Caroline Smith has drawn on her experience as an asylum caseworker for an MP for her second collection of poems, exploring migration through the lens of bureaucracy. It’s a timely reminder of the barriers and labyrinthine hurdles those seeking asylum have to bend through and also of the inhumane delays the system has built in. The opening poem “On Hold” has the epigram, ‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application.’ It concerns Arjan Mehta who was aged 23 at the start of his application,
“He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.”
The two lines just before the quoted section, “Seventeen years have passed/ with no answer” I didn’t feel were necessary. The gap between the ages of 23 and 40 is more telling: it’s the gap when careers are established and families started. It’s the bureaucratic denial of humanity, leaving a man in limbo: without an answer, he can’t work (legally), if he starts a family, he does so with the risk of separation. Picking up this theme again, “Delay” is a Home Office letter (any identifying details redacted) with the line “I apologise for the delay in processing your clients application.” – the apostrophe is missing in the original. The letter is dated 2015 and refers to an application made in 2006. It goes on to inform the recipient that due to the delay, her client will have to resubmit the form which is now out of date. The correct form is not sent with the letter but the client is directed to the website (without a direct link to the required form) where she will have to find the form, download, i.e. print it, complete it (again) and send it in a provided envelope at her own expense even though she was not responsible for the delay. The provided envelope doesn’t even have prepaid postage.
The inflexibility of forms and their inability to give space to describe lives is explored in “Fault Lines” which asks how two parents would know
“That there would be nowhere on the form to explain
why they had to move to Swaziland
and register his birth at the Portuguese Consulate
in his father’s name and when the work permit
ran out, no choice but to go back,
a mixed race couple to South Africa
where his mother would give him her name
and an Identity card where ‘Father’
was left blank.”
Forms are only part of the process. There’s also the “Asylum Interview” where “she says only what will help her case.” The interviewer notes she says she has a cold.
“He fires questions at her in bursts.
His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame
beating yolk orange like a fontanel.
He has realised the truth
but doesn’t correct his notes –
raped by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army:
her immune system has been shot through,
her CD4 count a mere six cells.”
The need to establish the entitlement to asylum is done so without regard for the affect on the asylum seeker of describing their experiences and traumas or the stigma and shame felt. The interviewers can only record what the interviewee says, not what is implied or evident from observation. So the interviewer cannot record she has a badly compromised immune system or that she has been raped, unless she actually puts those things into words. When a language barrier is reinforced with the barriers of shame and stigma, a genuine asylum-seeker may be refused simply because of lack of humane support through the claim process.
Caroline Smith’s strength is in presenting facts, not guiding the reader to think in a certain way. She reveals the processes and leaves readers to decide whether they are fair or not. She doesn’t shy away from difficult cases either. It isn’t widely known that child refugees whose applications are accepted have to re-apply as adults when they turn 18, and can find their applications declined even though they were accepted as children. In “Teenager” a boy was imprisoned after committing a burglary and is now facing release.
“They told him he was now
nineteen and no longer a child
and would be deported with £46.
They asked him which airport
he wanted to go back to
but he didn’t know
what ones there were.
He’d left when he was seven.”
This arbitrary separation of adult and child identities and bureaucratic rules dictating that the adult is regarded as a separate being from the former child, creates injustice.
Caroline Smith doesn’t just look at recently arrived refugees, “Dr Gopal” goes to empty a kitchen bin and discovers “a sudden frost – like the awe of/ seeing her first snowfall in England./ An aubergine had turned old overnight/ a shock of white hair standing straight up/ on a wizened purple-brown head.” It reminds her of dolls she played with at her first English school which leads her into remembering her grandmother making a secret family of paper dolls,
“But Mama had found the box and burnt them.
She didn’t blame her mother.
Now a senior consultant
She lived the model immigrant life –
with a beautiful house in a quiet street:
but she couldn’t stop
the tide of night terrors racing in,
prevent the silhouettes from
curling and peeling in the fires of Entebbe.”
Entebbe is in Uganda and Gopal’s Asian name reveals her as a Ugandan Asian who had to flee after Idi Amin’s declaration in 1972. Even after working her way up to a senior position at work, she cannot leave her children terrors behind. In my review I have ordered the quoted poems into a narrative. In the collection, “Teenager” is much earlier, and the time lines don’t fall into a natural, narrative order. This is a successful approach because it mirrors the difficulties for refugees in telling their stories, the sloughing back and forth as they are twisted and bend through the claims process and the way that, for some, being able to shut away a memory until they are strong enough to deal with it, is an important part of recovery.
The final poem, “Stamps”, is about ignoring the pristine collectors’ sets in favour of the ones postmarked and steamed off their envelopes,
“We wanted the ones
that had made the journey,
that bore the marks of their struggle.”
“The Immigration Handbook” records the marks of refugees’ struggle filtered through the lens of bureaucracy. It shows the stories behind the numbers and reminds us that behind the statistics are humans.