All the world's a stage

The role of theatre in integrating refugees in Europe.

Psychedelight takes a bow on stage in India in their production, Borderline, a satire of the Calais Jungle refugee camp. Photo credit: Psychedelight.

What were you doing on October 26th, 2014? It’s most likely you don’t remember. I couldn’t answer myself, but I recently spoke to a man and this date is indelibly imprinted on his mind. He thinks about it every day and that is because it is the day he became a refugee.

“Believe me. There is no refugee who doesn’t think every day about the day they left. And every day we think if the day to go back will ever come.”

These are the words of Syrian interpreter, actor and refugee rights campaigner Baraa Halabieh who, at the age of 30, was forced to leave Syria after his life was threatened due to his political views.

Rehumanising the image of refugees

It was only when I was thinking about what I’d ask him in an interview that I thought about the moment a person becomes a refugee. Every adult who has been forced to leave their home had a life before this existence and one in which their life now was most likely unimaginable.  

Given the ‘them and us’ narrative championed by right-wing politicians and newspapers, we are certainly not encouraged to think like this. Refugees must be defined by their misfortune, they must be ‘other’ and certainly not someone you can have a laugh with on a Zoom call. Yesterday, however, I met three members of a theatre company made up of refugees and Europeans, including Halabieh, who are cutting through the propaganda machines with their hugely imaginative work to re-humanise the image of refugees.

“They are just people…very resourceful, very resilient people… and fun, and handsome and talented,” says Sophie Besse, the artistic director of Psychedelight Theatre Company.

“You’re going to want to have a drink with them… we always did after our shows, having live music and dancing with the audience. There’s something very human in theatre because you’re here on stage in front of the people and you can meet after. You can chat. That’s something you don’t have in the newspaper or on television.”

Psychedelight is an international theatre company based in London, the brainchild of theatre maker Sophie Besse. Before the pandemic, they had toured 13 countries and they intend to pick up where they left off once venues reopen. Their secret to giving a truthful portrayal of the ordeals refugees suffer and not overwhelming an audience? Satire. Ironic observations of life in refugee camps, encounters with border forces, people smugglers, human traffickers and asylum bureaucrats cushion the blow of the grim reality for both the audience and the performers. And what better way to forge solidarity than to make someone laugh.

Besse’s company delivers its own living, breathing reality check on the refugee crisis. They are re-humanising refugees. Something so desperately needed when nationalist governments and media are manipulating the plight of asylum seekers for their own political ends.

Baraa Halabieh as himself (centre), Tamara Astor as Prime Minister Theresa May (centre back) in Welcome to the UK, a satire on the asylum system in Britain at The Bunker Theatre, London. Photo credit: José Farinha.

Harbouring fear: a UK guide

In the UK, where only 0.2% of the population are refugees, and asylum seekers receive the paltry payment of £5 per day, there has never been a crisis. Yet in 2016 – the week before the Brexit referendum, when media moguls were keen to get out of the clutches of the EU’s Competition Commissioner who was cracking down on monopolies56% of the voting public surveyed said immigration and asylum were the most important issues facing Britain. The tabloid press had bombarded Britons with anti-migrant front pages that dehumanised refugees and stoked fear.

By 2017, levels of anxiety over asylum seekers had dropped to 35% and continued to fall. Had the number of applications changed? No. According to the UK Parliament website in 2019, “The number [of asylum applications] has been roughly constant over the last five years.” 

What had changed was the tabloids. Satisfied with the Brexit result, they no longer needed to fabricate a UK refugee crisis. As refugee charity Choose Love puts it, the only crisis was “a crisis of compassion.”

Worse still, the UK Government scapegoated asylum-seekers for the wilful devastation their policies exacted on public services and subsequently human lives. From 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition cut spending and increased privatisation under the economic fallacy of austerity, a policy responsible for more than 130,000 deaths in Britain. This same government blamed migrants for a shortage of resources in the National Health Service and a lack of housing.

Theresa May, in December 2012, told Parliament, “You only have to look at London, where almost half of all primary school children speak English as a second language to see the challenges we now face as a country.” Of course, if these primary school children (note: we’re demonising children as young as four here) had been upper-class and bilingual it would have been a cause for celebration, as seen when Princess Charlotte, aged two, spoke Spanish with her au-pair.

If it ain’t broke…

Now, recent history is repeating itself. The Conservative Party’s handling of the Covid pandemic has led to 130,000 deaths in Britain. Once again, the Home Office is manufacturing a threat out of refugees with its New Plan for Immigration, diverting attention from Government failings.

The new plan calls asylum seekers entering the UK through “unnecessary” irregular routes opportunists without legitimate claims. It proposes to penalise, even criminalise, refugees arriving without a visa. Denied, detained and deported, in a willful departure from international law. 

Article 31 of the Refugee Convention declares, “…States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees…”

The UK Home Office will detain refugees on the proposed “asylum estate” rather than allowing them to live in the community. The British Government has already come under attack for the unsanitary conditions of the former army barracks where it houses asylum seekers in a damning inspection report in March.

Furthermore, the plan pledges to provide more power to border forces, enabling them to imitate the abhorrent practice of “pushbacks”, seen in Greece.

In response to the UK’s proposed policies, over 50 human rights charities have signed a letter asking the UK Home Office to retract them and the UNHCR has urged the UK to rethink its plans.

In its play Borderline, Psychedelight explores irregular routes used by refugees who, if they arrived under the proposed policy, would be denied their rights. Baraa explains, “To claim asylum in the UK, I have to be in the UK. There are no other routes […] no one would love to risk their life and jump on a dinghy, and walk in the middle of nowhere and live in Calais for a couple of months. No one would [choose] to do that. That was the only way.”

It was when speaking to Halabieh that the horror of the UK’s proposals hit home. If the actor had arrived today, this would be his fate. Locked up in a squalid detention centre or pushed back out to sea. 

Resisting revulsion

Tamara Astor runs workshops bringing together refugee and European women to counter the anti-asylum policies in the UK known as the Hostile Environment, a legacy of Theresa May which, thanks to a strong performance from the Tories in December 2019, is here to stay. 

“[Our work] is in direct opposition to the Hostile Environment policy,” comments Tamara, “where you don’t know, if you’re in temporary accommodation, when you’re going to be moved and any community links could be ripped from you at a moment’s notice. These barriers to building up community are deliberate– we’re trying to break them down.”

Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish men, women and children enjoy Psychedelight's Together Workshops led by Sophie Besse in Turkey. Photo credit: José Farinha

Besse, who started the Together Workshops explains, “For me [there was a need] to create a workshop for everyone whether you’re an asylum seeker or European so you’re on the same level. [The key is] to embrace diversity and empower people.”

I joined an online session where I met a woman from Nigeria living in London. “We inspire each other. We motivate each other,” she said, “so for me, it’s more than a workshop. It’s more or less a family.”

Refugees welcome: All around the Globe

Psychedelight plans to return to real-life workshops at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, the reconstruction of the 16th-century playhouse on the south bank of the River Thames. 

Some 400 years ago, not long before the original Globe was built, Shakespeare knew theatre’s potential of communicating the case of refugees. In the 1590s, when Huguenots arrived in England, Shakespeare penned this address to a mob of anti-refugee rioters, challenging them, where would you go if you were exiled by your king?

“Imagine you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation… spurned like dogs.”

The play was never performed in the writer’s lifetime as Queen Elizabeth I’s censor feared it might lead to further rioting. Four centuries later, PsycheDelight are fulfilling Shakespeare’s intention calling out what the bard attacked as the “mountainish inhumanity” of people who refuse refugees asylum. There is great poetic symmetry that arguably the greatest writer in the English language wanted to stage a play about the treatment of refugees and today, in his theatre, refugees are invited to take to the stage.