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Book review: Refugee Tales, Volume III, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

Refugee Tales: Volume III

Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

Featuring tales by Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo, Ian Sansom, David Constantine, Jonathan Wittenberg, Patrick Gale, Roma Tearne, Jonathan Skinner, Lisa Appignanesi, Monica Ali, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Emma Parsons and Lytton Smith

Published by Comma Press, 11 July 2019

208 pages

Price: £9.99

‘Every traveller here, every refugee, has their own story as different as they are. The trouble is that all the stories become the same in the same way because they all, sooner or later, narrow down to a lorry, a box, a cell.’ (Patrick Gale, ‘The Embroiderer’s Tale’).

Refugee Tales is an act of resistance. In an era of hostile environment, of cells and disbelief, these collections of tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus and published by Comma Press, bring back humanity to the narrative of migration. This third volume follows the steps of the two previous ones, offering a powerful combination of refugee voices (the sole authors of some of the stories) and friendly ears of UK-based writers (such as Monica Ali and Abdulrazak Gurnah). Their common goal: denouncing the practice of indefinite detention of foreigners by British immigration authorities.


Indefinite detention is not a widely known policy among the general public. Refugee Tales represents an effort to unveil the reality of this privately-run system. In principle, immigrant detention is just a temporary stage for those who are about to be deported. In practice, however, anyone who has claimed asylum or committed a ‘crime’ – such as looking for a job without proper legal status – is liable for indefinite detention at any time. Detainees can be held for weeks, for months, or for years, not knowing when they will be deported or released or whether they will be re-detained again in the future. Indefinite detention, as ‘The Observer’s Tale’ and ‘The Parent’s Tale’ show, is grounded on arbitrariness and unpredictability, on an obscure bureaucratic maze with the appetite of an ancient god. It is a system of disbelief, most visible in the asylum procedures but present throughout detention, healthcare and job seeking, where endless interrogations force refugees to relive traumatic experiences of fear, loss and torture time and again, only to encounter scepticism and disdain. At the end of the day, indefinite detention is also about inequality, as the outcome of one case greatly depends on the claimant’s resources, such as their knowledge of English, their support network outside the Immigration Removal Centre, and their access to visitors’ groups and independent doctors.

‘The hostile environment [is] designed to break the human spirit’, writes Roma Tearne in ‘The Father’s Tale’. Refugee Tales looks in detail at the times and geographies of detention and what they mean for asylum seekers. As A puts it in ‘The Foster Child’s Tale’, ‘detention goes beyond the walls… Detention is a chapter that keeps on going’. Among the aftereffects of detention, most writers cite the trauma of being held in a cell where the future slips away from the horizon and time is suspended while also racing against their legal case. Detention, and the fear of its repetition, take a toll on the mental health of both detainees and their loved ones even in the long term. The hostile environment plays with time but also with place, constantly moving around the country those detained or living in housing provided by the Home Office. ‘Welcome to Britain’, ironizes Gilian Slovo in ‘The Listener’s Tale’; those whose right to move across borders is contested are rendered hyper-mobile within the country against their will by the very same institution. Separated from their families and communities, banned from earning a living by themselves, they become more vulnerable, more powerless, less able to fight for their case.


Beyond denouncing an abusive, dehumanising system, Refugee Tales carefully crafts a narrative where individual voices rise to tell personal stories. These are not just tales of detention; these are stories about love, about family, about seeking brighter futures. Just as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which serve as a model for the series, the characters are named after a distinct trait of their personality which is not necessarily linked to detention – a reminder that refugees are much more than their legal status. There is a dancer, there is a father, there is an embroiderer. One is thrilled to pursue his dream and become an archaeologist; another holds on to their first love; others have decided to give back and help newly arrived migrants. Since real humans make mistakes, another has been involved with crime and served his sentence. The final tale crosses the pond to the US, where a Mexican-born pruner tells the slightly different story of tilling the land and raising a family as an undocumented migrant. In this realistic depiction of refugees as people with hopes, dreams and imperfections, Refugee Tales is also joined by other recent publications, such as The Good Immigrant collections.


These powerful, beautifully written stories trade the dominant vocabulary of administrative indifference for a language of apples and orchards, threads and fabrics, English classes and dancing moves. This is the language we need in order to overcome the Europe of hard borders, disbelief and indefinite detention, and to build a future where human stories, empathy and sanctuary no longer constitute a revolutionary act.

Refugee Tales was born beyond the paper, out of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. Five years ago, it started organising public walks that gather people who have experienced detention and others who have not, in a call to end indefinite detention. After the day’s walk, former detainees share their stories in public events. The fifth annual walk is taking place at this very moment; you can find their itinerary here.

You can read Jonathan Wittenberg’s ‘The Erased Person’s Tale’, published in The Guardian, and listen to twenty-eight more tales from previous volumes narrated in the 28for28 project.

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Magda Rodríguez Dehli

Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She interned at the Spanish Foreign Ministry and at the European Commission and she is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish foreign service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political.

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