Pathway Arts

One Thing, Many Stories


Pathway Arts commissioned Dr. Jonathan Darling, lecturer in Human Geography at Manchester University, to use his research and knowledge to respond to the ‘One Thing’ project.

Belonging. Belongings.

What do these words mean to you?

For many people they refer to a place, a community or a family, a set of connections and relationships we nurture and value. They can also mean the things we have an attachment to, the objects and possessions we surround ourselves with, that are filled with our memories, feelings, hopes and fears.

Belongings are also plural, we can belong to many different communities, groups, places and social circles at once.

Navigating these different attachments and the feelings, memories and experiences they bring is one of the challenges of modern life.

Yet for those seeking asylum, the challenge of belonging and of belongings is far greater. Asylum seekers arrive in the UK through a wide variety of routes having fled persecution, torture and violence in their countries of origin.

Once in the UK they face long waits for decisions on their asylum claims. During this time, asylum seekers have no right to work, receive only £36.62 a week in support and are accommodated across the country without any choice over their location.

With little English language support or educational provision, this is a population left on the margins and with little chance of developing any sense of belonging in the UK. Belongings here become all the more important, yet these too are restricted and rare.

Asylum seekers are often forced to flee with few possessions, a treasured photograph or favoured ornament perhaps. As a result, those objects that travel are invested with great significance. Belongings here bring memories and sustain relationships with past lives, past journeys and future hopes.

One Thing asks us all to consider what objects we hold precious, what stories they can tell and asks how we might tell them. One Thing is about these experiences, these journeys, and these belongings. One Thing, those things that may unite us despite our differences.

One bag

If you had just one bag to pack your life into, what would you include? This is often one of the stark choices faced by asylum seekers across the world. In many cases, asylum seekers do not even get the time or opportunity to pack a single bag. Rather, they must flee with only the clothes they stand up in and whatever possessions they carry. The One Thing project explores possessions and the attachments they foster as the starting point for asking how the memories and stories we attach to our things, be that a single photograph or the contents of a hastily packed bag, communicate our personal and collective journeys.

Asylum seekers come to the UK fleeing a wide variety of situations. From wrongful imprisonment, sexual violence and torture, to those who have witnessed the murder of relatives and have lost everything, asylum seekers are forced to migrate for survival. In a world of global flows of people and goods, asylum seekers may take many different routes to come to the UK. A small number travel by regular travel routes. A far larger number travel by clandestine routes, often paying human traffickers to flee their countries of origin. Research with asylum seekers in the UK shows that the majority did not set out to reach the UK specifically and that many had no control over their destination. Instead, it is more often human traffickers who dictate the destinations people reach as they place them in shipping containers, lorries, and cargo holds with the promise of a better life at the end of the journey.


In 2013, 23,507 sought that better life in the UK through applying for asylum. Of these, the largest number of applications came from nationals of Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Syria. Worldwide the UN estimate that at the end of 2013 there were 15.4 million refugees, with the UK’s number of asylum applications being a tiny proportion of this global displacement. In European terms, the UK had the fourth highest number of asylum applications in 2013, following Germany, France and Sweden. However, the UK ranked only 16th in the EU when considering asylum seeker applications per head of population. The UK is not then an exceptional destination country for asylum seekers. Asylum applications here reflect trends across Europe that are impacted by conflicts in places such as Syria and Afghanistan and ongoing human rights concerns in countries such as Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.


In the UK, many asylum seekers may indeed find safety. Yet the asylum system does not make this easy. Once asylum seekers have lodged a case for asylum with the Home Office, they are assessed on their support needs. By law, the government has to provide for the “essential living needs” of those within the asylum determination process and has to offer them “adequate accommodation” to ensure they are not homeless. Asylum seekers do not have a choice about where they live. Instead, they are dispersed to live in all manner of places, from big cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, to smaller towns such as Stockton on Tees and Rotherham. The accommodation they live in differs from place to place, some are accommodated in single flats and others are provided with a room in a shared house with other asylum seekers. Often this means single men or women living with five or six strangers from other countries, many of whom may not speak a common language. Along with basic accommodation, asylum seekers are provided with a small amount of cash support. For a single adult this amounts to £36.62 a week, or £5.23 a day. With this individuals are expected to pay for food, toiletries, travel to immigration reporting centres, and any phone calls to legal representatives. Living on such a slim allowance forces individuals to choose between clothing and food, between calling a solicitor and keeping in touch with one’s friends and family. Whilst life in the UK seeking asylum may remove people from the immediate harm of their country of origin, it is far from an easy or secure life in a new and alien environment.


The insecurity felt by asylum seekers is furthered through the waiting that accompanies seeking asylum. The Home Office seek to process claims for asylum quickly, but in reality individuals may be waiting years to get a decision. During this time, asylum seekers have no right to work and have very limited access to English language training and adult education. Without an occupation or strong community links, individuals can rapidly become socially isolated. The fear of being deported back to the country one has fled hangs heavy over many asylum seekers during this period. Even on the receipt of a positive decision such uncertainty is not fully removed. At present if claims for refugee status are accepted, asylum seekers are offered only temporary leave to remain, meaning that their right to remain in the country can be reviewed and withdrawn at any point for up to five years. Even when individuals receive refugee status, uncertainty over what the future holds remains.


It is in this context of social isolation, limited support and extreme vulnerability that two things take on extra importance. The first is the support work of groups like Rainbow Haven and The Boaz Trust. Groups such as these, which work with asylum seekers to offer advice and guidance and provide the chance to meet new people, are crucial in making asylum seekers feel human once again. The second important thing is the belongings that asylum seekers may bring with them. Whilst asylum seekers are often unable to travel with many material possessions, those objects which they do cling on to carry even greater significance. Memories of loved ones, families, children, home towns and childhoods are all wrapped up in the objects we value and these attachments are often stronger for those who have been forced into exile from the homelands of their memories. In bringing people, objects and stories together, the One Thing project seeks to show that whilst journeys across continents and through suffering may divide our experiences, our attachments to the things we hold dear may still unite us.

Read poet Andrew Macmillan’s response to One Thing here.