Toby Jones criticises the dehumanisation of refugees: ‘We talk about boats, not people’

The Bafta-winning actor Toby Jones has criticised the dehumanisation of refugees arriving in the UK in boats.

Jones, 57, who recently starred in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, took issue with the constant references to “boats”, rather than the people in them, in discussions about the number of small boats crossing the channel into the UK.

“We talk about boats. We don’t talk about people anymore, because that’s harder to talk about. But often these things aren’t actually boats, they’re inflatables that barely survive afloat,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “And they’re full of individuals with the same hopes, dreams and ambitions as the rest of us.”

In the lead-up to the 4 July general election, right-wing party Reform UK announced a six-point programme to “Stop The Boats”, while the Conservative party features the same slogan in its election manifesto.

“The issue [of refugees] is often treated with such binary attitudes, the situation is caricatured and misrepresented,” said Jones. “But whatever anyone thinks, we have unaccompanied young people, at the start of their lives, who need support.”

Jones is participating in a 24-hour “Shakespeare marathon” to fundraise for Compass Collective, a charity that assists unaccompanied minor refugees and young people seeking asylum in the UK through the arts.

The Detectorists star has been a trustee at the charity since 2020 and will be joined by other actors including Sylvestra Le Touzel, Robert Glenister and Owen Teale, as well as young refugee actors, for the 24-hour production on 21 June, which will take place at Scrum Studios in Hammersmith, west London.

It’s expected they will get through 23 Shakespeare plays in three simultaneous table reads during the marathon.

Jones criticised the constant reference to ‘boats’ rather than the people in them. (Getty Images for Disney)
Jones criticised the constant reference to ‘boats’ rather than the people in them. (Getty Images for Disney)

Jones said that integrating young asylum seekers through the arts can help them “thrive in the societies in which they find themselves”.

“You’d have to be inhuman to not respond to children who find themselves as refugees, because through no fault of their own, they’re exposed to forces beyond their comprehension, forces which are potentially extremely dangerous and life threatening,” Jones said.

He recalled visiting a refugee camp in Calais, which had a “profound effect” on him.

“I went to the Calais Jungle with Good Chance theatre and Letters Live a few years ago and performed there. Being shown around the camp had a profound impact on me.”

He continued: “Just the vulnerability of the young people, and their yearning for a better life. No one crosses the world and puts themselves in such extreme danger without having a very good cause.”

The Compass Collective supports approximately 500 young people aged 14-26, from over 28 locations in the UK. The majority are at their initial stage of immigration, while 70 per cent of them are unaccompanied minors.

The charity regularly partners with various arts bodies to create a platform for young refugees to explore the worlds of theatre, music and film. The charity delivers workshops for confidence building, weekly English lessons and longer programmes that allow young people to develop film, theatre and music projects and experience a professional rehearsal or performance.

Jones praised the work of the charity and said that the young people he has been working with seem to be having a “fantastic time” while working on the production.

“I don’t see them at their most vulnerable,” he said. “They look very similar to how I was at their age, which is just having a fantastic time making theatre based on their own experiences. I’m hoping that finally I’ll get a chance to act with some of them on the night of this project.”