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Refugee Tales: Collecting Stories of Detainees


The man is 60-years-old when the state police show up at his door.

He came to the U.K. in 1984 and lived there nearly 30 years, working first as a journalist and then as a plumber. He was invited here to work, his daughter was born in the country, and for a half a lifetime, this was the place where he made his home.

The border agency shows up at his door late at night. He’s undressed, standing in the room with his flatmate while they search through everything he owns. It doesn’t matter how long he’s been in the country—they arrest him and take him in handcuffs to the police station. They don’t allow him to take any evidence or paperwork with him.

When the door closes, he doesn’t know what it means yet. He doesn’t know that it means an end to his freedom for the next three years.

This man is just one of many in the U.K. who have been detained in centers for undocumented immigrants. In a Levitt Center talk “Refugee Tales: Ethical and Effective Storytelling,” Anna Pincus and David Herd led a discussion on the Refugee Tales project, an initiative which aims to collect stories from migrants and refugees in Britain.

The U.K. is the only country that detains people indefinitely in detention centers, sometimes for up to 9 years. In 2017, there were 27,000 people detained in removal enters across the country.

In such a hostile and dehumanizing environment, just being a listener is a revolutionary act. People felt invisible, like their stories weren’t being heard. We had to find some way of responding to that need.

Not only do these detentions cause mental harm like post-traumatic stress disorder, but they play a part in a deeply unjust system. Detainees are met with endless obstacles to securing their freedom, including lack of representation, legal manipulation by the court, and regulations designed to keep them from proving their candidacy for citizenship.

“People come to the U.K. to seek sanctuary and they find themselves in indefinite detention,” Pincus said. “In such a hostile and dehumanizing environment, just being a listener is a revolutionary act. People felt invisible, like their stories weren’t being heard. We had to find some way of responding to that need.”

The Refugee Tales project aims to collect the stories of detainees in a book. Working in collaboration with those who have directly experienced the U.K. asylum system, the Refugee Tales project uses Chaucer’s poems as a model to broadcast these stories to the world. The group walks across the countryside and tells the stories along the way, stopping in communities to communicate the experiences of migration and showing what indefinite detention means—and what the consequences can be for innocent lives.

Walking not only circulates these stories, but it also makes refugees, asylum seekers, and detainees visible to the community. Herd sees this as a form of power in itself, a way to “reclaim the landscape of England.”

These stories don’t just expose some of the injustices of the system, but Pincus argues that this is ultimately one of the most effective ways to create political change: “The visceral power of the tale does the work for us,” she said. “It’s a tool for us to have conversations with parliamentarians. It shows the deep and transformative power in the simple act of sharing stories.”

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