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Reaching out with drama to challenge negative perceptions about refugees

News Stories, 8 January 2007

© UNHCR/N.Spollin
The Asylum Monologues plays in the British city of Bristol in November last year.

LONDON, United Kingdom, January 8 (UNHCR) Refugees and asylum seekers get a bad press in some sections of the UK media, but one advocacy group is using drama to counter the negative public perceptions.

The Actors for Refugees production of The Asylum Monologues has played to more than 2,000 people around England and Wales since opening in London on June 25, 2006 as part of celebrations in the UK marking World Refugee Day.

The play, scripted by award-winning playwright Sonja Linden and performed for free, is easy and cheap to stage, requires a minimum of scenery and delivers a thought-provoking message.

Linden says she was concerned about how refugees are portrayed in the UK and wrote The Asylum Monologues to show British audiences that refugees and asylum seekers are "ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances."

At its heart are the personal testimonies of people with first-hand experience of the UK's asylum system. Their stories, culled from hours of interviews, are combined with public opinion, political statements and statistical fact to show what it means to be an exile in Britain.

The 90-minute show features the stories of refugees from different nationalities, reflecting the diversity of the estimated 25,000 people who claim asylum in the UK each year. Variations have been used as an advocacy and awareness-raising tool to challenge misconceptions about asylum seekers in the UK.

Christine Bacon, coordinator of The Asylum Monologues, sees the drama as a potent tool to correct what she regards as an injustice. "There is often a misconception of refugees, yet you cannot ask refugees to repeat the trauma they have endured again and again, so there was previously nothing being done [to tell their stories]," she says.

"The Asylum Monologues is an innovative and non-intrusive way of bringing asylum to people's attention and it aims to challenge the perceptions set about particularly by the British tabloids," the Australian adds. The play will continue to travel around Britain during the coming months.

Meanwhile, an exhibition under way at the Museum of London also challenges public perceptions about refugees and shows how they have contributed to the life of the vibrant and multicultural city.

Entitled "Belonging: Voices of London's Refugees," the exhibition focuses on themes such as family, community, London and the world. Visitors are immersed in the refugees' stories, which are presented through photographs, artwork, film, audio recordings and objects ranging from battered suitcases to clothing.

The presentation has been put together by the Evelyn Oldfield Unit in partnership with 25 refugee community organisations across London. It runs until February 25.

By Khalila Ismail and Jennie Hartley in London, United Kingdom

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Refugees contribute to the culture of their host community. Some are well-known artists, painters, poets or novelists. Dante Alighieri created the major part of his work during his exile. Playwright Bertold Brecht, authors Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, poets Pablo Neruda and Jorge Semprun, musician Miguel Angel Estrellas, painters Lucian Freud and Remedios Varo - all suffered periods of exile which, in some cases, deeply colored their work. The theme of exile can be studied in literature, the history of music and art.


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The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

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