In the immediate aftermath of Brexit and the current debates surrounding immigration which are dominating British politics, Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor’s play The Immigrant could not come at a better time, offering a refreshing angle on immigration and Britain’s position in the world.
Set in the future, approximately one hundred years from now, in a world where Africa is a global leader, the African Union is the dominant political organisation and Britain and Europe have fallen into disarray, The Immigrant tells the story of Oliver, a white British asylum seeker desperate to be allowed into Africa to escape the troubles of his homeland. An interesting concept in itself, reversing the story of non-white immigrants trying to enter Europe, The Immigrant does much more than simply turning the familiar narrative on its head, probing into the root causes of xenophobia and racism and asking if, and how, such divisions can be overcome.
In the wake of Brexit, very much the result of scaremongering and generating fear about immigration and its effects on the UK, and the subsequent tide of racist, xenophobic attacks, Gharoro-Akpojotor’s play is so relevant and encourages conversations that Britain desperately needs to have if it is to move away from such a culture where hate for ‘outsiders’ is prevalent; questions like Why are people migrating to Europe and the UK? What are they escaping? Are they coming to Europe by choice or from necessity? How has the UK and the West contributed to the creation of asylum seekers from countries like Libya and Syria? How do immigrants feel when they are confronted by coldness and bigotry upon arrival to the UK?
Through Oliver’s character Gharoro-Akpojotor invites white British people, who automatically enjoy a privileged position because of their race and nationality, to put themselves in the position of those seeking better lives in the UK and wanting even just a portion of that privilege.
What is perhaps most frustrating about the current political discourse on immigration is that it is so one-dimensional and shallow. ‘Immigrants’ are discussed as if they are a homogeneous group and misconstrued as scroungers; the sweeping generalisations and misinformation surrounding immigration has given way to the anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia spread by the likes of UKIP and Nigel Farage. Constantly discussed in terms of numbers and lumped together under the term ‘immigrants,’ migrants are stripped of their humanity and individual identity. A Syrian doctor fleeing war as an asylum seeker, a Romanian builder, a wife who has come to join her husband, and a Spanish nurse who has come to the UK to work for the NHS are all one and the same – immigrant job stealers, benefits seekers (it is interesting and somewhat reflects the absurdity of much of the xenophobic commentary that immigrants are simultaneously brandished benefit scroungers and job-stealers) and a burden on British society – according to this over simplistic, divisive narrative. It is exactly this scapegoating and stigmatisation of immigrants which has led to the dehumanising of migrant communities, whereby Europe can stand by and let the ‘Calais Jungle’ grow and accept that there are children starving and freezing in make-shift homes in the heart of their ‘civilised’ society, whereby their deaths in significant numbers in boats crossing the oceans seems to be accepted as the new norm. Katie Hopkins (although known for having ridiculous, bigoted views) saying that she “doesn’t care” if immigrants die and referring to them as “cockroaches,” a sickening echo of the dehumanising language which fuelled the Rwandan genocide, is an extreme expression of the xenophobia and desensitisation to migrants’ suffering and which is prolific throughout the UK.
Gharoro-Akpojotor tackles this matter through Oliver’s persistent cries to be seen as individual rather than just another white man, or just another asylum seeker, and to have his story heard. Oliver is desperate to escape the boxes – ‘white oppressor’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ – that Usman has put him into and recognises that in order to do so he must get his personal story heard. Usman is initially completely disinterested in Oliver’s story and anything that he may have to say, adamant he has heard it all before, but eventually he begins to listen and when he does he is surprised. The play’s poignant ending sees Usman finally share his name with Oliver and in doing so making them no longer complete strangers to one another. Although there is no fairy tale ending whereby Usman would have decided to permit Oliver into the African Union and confirmed his status as an asylum seeker, there is hope that all will be well simply because there is now some degree of mutual respect and understanding between the two men. Here Gharoro-Akpojotor suggests that the only way the UK and British-born people will move beyond xenophobia and start to have a more positive and accepting view on immigration is if they start to engage directly with immigrants and see the common humanity and shared experiences rather than obsessing over the differences.
Of course The Immigrant is also a commentary on Europe and Africa’s positions in the world and relative to each other. The news of Brexit and what could be the beginning of the demise of the EU and a United Kingdom as we know it (particularly with Scotland’s talk of wanting another independence referendum in light of Brexit) comes at a time when Africa is, in stark contrast, moving towards becoming greater unified with plans to introduce an African Union passport and promoting greater freedom of movement between African countries. And so Gharoro-Akpojotor’s play, which she says she created as a fantasy, suddenly, does not seem so far-fetched or fictitious.
Early on in the play Oliver’s detention guard Usman, in one of his many humorous lines which lighten the otherwise tense mood, asks Oliver what is great about his Britain, suggesting that he should drop the ‘Great’ and refer only to Britain. Getting laughs from the audience, the question asked here is also serious. The place which Oliver describes is an ugly, undesirable place where hatred, racism and violence are the order of the day. Although it is not Britain as we know it now, there is a very clear warning in light of recent events: if the xenophobia and racism whipped up by Brexit are left unchecked and Britain chooses to begin a path of global isolation and to be inward-looking and intolerant of ‘outsiders’ then it will lose the things that currently make it a great place to live.
The Immigrant brings a novel perspective to the current debate about immigration with the much-needed depth, context and human element so badly lacking in most discussions on the matter and makes a very strong case for unity, diversity and love over division and hate – the same case put forward by tens of thousands of protesters at the March for Europe this weekend who rallied against the racism and xenophobia stirred up by the Leave campaign and Brexit.