Sometimes a poem can speak the truth better than a reportage. Auden showed what it feels like to be made homeless and an outcast; maybe if we understood, we would judge this refugee crisis better.
W.H. Auden wrote ‘Refugee Blues’ in 1939 dramatizing the conditions of Jews in Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of World War II — what would eventually become known as the Holocaust. Today, the poem has a more contemporary part to play with Stephan Bookas and Tristan Dawes’ adaption of it into a documentary poem that aims to highlight the conditions of migrants in the the ‘Jungle’ near Calais.
The aim is not necessarily to show parallels with the Jewish situation in the late 1930s, but to demonstrate that similar feeling of abandonment felt by both. The majority of the migrants in the Jungle, much like the Jews, feel as if they have been left isolated by the greater global community — which in a sense they have. Escaping from conflicts in the Middle East all they want is safety in a nation such as Britain or France, a place which they can call home. However, their situation is getting increasingly worse. The documentary shows several stand-offs with the local riot police while footage from inside the Jungle shacks reveals the medieval conditions that migrants are suffering in.
Britain isn’t helping either, especially after a recent vote in Parliament that decided not to let several hundred migrant children in. As with all countries, the anti-immigration rhetoric plaguing Europe is creating social tension and anxiety. This is reflected all too apparently in Auden’s poem: ‘… the speaker got up and said: “If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”/ He was talking of you and me …’. Bookas and Dawes aim to show in Refugee Blues a different side to the Jungle that is rarely seen from the mainstream media reports. It takes us beyond the stories of the on-site reporters, beyond the political debates, to the raw reality of the conditions facing refugees.
The poem itself is read out by a refugee living within the Jungle, adding an extra element of harrowing truth. These people are living on the edge, below poverty, their country taken away from them: ‘Once we had a country and we thought it fair… / We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now’.
Bookas and Dawes, alongside the rest of their team of instrumentalists and editors have done a superb job in taking a poem that is nearly eight decades old and beautifully applying it to a contemporary crisis that, depending on how Europe copes in the next ten years, will define this period of history.
If anything, the most poignant quote from the poem and that which is best to end on, is the ninth stanza when the narrator goes down to the port and stares at the sea. ‘Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay / Saw the fish swimming as if they were free: / Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away’. This is the situation those refugees find themselves in now, free from war but far from freedom.