Monthly Archives: July 2015

Refugee Tales and Common Rights

At first, my trip to England this June was mixed up with occasional thoughts of ancestry, of the vague awareness that my forebears had called this place home, had wandered this green land, restlessly moving about, looking for work. Eventually they came to Canada, to work in mines or marry coal miners. But in whatever sense my life has been shaped by migrations, it was nothing compared to the precarious and shifting sands walked by the people I travelled with for a week across the county of Kent.

What I was doing was this: walking across eighty miles of the south of England, from an “immigration removal centre” in Dover to another near Gatwick Airport. It was Refugee Week in the UK, and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), an English charity, had organized “The Refugee Tales”—a walk in solidarity with detainees and refugees. Loosely anchored in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century poem of pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales, each night different authors (myself being one of them) told contemporary tales based upon interviews with former detainees, asylum seekers, and others traumatized by their experiences of displacement and the equally chilling confrontation with borders and detention. In the UK, as in Canada, there are no time limits on the detention of so-called “illegal” immigrants, and their lives become a nightmarishly endless limbo. The GDWG is calling for a maximum 28-day limit on detention. This would be a start.

What I was really doing was this: walking with a number of refugees, former detainees and asylum seekers—as well as many of their supporters—people whose company I will never forget. It was this—that we were together day after day—that we were humans together, laughing, touching, sharing meals, telling stories—that great burdens weighed down upon these people—but that we were able to share those burdens for a few days, and walk inside each others’ stories—this is what it was really all about. It was an extended visit with people for whom the entire world was a vast and Kafkaesque detention centre—where it should have been a refuge for all in need of shelter.


I can only say so much about the refugees themselves. They suffered incredible persecution in their home countries—imprisonment, torture, beatings, attempted murder, the persistent terrors of war and precarity—only to arrive in the UK and find themselves once again jailed in closely surveilled solitary confinement, for months and sometimes for years. Or else they had been many years—in some cases even decades—living and working in the UK, integrated and contributing to society, only to have their “legality” called into question, at a border or through an “anonymous tip.” Detention and the loss of everything—jobs, homes, freedom, etc.—swiftly followed. Now they were in a perpetual limbo, unable to travel or work, forced to appear every other week to be fingerprinted, scanned, their identities confirmed—and then sent back to continue awaiting a decision that never seems to come.

One man was terrified of dogs met on the path we walked, so several of us would surround him every time we passed a dog walker. It didn’t matter how large or small, calm or excited the dog was. I was hesitant to ask what the source of this fear was. He would smile afterwards, but his brow would be furrowed from worry, his expression conveying embarrassment, helplessness, and an inability to talk about the situation.

What else can I say? They are the human wrecks of globalization, washing back up on Empire’s shores. But they are also some of the most human people I have ever met, their humanity laid bare through what they were enduring—their vulnerability, their need for friendship and hospitality, for a haven in the storm of their lives. They laughed easily, teasing each other. They were worried about hair loss and love. They wanted, more than anything else, to help, to be useful, part of a common cause. I found myself deeply admiring each and every one of them.


One lunchtime break on our walk, sitting amongst tombstones on the grassy lawn of a medieval church, I spoke about the commons, past and present. I noted the close link between the drive to acquire and extract resources and the displacement of people from their traditional lands. I also noted the fact that this was happening not only in former colonies, but often now even in the heart of Empire, as evidenced by recent reports of the discovery of a large shale oil deposit under the Weald Basin, right under the “garden of England,” an area we were currently overlooking from our perch on the North Downs. One report noted that

The government … wants to speed up shale companies’ ability to get access to land. The current process is “time-consuming, uncertain and costly”. It says: “If we did nothing to address this issue, the commercial exploitation of shale gas and oil in Great Britain is unlikely to develop in a timely manner, or at all.”

This has of course been the tactic in Canada too (where extraction recently came home to roost for many settlers in the form of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline surveying in suburban Burnaby): change regulations in the name of economic expediency, double down on the process of enclosure, align everything so that extraction can proceed as swiftly as possible. In this moment of Geophysical Capitalism—the stage at which the globally organized accumulation of wealth negatively affects the entire Earth System—the capitalists will even dig up their own back yards. There can be no home anymore, not for anyone, anywhere.

At least, that’s where we are heading. For refugees and detainees, for Indigenous people living on top of or in the path of resource projects, that situation already exists. Peter Linebaugh, in Stop Thief!, directly connects the enclosure of land and bodies: “The commons is destroyed in two ways, by imprisonment and privatization. … Restorative justice therefore must include both the restoration of the commons and the restoration of liberty to the prisoner.”

Speaking in that churchyard in rural Kent, I connected these two processes through a call for two new and hypothetical forms of common right: common of refuge and common of future.

Common of refuge: the right of movement and resettlement; the right to claim refuge when driven from one’s homelands by social or economic persecution or environmental distress.

Common of future: the right to enjoy as healthy and sustainable an environment in the future as people have in the past; more generally, the right to a liveable future environment.

These are ideas and ideals that would obviously need to be fleshed out in full. But the reality is that the people arriving at the borders of “developed” nations are driven there by the wars, economic policies, and environmental degradation, sometimes indirectly but more often than not directly caused by those same “developed” nations. With climate change this will only continue and expand. Building walls is no option. We have to re-think the relationship between human beings and the land we live on, sometimes must travel across, and will require the support of in the future.


I find myself drawing again and again upon what I continue to learn from Indigenous peoples. The idea for a common right of future, for instance, might be elaborated from the sort of language currently being deployed in Canada to define Aboriginal Title, specifically that land “cannot be … encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”

Indigenous protocols for entrance to their traditional territories might also be scaled up to help facilitate a common right of refuge. I am cautious here of appropriating certain aspects of Indigenous cultures, but I am also convinced that the wider human culture needs to learn sustainable practices from people who have long practiced them. I think this can be done in ways that avoid appropriation.

Walking in England, with people driven from their homelands and now forced into internal exile in the country they had sought refuge in, I wondered what, as a practice or mode of being, “Indigenous” might be taken to mean. Working from the example of Indigenous peoples around the world, I would in part define the word this way:

Long-term, multi-generational inhabitation of a territory, based on cultural practices geared towards a sustainable, interdependent relationship to the natural environment of that territory.

By this definition, almost no one in England (or any other capitalist country) has been “Indigenous,” despite countless generations of habitation, for several centuries now: a key part of the development of capitalism was the severing of long established ties to land, and the conversion of all lands into commodities (with attendant laws developed to protect such landed property—whether private or “national”). This occurred, as Marx argued, in waves of displacement: enclosure of common lands, the seizing of colonies. We cannot now go back—but we might yet pursue new relations to the earth (and each other) by picking up on paths that many abandoned (or were forced from) long ago. “The victory of the commons must bring with it new kinds of human beings,” Linebaugh argues. Such new human beings will only come into view once we can see our way to a new, nurturing, refuge-providing and sustainable relation to the lands we necessarily share.