Who is welcome nowadays?

While governments have been shutting down borders, theatre artists throughout Europe have sought to open up debate

Migrants arriving at Porto Empedocle in Sicily after being rescued off the Libyian coast. Photograph: Frank Miller

Migrants arriving at Porto Empedocle in Sicily after being rescued off the Libyian coast. Photograph: Frank Miller


After Theresa May apologised to the Windrush generation, Noel Whelan asked in an article for The Irish Times whether post-Brexit, “Windrush treatment could yet be felt by Irish in Britain”. The threat of deportation for Irish people, who have been living for years in Britain without British citizenship, seems unlikely by comparison with Afro-Caribbeans. Indeed, Jon Snow on Channel 4 news last month asked whether the treatment of the Windrush descendants was a case of “institutional racism” by the home office, saying that he had never heard of people from New Zealand or Australia being treated in this way.

Obviously, the British government is now bending over backwards to signal that its apology to the families of the Windrush generation is genuine. After agreeing to offer British citizenship to them and saying that “we need to give a human face to how we work and exercise greater discretion when it is justified”, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, was forced to resign when it was revealed that the recent British policy has been based on achieving numerical deportation targets.

Given that much of the British enthusiasm for Brexit stemmed from the desire to control immigration, perhaps racism is not the main factor. The British home office has always been viewed as a formidable barrier for anyone seeking entry or retaining the right to remain in Britain. But, perhaps Britain isn’t that different from most countries these days. Donald Trump’s famous wall to keep out Mexicans (but not Canadians), seems to be following a formula created in Europe, with the Hungarians building fences along their borders with Serbia and Croatia, Spain’s fence with Morocco, Bulgaria’s fence with Turkey, etc.

Where did all these walls and fences come from? The Berlin Wall was used to keep people in rather than to keep people out. Perhaps the EU could have done more to agree a joint policy on immigration and share the refugees trying to enter Europe. But, of course, many countries in Europe refused to co-operate with such a plan, especially the Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), indicating that Muslims, in particular, are not welcome.

The total of displaced people in the world has reached a record 65 million. Where will they all go? Into camps? The electoral gains of far-right leaders in many European countries and the anti-immigration actions of US President Donald Trump do not bode well for refugees. Moreover, many countries resort to detention (or direct provision in Ireland) as a means of preventing asylum-seekers from participating in the society, until their case has been thoroughly investigated and their status determined.

The United Kingdom detains a portion of asylum-seekers on a somewhat arbitrary basis, sometimes locking them up in detention centres along with those who had been refused asylum, such as in the Campsfield House near Oxford, operated by a private security firm. After this particular detention centre opened in 1993 and until it was changed into a prison, it experienced riots, fires, hunger strikes, and suicides, as methods of protesting the conditions.

In central and eastern Europe, detention is frequently used as well as other forms of inhibition. For example, even though the EU considers the detention of children to be dangerous, Hungary announced last year that it was detaining all asylum seekers over the age of 14 in converted shipping containers at their border. Moreover, the EU has been resourcing detention centres outside of the EU so that refugees are not able to enter the EU to ask for asylum. As far back as 1984, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said predicted, “Our age […]is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration”.

While governments have been shutting down their borders, theatre artists throughout Europe have taken up the question of “Who is welcome nowadays?” As one can see in Performing Statelessness in Europe, theatre has often dealt with this theme. As far back as ancient Greece, the concept of hospitality was considered as an ethical imperative. Many ancient Greek plays (such as The Suppliant Women and Oedipus at Colonus) deal with exile or refugees, and many of these plays have recently been adapted to the current situation.

Moreover, newly written plays have suggested actions that can be taken to improve the conditions and provisions for refugees. For example, Illegal Helpers by Maxi Obexer in Switzerland proposes methods for citizens of host countries to prevent illegal immigrants from being deported. Plays such as Lampedusa by Anders Lustgarden in London (and performed also in Malta) and especially performances by refugees (such as Letters Home by the Refugee Club Impulse in Berlin and Dear Home Office by Phosphorus Theatre in London) develop deeper portrayals of individuals that enable spectators to get to know and understand specific people with clearly delineated life stories rather than simply regarding refugees as an anonymous mass. Plays about Israel/Palestine, such as Seven Jewish Children by the English playwright Caryl Churchill, (which can be viewed on the internet), make audiences aware of the necessity to resolve the problem of stateless Palestinians.

The German theatre community has been particularly accommodating to the one million refugees arriving in 2015: hosting welcome cafes, arranging language classes, staging plays about refugees, and offering them a stage to tell their own stories. This has not always been easy because members of the right-wing AfD party and the Pegida group (who demonstrates weekly against immigration in Dresden, Germany) were not happy about this, threatening legal action, sending hate mail, and even physically attacking them. Georg Kasch wrote in the Amnesty Journal that because a theatre club in Dresden had presented plays with refugees, “the theatre employees received hate mail and, on the Facebook page of the theatre people, posted sentences like ‘We will exterminate you’ – with their full names.”

In many European countries, theatre companies have been actively promoting the rights of refugees. In Ireland Donal O’Kelly led the way with his early work such as Asylum! Asylum! at the Abbey Theatre in 1994 and with the Calypso theatre company. Many others have followed in this tradition, such as Vic Merriman, George Seremba, the refugee organisation Spirasi, and dance companies such as CoisCéim and John Scott.

These artists have critiqued the role of the nation-state with its hierarchical and authoritarian structure and the privileges that it endows to its citizens. The nation-state, by fostering a myth of homogeneity amongst its people, and reassuring them of their special characteristics, and by inducing a fear of the foreigner, gains strength and power as the protector of the land and its heritage. Nationalist politicians encourage a fear of contagion from outside elements and endeavour to preserve the status quo by warning about immigration as a threat to employment, to national and religious values, and to the identity of the nation.

However, what is needed, and what these creative artists advocate, using a variety of strategies, is not an increase in methods of exclusion, but a welcoming attitude, and a greater emphasis on the rights of the noncitizen, including the right to work, the right to an education, and the right to cook their own food.
Performing Statelessness in Europe by SE Wilmer is published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

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