difficult to bring to life.  I thought it was great all in so thanks for putting it together.”

Grit Wesser organised The Asylum Monologues event with Helene Frössling (Scottish Graduate School of Social Science) and Hannah Cook (Centre for African Studies), and in collaboration with Beyond Borders Scotland and Ice&Fire. The event was co-supported by the Global Justice and Global Development Academies’ through their joint Innovative Initiative Fund.