Ambrose Musiyiwa on poetry by migrants and the obligations of governments

In late 2019, I went to an arts workshop series organised as part of the MiFriendly Cities project. This is where I met Ambrose Musiyiwa who travelled to Coventry from Leicester to support us. One day we were sitting around a table, crying over each other’s short stories and poems, and the other day we were already in a radio studio, recording them for posterity. Ambrose is full of ideas, always doing something. Among other things, he is the editor of a new upcoming collection, Poetry and Settled Status for All, which will be published by CivicLeicester in January. While waiting for the poetry collection to come out, I interviewed Ambrose about how and why the anthology came about.

Where did the idea come from to collect poems on this topic?

Currently there are a number of groups around the world, most of them migrant-led, that are campaigning for the regularisation of the status of migrants. The campaigns are asking Governments to give Settled Status, Indefinite Leave to Remain or citizenship to all in their jurisdictions who need such status. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequalities that exist in most countries and how these are affecting disadvantaged groups, among them, people with precarious immigration status and those who are undocumented. Politicians in most countries are not doing enough to ease the hardships this group of people experience. They tend to focus on achieving short-term political gains by fanning nationalism and xenophobia when they could be more aspirational and inspirational and work towards building a world that works for all. Roughly this is the context within which Poetry and Settled Status for All emerged.

In addition to this, I have edited and published a number of poetry anthologies in the past. When I was thinking about the next anthology, I asked myself and others around me: Why not put together an anthology focusing on the experience of migrants and refugees, and which also urges Governments to grant Indefinite Leave to Remain or similar status to all who need such leave? From there I put together a call for submissions and distributed it as widely as I could. The response was phenomenal in terms of the volume, range and quality of poems and short prose that were submitted for possible inclusion in the anthology. From this, we selected 118 poems from 98 authors. At our first reading which was held online in December 2021 as part of the 8th annual Leicester Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, 14 of the authors read and discussed their poems. The poems were well received. Those who attended the event described the poems variously as ”powerful”, ”thought-provoking” and ”effective”. We plan to have more readings around the anthology once the book is out.

Did you learn something new from these poems about the experience of being a migrant or a refugee?

I have personal experience of the immigration asylum system in the UK and have a lot of friends who are still trapped in the system. I know people who have been trapped in the asylum system in the UK for 10, 15, 20 years. In all this time, many of the people are not allowed to work or study. And they do not know if they are going to be allowed to stay or if their door is going to be kicked in at 3am in the morning before they are going to be forcibly removed from communities they live in, locked up in immigrant detention centres and deported.

I have also been covering issues around migration as a journalist for more than a decade and can tell you that the system is as brutal as it is dehumanising. This effect is reflected in a number of the poems that are featured in the anthology. What I found particularly interesting were the different approaches people took and how the poems speak to each other.

It was important for me to try and put together an anthology which not only shows the hard and difficult side of refugee and migrant life but also includes some of the hopeful and uplifting side of that life as well. Ultimately, I hope the anthology will be one of those resources that feeds this hope, this belief that tomorrow will be better, that the voice of the people matters, and that as individuals and as a collective we can influence what happens tomorrow for the better, and that we can encourage Governments to build immigration and asylum systems that treat people humanely and with decency.

Do you think that poetry can indeed inform policy-making?

I do. For example, a lot of the violence that is inherent in how migrants and refugees are framed in public discourse starts with the words that politicians and the media use when they talk about them. These words and this violence are then translated into public attitudes and policy which normalise and entrench hostility towards migrants and refugees. In turn, this creates conditions for further violence. We see this in how, for example, the Greek coastguard pushes back and sometimes kills migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean Sea. We also see it in how the European Union is paying the so-called Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and forcibly take them back to Libya where they end up being brutalised and enslaved. We also see how even the British Government is currently seeking to entrench the licence to kill migrants and refugees in its domestic laws.

Poetry and anthologies like Poetry and Settled Status for All allow those who do not have access to mainstream media platforms to talk about this violence and to question how hostility towards migrants and refugees is being normalised. The poems create space for conversation around what we know about migration, that migration is an inherent part of life, that movement is part of what makes people who and what they are, that it is one of the things that makes us human. If an environment no longer sustains us and there is no hope that it will improve, we move. We look for another place that will give us what we need to live full lives. This is the story of humankind.

Poetry also gives us the opportunity to talk about what we see at the community level, where the people who politicians and the media call refugees and migrants are actually someone’s classmate, someone’s friend, someone’s relative, someone’s neighbour. We can talk about how these relationships matter at an individual and community level. Anthologies like Poetry and Settled Status for All foreground these relationships whilst also contesting how politicians and the media use labels like ”migrant” and ”refugee” to frame the people these labels are imposed on as threats.

Do you think writing poetry can help create a process of healing or resilience-building?

A humane immigration and asylum system that treats people decently can help create healing and resilience. That system should also have regularisation schemes or pathways to citizenship that affirm the humanity of all. In as far as poetry can show the necessity for and add to calls for such a system, then, yes, poetry can help create healing and resilience.

Without this, my concern is that the concept of resilience can be said to encourage people to put up with things that are unbearable. If people do this, who benefits? It’s certainly not the person who is being mistreated and abused.

Wow, it is very brave from you to openly express such opinions.

I firmly believe that the only thing that should be done with systems of oppression is to dismantle them. This belief is also part of what’s at the heart of Poetry and Settled Status for All. I hope the anthology will encourage reflection on how people in precarious immigration situations are living. I also hope it will encourage readers to also use their voices to call on their Government to treat migrants and refugees with decency and give Settled Status or Indefinite Leave to Remain or citizenship to all who need it.