Refugees and migrants in the UK have been treated with hostility for years and denied a voice. We explore the current situation in the UK, and why Project O is vitally needed.
In June 2023, during Refugee Week, Project O (working title) took its first steps, with an ensemble cast of first-generation economic and war migrants putting their ideas into an R&D space.
Just a month later, a huge barge arrived in Portland, Dorset. This floating block is destined to house around 500 people seeking asylum, many of whom will have already faced trauma after trauma. As the barge arrived at the port, dozens of protesters from two opposing camps clashed on the shore — some were horrified at the conditions that asylum seekers would be subjected to if they were forced to live on the barge while others were concerned about the impact on their town’s resources. But one thing united the protesters: nobody wanted the barge.
This was the same month that the Illegal Migration Bill came out the other side of the House of Lords, ready to become law. For refugees, campaigners and human rights activists in the UK, the passing of this bill was a dark day.
Under the Illegal Migration Bill, those taking dangerous and often last-resort journeys across the Channel will be penalised and even sent to Rwanda (a country with a dubious human rights record) for processing under the guise of preventing people smuggling. But under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people must be guaranteed the right to seek asylum in another country — it doesn’t matter whether they arrived by plane or boat, or whether they had a visa. There must also be protection against refoulement, where countries must not return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be under threat. Meanwhile, safe routes for people seeking asylum in the UK are missing in action.
This bill did not appear in a vacuum. Years of hostile government policies, the division following Brexit and demonising media narratives have led to this moment.
Over a decade ago, then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the government’s plan for a Hostile Environment, with the target of making life uncomfortable for illegal immigrants in the UK. And hostile it was. Landlords, employers and NHS staff were made to report people who weren’t in the UK legally. Vans were driven around emblazoned with the words “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”
In the words of human rights organisation Liberty, “If you seem visibly foreign, these policies create a mandate for racial discrimination against you.”
More recently, evidence stacked up to reveal the scale of the Windrush scandal, where elderly people suddenly lost their right to work, to services and to benefits, and in the most extreme cases were even detained and deported, even though they had every right to be in the UK. These were people from the Caribbean who’d arrived in the UK to help with post-war labour shortages. They’d helped the country through some of the most difficult times, and were turfed out of their homes based on a flawed system.
This political landscape, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has stood at a lectern decorated with the words “Stop the boats”, and where new arrivals seeking help during the Covid pandemic were forced to live in filthy decommissioned army barracks, comes in tandem with a media narrative that so often reduces refugees to one of two things: victims or threats. People are talked about as if they are a collective — they are “waves of migrants,” rather than individual people with individual stories. More often than not, migrants’ voices are not heard.
This is a snapshot of the landscape for refugees and migrants in the UK. Many incredible organisations and individuals are doing everything they can to welcome and support people, to find solutions to the ever-growing problems for migrants trying to make the UK feel like home. A small part of that is Project O. It’s a piece of theatre exploring what it means to be a migrant in the UK, and surviving in a world of scarcity, using testimonies from migrant communities across the UK. It’s about creating a counter-narrative and showing that, contrary to how it might seem, migrants are in fact welcome here.
Project O (working title) is a new theatre project in development, written by Aisha Zia and commissioned by Landmark Theatre. It will be touring the UK in 2024/2025 as a co-production with 62 Gladstone Street.
Writer: Aisha Zia Director: Maisie Newman | R&D Company: Sidal Kekilli, Elina Akhmetova, Adi Detemo, Igor Smith and Danaja Wass | Sound Designer and Composer: Ben Osborn | Producer: 62 Gladstone Street| Communities Producer: Anita Nayyar Journalistic Researcher: Katie Dancey Downs | Filmmaker: Beatriz Sá | Photographer: Adiam Yemane Drama Therapy: Carol Cumberbach | Designer: Wojtek Rusin
With thanks to all the community participants who were interviewed to be part of the process in Peterborough and Bournemouth, Arts Council England, Metal Peterborough, Refugee Week and our partners Tamasha, the Key Theatre and Selladoor Venues. Special thank you to community partners supporting migrants & refugees in Peterborough; H.E.L.P, GLADCA and SOS.LT.
For more information please contact email@example.com.