FOCUS: UK’s first migrant camps – hope and hate waiting by the gates

FOCUS: UK’s first migrant camps – hope and hate waiting by the gates

Raoul Walawalker

Enclosed within chained-linked fencing topped with barbed wire, the UK government has created its first ‘migrant camps’ at two former army facilities; one is a training camp in Wales, the other is Napier Barracks near Folkestone in Kent. The move has caused waves of local tensions as well as serious health and legal concerns since the middle of September.

Hostile protestors and welcoming counter-groups have gathered in front of the camps, and local newspapers have reported daily on divided opinions, occasional crime, statements of local MPs and councillors, and the occasional abuse of them, too – all connected to the camps.

The camp in Penally is reportedly expect to hold around 230 asylum seekers, all males aged between 18 and 35, and while this number is tiny by international comparisons, the facility is tiny too, and in proximity to a local village that’s also tiny, with a population of slightly over 800, many said to be retired.

Within the small camp, the migrants have repeatedly voiced concerns over the impossibility of social distancing in their cramped conditions, said to be ‘six to a small room.’ They worry over insulating themselves from the cold weather, while despairing at being told they may be held in the ex-army camp for a year despite many having fled from war-affected zones. While the camp was formerly used by the army, it was never designed for long-term use.

The Welsh government has made its opposition to the camp clear to the UK Home Office, with deputy minister Jane Hutt saying in a statement: “The camp does not meet the basic human needs of people seeking a new life in the UK. It places people in accommodation, which is neither designed nor appropriate for long-term use – mainly poorly insulated huts – and risks re-traumatising many vulnerable people who may have been fleeing abuse and torture.”

Hutt has said that the Home Office denied repeated requests to delay the use of the camp to ensure plans were in place with local services to enable them to prepare for the arrival of asylum seekers, particularly to make sure Covid-19 public health measures were in place.  She said this didn’t happen, and also that the plans are also the direct opposite of Wales’ Nation of Sanctuary framework.

“We involve asylum seekers in our plans and seek to integrate people into communities from day one of their arrival in Wales.

“We seek to prevent the most harmful outcomes, such as re-traumatisation and hate crime, while aiming for long-term solutions.

“The Home Office’s decision to use Penally camp does none of these things and is incompatible with the Welsh Government’s approach to inclusive and cohesive communities,” she said.

The barracks near Folkestone, meanwhile, is to hold 400, all young males too, some arriving from other temporary accommodation. Reportedly, they are in dormitories holding 32, with 16 along each wall, making social distancing an immediate concern. In mid-October, The Guardian reported on one Covid-19 case at the camp and that dozens were being quarantined, along with problems of sanitation and hygiene, as well as those of access to treatment and advice.

With locals expressing concerns ranging from fears of crime or terrorism, or complaining over lack of consultation, taxpayer cost or damage to property values – other citizens, charities and human rights organisations are concerned over just how bad the conditions in the camps have been allowed to be, familiar with the UK’s ongoing ‘hostile environment’ policy, and a current rapid deportation agenda, even before accounting for the coronavirus pandemic and the winter ahead.

Charities allowed inside the buildings have so far repeatedly assessed the camps to be unacceptable on both health and mental health grounds and accessibility to care and treatment. Human rights and immigration lawyers, meanwhile, have also been highlighting the problems accessing legal assistance.

Regarding both safety and security, charities, lawyers and supporters of migrant rights have all also expressed their concerns over renewed far-right and anti-migrant campaigning activity. This began flaring over summer, and now occurs with protesters travelling to the camps, some presenting threats of direct abuse. They’ve also mentioned that they’ve had trouble themselves from these groups while trying to get into the buildings.

The latest attentions of far-right activists link mostly to the attention that’s been given to migrants crossing from France, which they believe to both a very high number and ‘illegal.’ They’ve also been incensed by reports of migrants staying in hotels, with rumours spread of a variedly huge cost, or that as many as 48,000 have been in hotels. Truer estimates are around 1000 in temporary accommodation.

And while this year has been marked by heavy news coverage of the significant rise in channel boat crossings, the less reported government data in 2020 actually shows that the key migration numbers are in decline, with a particularly steep fall in last few months.

In the year to June, passenger arrivals dropped by 29% against the same time last year, and by 97% in the second quarter against the same period the year before due to covid-19 travel restrictions. Visas granted dropped by 29% year-on-year, 72% of which reflected the fall in student visas; work visas dropped 22% on year.

While coverage of boat crossings was heavy in the second quarter, and indeed this year has seen a big rise in this form of transit, applications for asylum nonetheless dropped by a sharp 40% in the second quarter to 4,850 against 8,455 in the first quarter, with overall applications for the year to June down 8% compared to last year.

Consequently, 2020 immigration data simply reflect anomalies – a rise in boat crossings, yes, in large part due to the 97% shutdown of any other mode of inbound travel, but with decreasing numbers seeking asylum overall. Hence, beyond a big increase in the mode of migration transit, and a lack of contextualising, there might seem little else to agitate nationalist groups currently other than ‘hype.’

While the usual right-wing news outlets have been reporting heavily on boat crossing, the extent of anti-migrant media editorial content hasn’t been at the level of a few years ago. This time ‘people-smugglers’ are also taking a bigger part of their condemnation.

Meanwhile, with well over a million Twitter followers and cosy relationships with four national newspapers, anti-migration-campaigner-in-chief Nigel Farage played a significant motivational role again this year – able to break law by travelling to Dover during lockdown to create campaign videos, which he defended as ‘journalism’ in April.

In later campaigning in July, again presented as ‘investigative journalism,’ Farage also managed to legitimise – at least in the minds of his supporters – a right to enter hotels believed to be housing migrants to challenge them. This was unproven stories of tens of thousands of asylum seekers in hotels at gigantic costs.

A ten-minute video, showing a blazered Farage reciting unsourced figures mostly from his chauffeur-driven car, proved not only popular but inspired copycatting: Far-right activists such as Britain First soon also started filming themselves entering hotels to hunt down asylum seekers, claiming it to be of public interest.

With Brexit talks and US elections taking precedent, Farage has seemingly grown bored for now of inspiring hostility to immigrants. But other significant influencers such as Migration Watch UK or the newly-led UKIP are still very actively fanning anti-migrant flames, even travelling to the new camps to do so.

Wilful or unconscious absence of scrutiny tends to explain how a right-wing organisation can routinely produce distorted information for verbatim quotation by sympathetic right-wing newspapers who’d normally describe an organisation like Migration Watch UK as an ‘independent research group,’ even though it’s known as one of the most ‘vehemently anti-migrant’ pressure groups in the UK.

The organisation, as with UKIP, has helped to convince its followers of the essential ‘illegality’ of the migrants arriving by dingy as opposed to their presentation as vulnerable refugees.

A look at a recent press release over the new camp in Wales from formerly disgraced ex-Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, now UKIP’s leader in Wales and MS for Mid and West Wales, reflects this almost parodically. With a title demanding the UK government ‘get a grip on illegal immigration and bogus asylum-seekers’ as ‘Penally pays the price,’ Hamilton inserts the word ‘bogus’ before ‘asylum seeker’ four times, while using either the word ‘illegal’ or ‘mass’ before each use of the word ‘immigration,’ in his brief press statement.

It’s a message he’s also taken down directly to the Penally camp, blasting it to local crowds by megaphone. While his own self-made video hasn’t received much attention, videos of his speech are heavily shared on social media by groups and individuals visiting Penally.

Migration Watch, meanwhile, with the identical line as UKIP, reinforces this message by seeking to factually back up the illegality accusations at all opportunity, recently using a statement by the Home Secretary to establish a claim that ‘four out of five channel-crossing migrants are not entitled to claim asylum here.’

The claim is a paraphrasing interpretation of comments made by Home Secretary Priti Patel that are based on the assumption of the UK’s immediate application of the Dublin III Regulations to the majority migrants arriving via the channel. This in itself has nothing to do with the legitimacy of their right to claim UK asylum, making the claim misleading.

Amnesty International explains: “Neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor EU law requires a refugee to claim asylum in one country rather than another.

“There is no rule requiring refugees to claim in the first safe country in which they arrive. The EU does run a system – called the Dublin Regulations – which allows one EU country to require another to accept responsibility for an asylum claim where certain conditions apply.

“The relevant conditions include that the person is shown to have previously entered that other EU country or made a claim there.”

While aimed at making the asylum system more equitably balanced, the Dublin Regulations have been criticised because of they’ve been used mostly to the advantage of some countries, like the UK, while being unfair to others, like Italy and Greece.

But with the UK’s exit from the EU in January, and the end of the facility to apply the Dublin Regulations, the Home Office is now trying hell for leather to deport as many migrants as it can before then, especially those arriving from over the channel, aiming for a 1000 by the end of the year.

Legal interventions following gross oversight, or denials or abuses of rights have ensued, with charities also presenting evidence of efforts to frustrate access to legal advice in what they see as the government’s haste-driven campaign.

“The UK’s stated commitment to Human Rights is being trampled on by Priti Patel, the UK Home Office and this government. They have designed a Dover to Deportation pipeline, at every stage frustrating refugees’ ability to get the legal advice, care and support they need,” said Karen Doyle, National Organiser at the rights group Movement for Justice, in an October statement.

“This government is pursuing a relentless and dishonest campaign to vilify refugees and those who support and represent them. It has an incited an epidemic of race hatred and attacks, like the recent attempt to murder an immigration lawyer and fascists targeting places where refugees are being housed,” added Movement for Justice Chair Antonia Bright.

Speaking of vilification, Migration Watch has also been visiting the camp at Napier Barrack to conduct its own surveillance on the asylum seekers, in what seems an attempt to show them doing something that could garner criticism before uploading videos of them – so far essentially doing nothing of note – to social media.

Presumably bored with videoing the camp, Migration Watch’s CO Ben Loughnane at some point seemed to have got more impressed with the PSPO anti-social behaviour signboards in Folkestone (they ban various activities and use formal words for emptying the bowels and bladder – this grabs his attention), prompting him to upload a picture of one and encourage viewers to think the signs are connected to the migrant camp, even though it’s obviously not. Consultation on the zones would have predated the camp’s current use by a few years and the order came into effect in 2019. But while their fictitious connection to asylum seekers is what the rights group Movement for Justice might describe as ‘campaigning to vilify,’ it also seems to be the most popular snap of his surveillance tour, getting hundreds of likes and retweets, and showing what a little ‘creativity with truth’ can do.

Given that watching a migrant camp from outside would ultimately become very dull, it can only be hoped that at least some of any visiting hatemongers, whether of the blazered, suited or Swastika-tattooed variety, might somehow find a moment to genuinely wonder what it might be like to be living inside the place. What it’d be like to be there for an undefined period, under the authority of a contractor than can only maximise its profits by keeping its costs as low as possible – which means making lives as meagre as possible – or a government, whose policy is designed to make you feel like a prisoner or on parole while existing below subsistence level – possibly then bending rules to deport you as soon as possible to hit a target – mostly for the sake of headlines. That’s before contemplating the experiences from which they’re seeking refuge.

Some won’t stop to imagine this, no doubt, not even for a moment, opting instead to spout a narrative which they’re not likely to stop to verify either. But who knows, there’s always a chance one or more might. You can hope so.


Raoul Walawalker is feature writer at ImmiNews, part of an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers currently offering free legal advice to all NHS staff amid the coronavirus pandemic.