Tim Cowbury: ‘The UK’s asylum system is broken’

The Claim

Tim Cowbury is a playwright and writer based in London. With Jess Latowicki, he established theatrical company Made in China in 2009 along has now written his first solo production called The Claim about asylum claims in the UK. Accompanied by wraparound activities designed with organisations like UNESCO, such as the I Am Just My Words project. This is an installation which travels with the show on tour and features recorded testimonies from refugees detailing their own stories and experiences of the Home Office’s substantive interview. You can listen to testimonies from two refugees here. The company will also host post-show discussions, Q&A sessions with immigration lawyers and the creative team and law clinics where participants will be given support for upcoming asylum interviews.

The Claim is a play that circles playfully around, and then relentlessly zooms in on, the interviews at the heart of all asylum claims in the UK. Based on extensive research, the play sees these interviews as a strange and broken core of a rotten asylum system in urgent need of attention. We’re in a moment where the UK is battling to figure out what its borders mean, how ‘hard’ they should be, and what it is to be British now. We’re doing this against a global backdrop of far-right politics and refugee crises. In this context, The Claim explores how our broken asylum system is uncomfortably symbolic of wider questions about what the UK is and stands for, and how we relate to those who come here from elsewhere. 

The current asylum system is actually long in the making: the product of at least two decades of government policy. But year on year that policy has become increasingly hell-bent on pandering to xenophobic fears, proclaiming with ugly pride that the UK is ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. Now more than ever – under the long-looming shadow of Brexit, after the recent Windrush and ongoing student exams Home Ofiice scandals, as Leaders across the globe try to build walls and close borders  – it feels incredibly important to address. 

It feels important because what happens to refugees in this crucial moment is littered with official errors, but is not just an accident. Because the absurd, belief-beggaring way an asylum seeker is confused, pressured, blocked, mis-seen and misheard by our state has got worse in recent years. Worse, despite mountains of continued evidence that it needs to get better (including from whistle-blowers within the Home Office and multiple UN observers). The asylum interview is a kind of dark mirror through which we can see the prejudices and concerns that lurk behind the angry headlines and fraught debates around immigration here, and the complex lie of so-called ‘British Values’. And it takes place up and down the country, daily if not hourly, but almost entirely behind closed doors. 

This is a story – or as the play shows, a mangling of the stories that are supposed to be heard (from refugees) – that is long overdue the kind of searing spotlight The Claim gives it. Our play at once theatrically abstracts and faithfully portrays the barrage of politely-worded questions at the heart of all asylum claims. It explores how poorly trained and heavily pressured Home Office employees who conduct these interviews have two quite simple but deeply and absurdly contradictory remits. Firstly, their job is to give a fair hearing to vulnerable people who come here in need of refuge. Secondly, their job is to reduce immigration by meeting extreme reduction targets (i.e to say ‘no’).   

As a theatre maker, I try to imaginatively engage with political issues, asking questions rather than providing solutions. So what you’ll see at the Roundabout at Summerhall this August isn’t a play that tells you what to think or how to feel about all this, but a provocative, troublingly entertaining theatricalization of the kinds of ludicrously sad contradictions and experiences I encountered as I researched The Claim. If the asylum system is to get better, I think it needs to deal with the basic contradiction between fair hearings and reduction targets. But I think this rests on the difficult working-through of deeper and broader issues about British identity. 

There is a lot we can do towards this goal though, and for me, it’s summed up in two words: ‘listen better’. The Claim tries to be part of an open conversation about how easily this advice can be missed, even with the best intentions. Our project has sensitively included those who are ‘experts-by-experience’ when it comes to asylum and seeing Britain from the other side of the mirror. More pressure, in more innovative and refugee-led forms, has to be put on the Government to reform. Our initial tour in 2017-18 had a host of activities and practical information surrounding it showing how audiences could get involved. A piece of writing created in response to The Claim by someone who’s been through the system recently became part of all training for asylum interviewers and decision-makers. So much, for me, is about making space for sensitive dialogue and empathy. We need to listen to vulnerable people better. Rather than making a semi-deliberate and spectacular mess of this job, the Home Office should be setting an example the nation can follow.


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