The Immigration Handbook

Caroline Smith
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 7, 2016
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Shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2016


'These poems are very moving and it's hard to do justice to the way Caroline Smith conveys the anxieties, hopes and disappointments experienced by immigrants. She never allows the reader to forget that behind the refugee statistics there are suffering human beings; very often the victims of a seemingly insensitive and overstretched bureaucracy.' – Lord Alf Dubs

Lord Alf Dubs was formerly a Director of the Refugee Council and Chair of Liberty. He was one of 669 Jewish children saved from the Nazis on the Kinderstransport.


The strikingly moving poems in Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook are the fruit of the author’s career as an Immigration Caseworker for one of the most diverse inner-city areas in London. Her characters are careful composites of people she’s observed. They step vividly off the page, as if out of the headlines and we meet them: such as the battered Russian boxer in hiding; such as Dr. Khan, ‘who has been walking to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name’; such as the nurse who, denied citizenship for a petty crime, kills herself, as she believes this is the only way her children might be allowed to stay in the UK.

Interspersed with these sometimes harrowing stories, there are quieter poems where the contrast between first and third worlds pricks the conscience as with the Brazilian cleaner, Esta Cunha de Silva, in ‘Domestic Worker’ who picks rhubarb in an English garden while remembering the sounds of chainsaws in the Amazon, and with ‘Mr. Giang’, who speaks ‘sixty-two Vietnamese bird languages’ but ‘hasn’t yet mastered English.’ All through this book the dramatic emotions of the immigrants, veering between hope and despair, are conveyed with simple descriptions of their circumstances and of their feelings, in beautifully clear, expressive language: ‘Before poverty and disenchantment had/seared his unsuspecting heart, he had talked/ to her of the water, the longing and/waiting…’ (from ‘Nursery Tales’).  

Amid these human and lyrical moments the cold language of the bureaucrats runs like an icy stream. We also hear from the judges, social workers, immigration officers and caseworkers who must enforce, often with brutal detachment, but just as often with reluctance and empathy, the laws of the state. Smith artfully lifts and reconstructs Border Agency reports of detention raids on frail, failed asylum seekers. She reveals heartless adjudications where hopeful citizens, often clearly victims of trauma, are dismissed in the third person, as ‘applicants’. Occasionally, there are moments of humour, of joy, the e-mail address changed to reflect a success, the comical mis-spellings of those learning English, the friendships that arise due to shared difficulties.

Written over a period of years, as layered and infused with experience as the documents she discusses: letters folded and refolded, creased with time, Caroline Smith’s poems are a moving record of global people movement, the story of our time.



Review by Peggy Ellsberg

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Caroline Smith's brilliant new collection, The Immigration Handbook, brings to detailed, tangible, often heartbreaking life one of the hottest topics in global news today. The poet is an immigration case worker who has seen plenty of fire and rain. She personalizes and concretizes 55 individual human moments, poems as well as cases, blending people's experiences with the bureaucratic vocabulary of "appeals," "judgments," "lawyers," "Home Office," "asylum," "settlement," and the devastating "deportation." The Immigration Handbook works the way human memory works--by webbing, weaving, networking, knitting. "Red Road Flats" features "white cobwebs." A "Scarlet Lizard" is something a Judge wishes he could see on his desk instead of the "parched, cracked hexagons/of a legal phrase." White, pale, pallid, bleached; red, blood-orange, scarlet; long grasses and seaweeds and vines; mold, fungus, undergrowth; vivid images and colors connect the dots to create a congruent narrative collage. In a defunct phone booth, the poet finds the "black cradle... silent as an obsidian urn."
A few pages apart, one poem/case calls up the smell of fresh-cut pine in the courtyard of a Trappist monastery, and a second one compares a lawyer's work to that of a manuscript illuminator in the scriptorium of a Florentine monastery. Both of these poems rely on the colors silver-grey and blue. Thus, for the reader, a psychological ecology is established. A one-time adolescent shoplifter chooses suicide rather than allow her family to risk being deported with her. A young immigrant must decide whether to stay in the new country and await approval or return home to his mother's deathbed. Semantic webbing and emotional netting unify the 55 case/poems.
Once I started this profound, quiet book, I simply could not put it down. I was sorry when it was over. Every single poem is a gem. The Immigration Handbook achieves what every book should strive to achieve: it opens the reader's mind to a whole new country of human experience.


Peggy Ellsberg is Senior Lecture in English at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of several books.
Review taken from

Review by Clare Pollard, Poetry London

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook is a large-scale project, an attempt to tell the individual stories of people she has encountered as an asylum caseworker for an MP. It is attentive to others, and the specifics of their realities. Smith herself is largely invisible, to the point where some poems are ‘found’ (a legal apology, an adjudicator’s verdict, a letter from the Home Office printed with details blacked out: ‘I apologise for the delay in progressing your client’s application. // Due to the length of time that has elapsed since your client submitted her application the form is now out of date’.) Others feel verbatim, like one in the voice of ‘Ali’:

I have worked
maybe sixty hours this week
in a kitchen in Wembley.
I’ll be paid for five.
There is no one to complain to.

But this is generous poetry, and Smith is present in each careful, interested detail. Mint leaves twist in a tea glass ‘like fur caterpillars’. Mahmood ‘posts cigarette butts / into an empty Sprite bottle’. A carer is seen emptying a catheter and ‘blurting out the wet-nosed tube of his cream’. An answering machine’s messages ‘brim like the water butt / spilling over with black water’. A baby snores:

through its cleft palate,
dummy balanced on its lip,
thin sky-blue hood
pulled over its eyes.

The bureaucracy emerges as a black joke, and Smith manages to find humour, as in the misspellings of ‘Letters’:

I would like to express my filling
I love your cuntry
I have applied for neutralisation

Ultimately though, this is a book that makes us face our own unkindness. It does the important work of witnessing those whose pain we would rather not see.


Review by Dylan Moore, The Welsh Agenda

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Caroline Smith's collection of poems, The Immigration Handbook, is a far more specific affair. Taking as its cue Smith's role as asylum caseworker for a London MP, the poet opens up a series of windows into the lives of refugees caught up in the bureaucracies of the UK asylum process. Titles hint at the tension between people and system. 'Mrs Shah's Complaint', 'Josef Rexha – salesman', 'Mr Giang' and 'Dr Gophal' all deal with individuals with names and, therefore, voices – but just as in reality, it is the cold, impersonal language of beaurocracy that dominates: other poems include 'Selection', 'Asylum Documents', 'Pro Bono 1', 'Spouse Visa', 'Removal', 'Home Office Files' and 'New email address' and Surgery Note 2'.

The language of paperwork perhaps diminishes the power and quality of The Immigration Handbook as poetry, but it certainly works to bear out the opening epigraph, a quotation from Lord Bingham: 'It reduces the weight otherwise to be accorded to the requirements of firm and fair immigration control, if the delay is shown to be the result of a dysfunctional system which yields unpredictable, inconsistent or unfair outcomes.' 

The experiences of the 'characters' in the book – almost certainly based on real people – strongly suggest that the asylum system is indeed dysfunctional.

Review by Kim Moore, The Poetry School

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Immigration Handbook collects together stories of people caught up in the unwieldy, impersonal and often seemingly illogical world of government bureaucracy. Not unlike the recently released I, Daniel Blake, such a bureaucracy is shown to brutalise those who depend on it the most.

Caroline Smith is perfectly placed to write these stories, having worked as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. In a recent interview in Eastern Eye, Smith explained:


“It’s called The Immigration Handbook because it comes at the issue of immigration from different people’s perspectives, whether it’s the immigration judge, the asylum seeker, or the case worker.”


This multiplicity of views is one of the main strengths of the book, and without it, the poems could have been unremittingly dark. As it is, many are suffused with a sense of hopelessness, which would be deeply troubling and upsetting were it not for Smith’s empathic listening and objectivity. Post-Brexit, this feels like a necessary project. Now more than ever, we need writers to draw attention to the human suffering behind the headlines and to challenge the often disturbing and extreme language that is used to describe migrants and refugees.

In the first poem of the book, ‘On Hold’ we are introduced to Arjan Mehta. This poem is short, and worth quoting in full, as it illustrates many of the key concerns explored throughout the collection.


On Hold

‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application’

He was just twenty-three
Arjan Mehta, when first he began
calling the Home Office
from a red phone box
on the corner of Preston Road;
would push against
and let fall behind him
the heavy creaking door,
into its stale, vacated, smoke smell,
stand on its concrete littered floor
his fingers twisting through
the plastic snake cord,
dragging round the metal dial,
eager about his application.
Seventeen years have passed
with no answer.
He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.


The poem opens a door onto a world that many people are not aware of, and simply asks you to look through. The language used is simplistic and factual, and the long opening sentence fits with the idea of being on hold, of things going on indefinitely. This is contrasted with the factual, short, sharp statement: ‘Seventeen years have passed / with no answer’.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I realised after reading this collection is that the pain of waiting for an answer that never comes, of having no home, or the possibility of having your home taken away, can be just as damaging as physical violence, and the haunting image of the sealed-up phone box at the end of this poem symbolises this brilliantly.

‘On Hold’ begins with an epigraph of ‘official’ text taken from communication with the Home Office. This technique of weaving in official text to use as part of poems or to serve as epigraphs occurs throughout the collection. Taking this strategy even further, a copy of an original letter from the Home Office appears in full, roughly halfway through the collection. This letter begins ‘I refer to your clients No Time Limit application which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006.’  The letter is dated 21 September 2015.

Smith makes the titles of her poems work hard. They often have two meanings – as in ‘On Hold’ with its literal meaning of being ‘on hold’ on the phone, and the secondary reference to the idea of someone’s life being on hold. In ‘The Jumper’ the reader begins by thinking that it refers to an item of clothing, as we read about a nurse who is caught stealing a jumper. She pays the price years later, when she is refused the right to stay because of the ‘criminal act’ committed in her youth. The poem finishes:


How she could see no other way –
how without her, they’d be allowed to stay.


Suddenly the title takes on a whole new meaning.

In another poem, ‘Omnipotence’, after reading lots of poems in the voice of an observer or an outsider, we are in the first person. An asylum case worker tells us:


He’d been bugging me all morning,
phoning insistently
so confident of his rights.
Just wanted the Home Office to hurry up –
but he was bolshie and I snapped.
Told him they were doing further checks,
had called up another file.
Then I heard his voice crumple and go small;
‘please don’t push them too hard then,
don’t make them angry,
I’ll leave it to time.’


Again, the title of the poem deepens the impact of the poem – and the sense of shame which comes from this moment of self-reflection on the part of the speaker is both startling and moving.

One of the things that keeps the collection fresh and surprising is the considered exploration of the viewpoints of those who work with and alongside migrants or refugees – various caseworkers, judges and officers operating within the constraints of the asylum system. The first two poems, exploring the lives of two different asylum seekers respectively are followed by ‘The Scarlet Lizard’, a different kind of poem altogether. This poem, is again spoken in the voice of an observer, but this time looking at a judge.  Here is the Judge, reading through a report:


He needed to sense some quiver of
indecision, an odd detail
that would open the truth of their words;
chinks of light shining
through shuttered doors.


And ‘Red Road Flats’ we read:


When the Presenting Officer heard of
their suicides following the ruling
it was as if he’d woken up
and found himself
a trespasser in his own garden.


People are not presented simplistically, and although the news of the suicides make the latter poem particularly dark, the exploration of the impact that this has on the people dealing with these cases is delicately drawn does alleviate the sense of hopelessness in a small way. Though the asylum system is inhuman, real people are part of it, and these people are also human beings who are compassionate and flawed and struggling to understand the situation they find themselves in.

The problem of writing other people’s stories is a difficult one, particularly when dealing with groups of people who have already been silenced time and time again. The position of witness is often difficult one to pull off because of the position the author must maintain as outsider, but Smith is successful here: she negotiates and avoids the pit of slipping into sentimentality and mawkishness. This collection explores this idea of ‘poetry as witness’ layering story after story of trauma and pain on top of each other in orderly way that is to be admired – in a shocking poem, Smith factually recounts how a middle child of three is sent home because he is the only one in his family that doesn’t have a visa.

If I could wish for anything else it would have been for a few more poems exploring the impact of working with refugees/asylum seekers in the first person so that there was more of a range of tone throughout the collection. However, this is a small quibble – I found the book moving, disturbing and revelatory in its exposure of the intricacies of the immigration system.

Review by Afric McGlinchey, Orbis

Friday, November 11, 2016



Caroline Smith (Orbis 176) is delving here beneath the morass of statistics and forms to uncover the real lives, circumstances, memories and emotions of individuals applying for refugee status. In fact, many of her metaphors involve revealing something hidden: a kitchen bin lifted to reveal ‘a sudden frost – an aubergine had turned old overnight / a shock of white hair standing straight up on a wizened purple and brown head’; ‘ a row of waiters standing, one hand behind their backs, percussionists lifting silver domes’; opening a grain bin exposes ‘ a nest of purple ratlings’; ‘ apricot snails / sheltering in the damp pelts / of wet undergrowth’ (‘The Administrative Removal Officer’).


      The Stories show the tip of an iceberg, but the language is starkly plain and clear. In ‘The Father’:


He has finally saved enough

to bring his family to join him;

but DNA tests show that

only two of the children are his.

The middle one has been refused a visa.


Smith’s work as an asylum caseworker obviously provides authenticity. She is also a sculptor, and her visual perspective is evident in the ability to evoke myriad landscapes and visceral, sometimes uncomfortable images that resonate effectively. Her particular strength is in the striking analogy, and she also conveys the tactile:


the years, like a soothing poultice,

began to break down his identity,

braille his documents with mildew and

the wet, black gills of fungus; crumble

the pages into the soil he’s become a part of.

                                                                                  [‘The Boxer’]


Such writing captures the sense of ‘extinction’ felt by immigrants – and the stupendous elation when luck strikes. For example, when a baby is born three days before the end of amnesty, allowing a family to stay in the country.


          While focusing on the harrowing difficulties of trying to penetrate legalese, she also shows the other side. One particularly strong poem is ‘Red Road Flats’, where the image of an ‘invisible conspiracy of white cobwebs connecting the grasses’ relates to the presenting officer who perhaps feels responsible for the suicides resulting from his decision to deport three immigrants. The poet has a particular knack for slowing a moment down, particularly those of reflection.


            Many collections today can be self-absorbed, with their authors hoping to achieve some sort of renown, accruing to the ego. This book has a much nobler purpose and occupies what Carolyn Forche has called the third space in poetry: not the personal or the political, but the social, making a profoundly compassionate and powerful case for the asylum seeker. It deserves a wide readership.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Immigration Handbook is an impressive collection which varies in tone and style. Smith uses simple language, small details and powerful imagery to present to us the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, caught up in situations beyond their control. As the asylum caseworker for a London based MP, she has spent years helping immigrants to navigate the complexities of an underfunded, overstretched bureaucratic system.   

Throughout the book there is an underlying sense of irony, alongside a sensitivity and poignancy that brings into sharp relief the tragedy of a woman who discovers that her beloved “Turkish prince” simply wanted a visa, and the story of a man who “…spent twelve years in England / hiding in a caravan with fruit pickers…” only to be faced with a stark choice:

“He had almost made it to fourteen years,
when they’d have given him his papers,
let him stay –
but he’d got a message from home
that his mother was dying –
and he’d had to choose.”

In many of the poems we encounter the clash of disparate worlds, such as in ‘Domestic Worker’ when “Esta Cunha de Silva”, is reminded of “the favelas, the depleted rainforest” whilst making a rhubarb pie, or the contrast, in ‘Mr Giang’, between his ability to speak “sixty-two / Vietnamese bird languages” and his struggle to make sense of English:

“The echolalia of foreign sounds
stutter stubbornly in his throat,
catching on stumps of charred,
defoliated forest
that emit only the ghostly
calling of the gibbons
and the breathless whistles of the birds.”

We also see the plain, unadorned horror of sudden deportation, for example in the prose poem, ‘Removal Directions’, as we observe a young woman who becomes physically ill with the shock of finally being deported, and the detached voice of the officer: “I arrested her at 06.20 hours as a person liable to be detained.”

Detachment is another theme which runs through the collection, emphasising the brutality of a system that treats human beings as cases, and the feeling of helplessness in the face of bureaucracy. The brevity and objective language of ‘Father’, for example, actually made me cry, to think of someone faced with such a humiliating and heart-breaking situation:

“but DNA tests show that
only two of his children are his.
The middle one has been refused a visa.”

But Smith also portrays the stress and strain of those involved in making these decisions. We delve, for a brief moment, into the mind of a caseworker as he sits, “checking this man’s documents / for illegal working” whilst reminiscing on his own decision to migrate to the UK. We glimpse the thoughts of “the Presenting Officer” in ‘Red Road Flats’ as, faced with news of “their suicides” he regrets his decision:

“What he had dismissed as paranoid, he
now saw from within their world as real,”

Each person involved in this process is presented as an individual. I particularly like the way in which the work of a solicitor, in ‘Pro Bono 1’ and ‘Pro Bono 2’, is depicted as that of an artist:

“he must place words carefully:
uncover details, minute inflections
that will capture her suffering…”

Poems such as ‘Judgements’ and ‘Apology’ emphasise the absurdity of a bureaucratic system far too complex to achieve anything in reasonable time. In fact, the collection begins with a poem which highlights just how tragic and preposterous our asylum system can be. ‘On hold’ presents us with Arjan Mehta, a man who has waited seventeen years for a response to his asylum claim, and is still waiting.

Other poems tell us stories of compassion and hope, from Abdul Rahman in ‘Heron Flats’ who is grateful to his boss for giving him a chance, to the “sudden deep snowfall” in ‘Luck’ which “grounded all flights” so that “Mr Owusu’s deportation… / is unexpectedly cancelled.”

The Immigration Handbook brings us people from all walks of life, facing intense, tragic, horrific, funny, paradoxical and challenging situations. There is every human emotion here, from resignation and regret, to defiance and tenderness. We see the people behind the headlines, and we rejoice and mourn alongside them. This collection not only moves the heart, but reveals to us the hidden stories of those who do not have a voice of their own.

Review by The Tablet

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Immigration Handbook is a haunting collection of poems by Caroline Smith inspired by her experiences as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. Many of her characters’ fates are uncertain: every week for seven years, Dr Khan has walked to Hounslow’s immigration reporting centre; Arjan Mehta has spent 17 years phoning the home office waiting for a response to his application: “He is now forty. / The sealed-up phone box / long out of service, \ the black cradle / within its sepulchre, / silent as an obsidian urn.”

Review by Greg Freeman, WriteOutLoud

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caroline Smith’s collection The Immigration Handbook (Seren) is the product of her experiences as an asylum caseworker in the constituency office of a north London Labour MP, and the characters within these poems are composites of people she observed over a number of years.

Some poems are more “poetic” than others. ‘The Administrative Removal Officer’ likens the weary official to a gardener forever engaged in the act of clearing, “pulling away armfuls of climbers”. For most of the poem the language is faintly repellent  - “twisted ground … purple worms … sickly-pale apricot snails”. It concludes by describing the pity and destruction of this soul-sapping process: “I must clear this plot / steel my heart to dig up / perfect flowers in full bloom.”  

On the other hand, ‘Delay’ appears to be a copy of a Home Office letter dated September 2015 which apologises for the nine-year hold-up “in progressing your clients [sic] application”, which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006. You don’t need a metaphor to know which way the wind blows in this case, or crafted language to tell this story any more clearly. 

Like a dossier, the poems compile individual tragedies, such as the nurse denied citizenship because of a minor shoplifting crime many years earlier: “How she’d forgotten / until now, when the letter came / refusing them all … How she could see no other way - / how without her, they’d be allowed / to stay” (‘The Jumper’).  

A desperation and determination to be allowed to remain sometimes leads to romantic deceit and broken dreams. ‘Spouse Visa’ tells the story of an older volunteer worker who allows herself to accept a young Turk’s claim that he has fallen in love with her.  She hadn’t been back on the rota to help since he left, but had signed his papers anyway, because “for two years / she had been the moon’s grace, / had shed the wrinkles of her old age”. 

Sifting among the heartbreak of wasted lives, such as the doctor from Paktika province in Afghanistan who has been trekking out to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name (Eaton House’), there can be found occasional lightness, such as the unwitting comedy of broken, misspelt English: “I love your cuntry … I have applied for neutralisation … I was arrested by six uninformed guards … With wormiest regards” (Letters’).

And I will quote in full the five-line poem ‘Father’, which in its brevity expresses how the demands of unbending, heartless officialdom can uncover family secrets that could and should have remained hidden:  “He had finally saved enough / to bring his family to join him; / but DNA tests show that / only two of his three children are his. / The middle one has been refused a visa.” 

This is poetry that is about something, that needs to be written.  In these strange and disturbing times, Caroline Smith’s sympathetic and enlightening poems reveal the complicated truths behind the tabloid headlines, and show that poetry can be employed in significant and important ways. 

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