With books, walks and gatherings, Refugee Tales gives a voice to asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.

Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist and poet, posed the question at a one-day forum on our Canterbury campus. ‘How can we tell refugee tales in a different way – in a way that is relevant and powerful and beautiful?’

The question was raised in many forms throughout the day – by asylum seekers and refugees, by academics and policymakers, by journalists, poets and novelists, by support workers and campaigners.

The forum was part of Refugee Tales, an unusual project that has been challenging the UK policy of indefinite immigration detention. Drawing on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales for inspiration, each year the project organises ‘walks of solidarity’ through the English countryside – several days of trekking and telling stories along the way.

Quote Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons

To become a refugee, you have to give up your country, your friends, your home, your things and your life.

Jeremy Irons Refugee Tales speaker

The stories are read out in local venues – usually a town or a village hall – and are crafted by well-known novelists and poets such as Ali Smith and Patience Agbabi. The crucial part is that these are not written as works of fiction. Instead, each author has spent time talking to someone with first-hand experience of indefinite detention. The events provide the detainees – usually asylum seekers or refugees – with the chance for their stories to be heard.

Hikers going through a forest

In ‘The Appellant’s Tale’ a Nigerian man, who worked in the UK for 28 years, is taken, without warning, to a detention centre. Once detained, he needs his papers to prove that his immigration status is in order. The tale takes on a nightmarish quality when he is not allowed back to his home to retrieve these vital documents. It marks the start of his indefinite detention: a long and traumatic period of limbo.

As David Herd, author of the tale, explains: ‘A typical account is that a person will be picked up and detained for no obvious reason. They will never be charged with anything, and that detention will be indefinite. They won’t know at what point they are going to be released.’

‘The Appellant’s Tale’ is included in the project's first book – Refugee Tales, a collection of stories published by Comma Press. Writing in the Scottish Review of Books, Jackie Kay describes how it ‘gives faces to the faceless, and voices to the voiceless, humanising the people that our society demonizes’.

walkers in wood

Refugee Tales, now in its third year, recently travelled from Runnymede to Westminster. The new collection of stories, Refugee Tales: Volume II, is edited by David Herd and includes tales by Jackie Kay, Marina Warner, Kamila Shamsie, Olivia Laing, Helen Macdonald, Josh Cohen, Caroline Bergvall, Rachel Holmes, Neel Mukherjee, Ian Duhig and Alex Preston.

Refugee Tales is an ongoing project, co-organised by Professor David Herd from Kent’s School of English and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.