Writing by Ali Gavin.
To be trapped every day in anxious anticipation is not to be free. To be forced into this after a period of undeniable trauma is not to be lucky.
Ben Sharrock’s 2020 film, Limbo, provides an insight into the strange - and often very dark and isolating - period of time that refugees across Europe are met with whilst they wait to be granted asylum. Set on a fictional Scottish isle, the film challenges the black-and-white view of the West as a haven of freedom for refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. As in reality, the film portrays this period of ‘limbo’ as something close to the antithesis of freedom for those forced into it.
The film follows Omar, a Syrian man who has arrived in the UK alone, his parents being still in Turkey waiting to cross into Europe, and his older brother having stayed behind in Syria to fight. The remote Scottish island on which Omar has to spend his waiting period is home to just one pay phone and no mobile signal. He relies on this pay phone for all communication with his parents in Turkey, who are anxious for Omar to find work in the UK - both to provide for himself, and to aid them in their journey from Syria.
Omar, however, cannot work. Limbo examines the often agonising wait experienced by Omar and others seeking asylum as they sit in anxious hope each day. Brought to this remote island with little say, daily life for these characters becomes at best incredibly boring, and at worst frustrating and traumatising. Without the freedom to earn an income and fill their time, the migrants must rely on a donation centre for basic necessities. Multiple men share a few of the island’s small houses, and spend much of their time either stuck in these houses, or at the ‘cultural awareness’ classes which they must attend. On this island, with a small shop, a caravan acting as a medical centre, and not much else, the refugees are completely alienated.
“You know why they put us out here in the middle of nowhere - to try and break us.” (1)
And such is the case beyond the fictional confines of the film. The vast majority of those seeking asylum in the UK are forbidden from finding work, and must therefore rely on support from the Home Office - support which can be as little as £5 per day . £5 is, as you can imagine, an immediate barrier to the kind of freedom that any individual would hope to (and should) be entitled to. This kind of poverty, the Refugee Council UK found, leaves asylum-seeking women particularly vulnerable; “more than a fifth of the women accessing [its] therapeutic services had experienced sexual violence in [the UK]”.
Asylum seekers who attempt to earn some money of their own risk arrest and instant deportation. This scenario is woven into the film when, in one scene, a native islander advises Omar to take up work at the local fish processing plant, who are always in search of ‘people like him’. A later scene shows a crowd of refugee workers at the plant being handcuffed and pulled into a police van. Without any kind of protection or workers’ rights, refugees can be easily exploited by employers looking for cheap labour and, when detected by the authorities, have their claim to asylum thrown out the window in an instant.
This inability to work, however, does not only leave the characters of Limbo to survive on a pitiful amount of money. It also completely strips them of their dignity and, in some cases, large parts of their identity. This is particularly true of Wasef’s character in the film. Wasef, a Nigerian man, has come to Britain with the firm intention of ending up as a footballer for Chelsea. His freedom of choice in this aspect, as he eventually comes to realise, is close to null. The cultural awareness classes have the asylum seekers practicing for hypothetical interviews for jobs outside of their choosing - namely, cleaner. Wasef is so set on his career goal in the UK that he has the Ghanian character Abedi pretend to be his brother, claiming that this will cause the Home Office to look more favourably on his asylum application. Abedi, however, more quickly realises the grim reality of their prospects in the UK, and it is he who tells his ‘brother’ that his footballing dream will never be realised - that he will have to resign to whatever job he is ‘lucky’ enough to be offered.
Freedom of identity is not up for grabs here. This group of people are placed in an area within which their sole identity becomes that of ‘refugee’. Those seeking asylum are, very intentionally, isolated from the rest of the population, forced to play the waiting game in often the most desolate of environments. The remote setting of Limbo, which takes place on a fictional Outer Hebridean island, is not arbitrary. European countries, when it comes to the matter of ‘dealing’ with refugees, have a tendency to park the incomers on the most isolated land they can for the duration of their wait; partly as an attempt at breaking spirits, partly to have them out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind. Indeed, shortly after the making of Limbo, it became known that Home Secretary Priti Patel was floating the idea of sending refugees to the remote volcanic island of St. Helena while their applications were processed. The surroundings of the characters in the film become, as put by Nick Chen, “a metaphorical outdoor prison for its ensemble”.
The issue of the dispersal of incoming refugees has not gone unnoticed globally. Outside of the UK, the refugee population of Ireland suffers the same treatment. The system of Direct Provision used by the government to process asylum applications has been noted as defying the European Convention on Human Rights. According to the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), this dispersal of refugees is used “to keep [them] apart, divided, ghettoised, [their] power stolen” (6). Freedom of any description is difficult to come by when you’re placed in isolation from local communities, forced to spend the waiting period out of the way of the public consciousness.
This isn’t a short wait, either. At one point in the film, Omar asks the character of Farhad how long he’s been waiting for his asylum claim to be approved, to which he answers thirty-two months and five days. These seemingly endless days of uncertainty remove even the vague prospect of eventual freedom from those seeking asylum. These are days when asylum is never out of the minds of those seeking it, but apparently perpetually out of the minds of those with the power to grant it. Being in a mental (and, often, nearly physical) prison can’t but take its toll. Omar, once a talented oud player, finds himself unable to play the Syrian stringed instrument he carries around in almost every scene. In his current reality, there does not exist the freedom to ‘indulge’ in the interests that make up his personality. He has lost the connection to his past, to his homeland, and to himself.
Internationally, there is an ignorance of the extent of freedom stripped from those who find themselves with the label of ‘asylum seeker’. There is, of course, the lack of physical freedoms afforded to them - work, money, space, adequate services and so on. It doesn’t stop there, though. Alongside (or subsequent to) this lack of freedom comes the loss of more personal, but equally as important freedoms. The freedom to establish one’s own identity, personality, and interests is no less vital than the other forms of freedom. To be trapped not only physically, but also mentally, in a limbo period of indefinite length is not something that can be continually brushed over.
Ben Sharrock, Limbo, 2020.
Refugee Council UK, ‘The Truth About Asylum’, 2021. https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/information/refugee-asylum-facts/the-truth-about-asylum/
Peter Walker and Jessica Murray, ‘Priti Patel looked at idea of sending asylum seekers to South Atlantic’, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/30/priti-patel-looked-at-idea-of-sending-asylum-seekers-to-south-atlantic
Nick Chen, ‘Limbo: the dark comedy about a Syrian refugee stuck in Scotland’, 2020. https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/53634/1/limbo-the-dark-comedy-about-a-syrian-refugee-stuck-in-scotland-ben-sharrock
Jim Cusack, ‘Legal case to expose the “degrading” treatment of asylum seekers’, 2014. https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/legal-case-to-expose-the-degrading-treatment-of-asylum-seekers-30319663.html
MASI, ‘About’, 2021. https://www.masi.ie/about-us/