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How making a song and dance helps immigration detainees Open in fullscreen

Emily Churchill

How making a song and dance helps immigration detainees

Detainees in Oxfordshire are writing songs with local teenagers despite the fact they’ve never met

Date of publication: 1 April, 2016

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A London-based organisation is connecting immigration detainees with communities local to detention centres through music, with the aim of providing a platform for detainee voices and breaking down prejudice.

Take the S1 bus West out of Oxford and in half an hour you'll be in Witney, a picturesque market town famous for its woollen blankets.

Just over the river and past the quaint teddy bear shop you’ll find Base 33, a youth centre supporting young people who are unemployed, struggling with addiction or otherwise excluded from the general affluence of David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency.

Spray-painted figures in blue hoods gaze out from one corner of the first–floor room, while in another Kendrick Lamar competes with Justin Bieber on a flatscreen TV as control over YouTube switches hands.

Today, Oliver Seager, a visiting community musician clad in a black cap and low-slung jeans, has just recorded a multi-layered backing track made entirely of sounds from his own vocal chords before handing the mic to Charlotte, a young woman with red hair and a soulful voice.

Her peers stand around the kitchen counter, tucking into bowls of pasta and thumbing their mobile phones, but with all eyes on her as she sings powerfully to the beat about how she’s "grown up, got stronger".

"No one has got any excuses today, she’s hit the bar," says one of Base 33’s friendly youth workers as her last note rings out, and Charlotte and Oliver share a high five.

Everyone is impressed.

This group of teenagers are here as part of a project by Oxfordshire Youth Arts Partnership (OYAP) Trust and Music in Detention, a London–based organisation which connects immigration detainees with communities local to detention centres through music, with the aim of providing a platform for detainee voices, and breaking down prejudice.

Over the course of three weeks, the group of around ten young adults have been exchanging questions and messages with a group of men in Campsfield House detention centre just north of Oxford, and are now beginning to write music together.

One of the things that makes Music In Detention’s work so unusual is that this creative process takes place without the two groups ever actually meeting in person.

Instead, Oliver and his colleague Kenny Mangena act as musical messengers, running alternate workshops at Campsfield House and Base 33.

One of the things that makes Music In Detention’s work so unusual is that this creative process takes place without the two groups ever actually meeting in person

While this arrangement is partly borne of necessity (under 18s aren’t allowed to visit the detention centre and detainees aren’t allowed to leave), it has also proved to be an unexpected boon to the creative process.

"We have occasionally brought community participants and detainees together physically but this is rare, partly because it’s hard to make it happen, and partly because the fact that they don’t meet seems, rather counter-intuitively, to make their interaction more powerful," says Music in Detention Director John Speyer.

"It seems to add to a sense of the extraordinary which gives these projects such energy, it’s easier to create a safe and positive space for both groups in which they’re prepared to talk about their feelings and push themselves musically, and I think perhaps it adds to the sense of shared ownership of the music the groups create – because they make distinct contributions in response to each other."

Discovering detention

 
The group of teenagers are part of a project by Oxfordshire Youth Arts
Partnership (OYAP) Trust and Music in Detention

Were it not for this musical exchange, these young men and women would have had no idea there was an immigration detention centre just twelve miles away from where they live.

The often privately run, prison-like centres that make up Britain’s detention estate tend to be in such remote locations that residents of nearby towns often don’t even know they’re there, and Campsfield House is no exception.

Its 200 or so detainees are likely to be a mixture of asylum seekers, visa over stayers, people who cannot be returned to their home country and others awaiting deportation.

However if national trends are anything to go by – and despite the Home Office’s insistence that facilities like Campsfield House are "Immigration Removal Centres" – as many will eventually be released as will be deported.

The physical invisibility of centres like Campsfield House is mirrored by political antipathy to the fact that the thousands of men and women they detain are held indefinitely and without charge – a Parliamentary enquiry which last spring found detention to be "seriously detrimental" to detainees’ well-being, and urged the Home Office to introduce a time limit, has failed to lead to a change in policy.

But the young artists at Base 33 have made a connection.

Sitting in a circle of beanbags and plastic chairs, they listen as Oliver and Kenny explain how the participants in detention reacted to their latest recording of positive wishes.

They didn’t understand all the English, explains Kenny, but with the help of a group member who was able to translate into Kurdish they got the key words – hope, love and freedom.

They didn’t understand all the English but with the help of a group member who was able to translate into Kurdish they got the key words – hope, love and freedom

When Oliver asks what the teenagers feel they have in common with their counterparts in Campsfield House, Chris Osborn, a long-time Base 33 member and now a young volunteer, suggests that both groups are misunderstood by wider society:

"We have the same problem," he says.

"Everyone thinks because we come to Base I'm going to rob their car or steal their house, so I can see where they're coming from."

"We've all been put into stereotypes, boxes," adds Charlotte, the red-haired singer, a sentiment that she, Olly, and two other young women quickly develop into a catchy chorus:

You put me in a box
I won't back down
I will never I will never ever back down

The evident compassion of these young Witney residents was not a given for the project’s leaders – the town has a predominantly white British population, and made headlines last September for not being home to a single asylum seeker.

"Initially I wasn’t sure how this issue would resonate with them," says Kate Thomas, Programme Manager at OYAP Trust.

"But their empathy has been very strong. They have been inquisitive and very questioning.

"Sometimes the music takes over but you can tell they're mulling it all over, and then things will come up in discussion."

Chris, who credits Base 33’s music projects with helping him steer his life away from a path of "smoking, drinking and fighting", has been surprised by the strength of will shown by his fellow creatives living under lock and key.

"I never thought that people who have got nothing to hope for would still be really hopeful, really positive," the 23-year-old says.

"I didn't expect any of that to be honest, I thought it was going to be depressing and I didn't really want to get involved because I don't like people telling me depressing stories.

Chris adds that the idea of doing a project linked to immigration was also initially off-putting.

"I don't get involved in that sort of stuff because I don't understand it," he explains.

"But now with the help of Oliver, he's explained that a lot of these people… their visas have expired, they've been thrown in there and they don't even know how long they're going be in there for.

"So it definitely makes me think a lot more about their situation."

I never thought that people who have got nothing to hope for would still be really hopeful, really positive

A musical connection

  

A Hidden World: Immigration Detention in the UK

● Over 3,000 people are currently held in immigration detention, with around 30,000 entering detention each year

● The UK holds immigration detainees indefinitely and without charge and is the only country in the EU without a time limit on immigration detention

● 249 people were detained for over a year in 2013

● Immigration detainees are as likely to be released as they are deported

● Immigration detainees include pregnant women, people with serious mental illnesses and survivors of torture, trafficking and sexual violence

● It costs over an average of £90 per night to hold someone in immigration detention

Sources:
Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons: A report to the Home Office, Stephen Shaw, January 2016
Report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom, March 2015
Immigration Detention in the UK, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, February 2015

The process works both ways.

Due to restrictions set by the Home Office, The New Arab was unable to talk to participants in Campsfield House, but Oliver Seager describes the response from detainees as "unbelievable", with up to 40 joining him and Kenny for what often turn into open jam sessions, enjoying the opportunity to sing traditional songs that remind them of home.

The positive messages sent by Base 33’s young musicians are a reminder that not everyone beyond the razor-wire fence has forgotten them, helping them to feel less isolated.

"One two-hour session makes people feel very connected," says Oliver.

"That's what music does.

"When you finish a session people come up to you with a look of gratitude, happy for that change. At the end of a session seven to 10 people will shake your hand.

"It's sad they're detained, they seem like really good people," he adds.

Back at Base 33, Chris is writing verses to a chorus written by a man in Campsfield House, the only words that have ever passed between the pair:

My mother birthed me
My mother raised me
My mother schooled me
When I did wrong my mother scolded me

Chris hopes his response, inspired by the support his own mother has given him in hard times, will help his anonymous collaborator feel that his song has been appreciated.

"I wanted to feel that we were actually replying to their music, so I wanted to use a bit of the stuff that they've done... and do something on top of it so it feels like we've actually done something together," he says, before adding:

"They're stuck there and we're stuck here, but we're doing stuff together now."

To find out more about Music in Detention visit www.musicindetention.org.uk

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