On Sunday 8th July I managed to combine three of my enthusiasms - walking, human rights and literature in one event. My friend Hilary told me about something called "Refugee Tales" - a project that is concerned with the welfare of people who are detained by the UK immigration authorities in t detention centres at Gatwick Airport.
The United Kingdom is the only European country that permits indefinite detention of people who are thought to be in the country illegally. Detainees include asylum seekers, offenders and visa overstayers, as well as - as we now know - members of the Windrush generation who just cannot prove that they have the legal right to be here because the evidential requirement is set impractically high.
Most European countries can and do detain people suspected of being in the country illegally, but our green and pleasant beacon of democracy is the only country whose laws permit indefinite detention. Each year about 36,000 people are detained, many for short periods, but the record is nine years. Currently, over 3,000 souls are incarcerated. Some people may have been arrested, released and then re-arrested more than once. Each time they are released they are given £30 which is considered sufficient funding to rebuild their lives.
The Refugee Tales project was started as a way of publicising the plight of these people. It was founded by volunteers who visit detainees at Gatwick to support them, and is based on the Canterbury Tales. Some of the volunteers, as well as some former detainees and sympathisers such as Hilary and I take a day long country walk, and at the end of the walk there is a mini literary festival, where well-known writers who have been paired with detainees and volunteers tell the stories they have heard.
This year's walk lasted five days, starting at St. Albans on Saturday and ended at Westminster on Wednesday. There are literary festivals each evening. We joined the walk just for one day, walking about twelve miles from Hertford to Waltham Abbey. The people who are doing the five day walk sleep in church halls each night, and there is a porterage service that carries their luggage from one church hall to another. There were 120 people on our walk, and I think the age range must have been from about eighteen to over eighty. We were divided into four groups; every time we got to a stile or a kissing gate the progress of getting such a large number of people through the narrow gap was slow.
Some of the walkers are former detainees. To them, a twelve mile walk for fun is a new experience. Their previous experience of walking may have been a six month journey across the entire length of Turkey and the Balkans, Walking was a means of survival, not a leisure activity.
It was of course hot. The morning walk was mainly through Broxbourne woods so we were spared the direct sunlight. Lunch was at Broxbourne United Reformed Church, who provided endless cold drinks. While we were eating we were each handed a copy of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed seventy years ago this year. In a short talk a human rights lawyer reminded us that Article 9 specifically states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile"; and that Article 29 reminds us that "everyone has duties to the community" . These are the reasons why we are here.
I hadn't realised that this declaration was signed in the year of my birth. So I'm the same age as both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the National Health Service. I'm quite proud of that, it was a good year to be born!
Lunch over. we set out along the River Lea towpath to Waltham Abbey. Progress was fairly slow because we often had to stop to let cyclists through the crowd of walkers. There was much less shelter along the river, we were now walking in the blazing heat of summer. At Cheshunt there's a boat that sells ice cream, and the ice cream vendor couldn't believe his luck when over 100 people descended on him. It must have been his busiest day this year. I hope he didn't run out.
We arrived at Waltham Abbey at about 4pm. Fortunately Hilary's partner Dave lives in Waltham Abbey, and he supplied us with beer, food and a very welcome shower before we took a short stroll to the evening event at the library.
There, we were entertained by two authors, Gillian Slovo and Patrick Gale, and by the Citizens of the World Choir, a group of singers from over fifteen different countries, many of whom have spent some time in immigration detention. The two authors had both written Chaucerian "tales" about the lives of two people who were in the audience with us that night. Gillian Slovo is a South African born novelist, playwright and memoirist who came to this country as a refugee when she was a child. Her mother, Ruth First, was detained without trial by the Apartheid regime, and was later assassinated by order of the same regime when she opened a parcel bomb that has been sent to her office in Mozambique. Gillian read "The Listener's Tale", an account she had written about the life and experiences of a volunteer who visits detainees at Gatwick.
Patrick Gale is a Cornwall based bestselling author who in made his screenwriting debut last year with Man in an Orange Shirt, a two part drama which formed part of the BBC's Gay Britannia season. Patrick read us "The Embroiderer's Tale"; an absolutely riveting story he'd written about a young man who worked as a high-end bespoke tailor in Teheran. He fell in love with a Christian girl and secretly converted to Christianity. When his mother found out she reported him to the religious police. In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death. Patrick, who is a charismatic speaker, told us about this man's journey through Turkey, Italy and France before he was arrested in Hemel Hempstead and detained on more than one occasion. Eventually, the authorities allowed him to live with one of the Gatwick volunteers while the claim was being processed and this volunteer took him to visit Hampton Court where he saw, for the first time, medieval and Tudor English tapestries. The bespoke tailor from Teheran became the first ever male student at the Royal School of Needlework and now earns a living restoring England's heritage.
Later this year Refugee Tales will publish an anthology of all of this year's tales , including those we heard from Gillian and Patrick. I shall of course buy a copy.
Thanks To Hilary King for suggesting the walk and for the photos, and to David Chapman for the beer, food and shower.