Cold comfort Kent: where small-boat arrivals receive a fraying welcome

From Dover port to Marston and Napier barracks, the UK offers asylum seekers who cross the Channel a mixed reception

A few sturdy souls dressed in waterproof winter coats braved the elements to take a walk along Folkestone’s clifftop promenade, The Leas. Some winced as the biting wind and slanted rain hit their faces. Below them the waves of the Channel rose high as they bashed the shore. This was weather to gladden the heart of the home secretary, Suella Braverman.

The Home Office officials and their boss, who reportedly scrutinise the weather forecasts more than most, may have offered silent prayers of thanks to the weather gods in the last few days. After a spike in the numbers of people in crossings the previous weekend – including 972 recorded on 12 November – there were zero crossings due to the inclement conditions over 15-17 November.

At a time when the Home Office is facing unprecedented pressure over small boat crossings as numbers have risen above a record 40,000 so far this year, officials are likely to regard every arrival-free day as a bonus. This Thursday marks the first anniversary of the death of 27 people who tried to cross to England in a dinghy, the worst maritime disaster in the Channel for 30 years.

There are a series of immigration landmarks along the Kent coast, some looking rather frayed at the edges, where small boat arrivals are processed and temporarily accommodated. However, the newcomers are increasingly hidden from view and separated from the general public. This means contact between them and British people, both friends and foes, has been reduced.

A penned-off area in Manston asylum seeker processing centre.
A penned-off area in Manston asylum seeker processing centre. Photograph: Andy Aitchison/The Guardian

Evidence of the aftermath of a firebomb attack by far-right supporter Andrew Leak on 30 October can be seen at Western Jet Foil at Dover harbour where small boat arrivals are taken to. Part of the gate is charred from where Leak threw a plastic bottle taped to a lit firework. An orange coach sits empty by the fence due to the lack of arrivals.

At Napier, the military barracks in Folkestone, used to house hundreds of asylum seekers by the Home Office, it is no longer possible to speak through the metal fencing to asylum seekers inside, although they are not locked up on the site. The extensive perimeter has now been wrapped in blue tarpaulin which flaps in the wind. The Home Office continues to use the barracks after a damning high court ruling in June 2021 which found that conditions there failed to meet a minimum standard.

Officials made a belated admission at the height of the Covid pandemic last year that about 200 people had become infected with the virus. Since then the Home Office says it has made significant improvements to the site.

A glimpse behind tarpaulin covering the entrance to Manston processing centre.
A glimpse behind tarpaulin covering the entrance to Manston processing centre. Photograph: Andy Aitchison/The Guardian

At Manston, another military base along the coast, which provides basic temporary accommodation in a series of marquees, the Home Office started to process small boat arrivals in February. That site too has been hit by a series of scandals including reports of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, drug-selling by guards to asylum seekers and some new arrivals released from Manston and dumped in central London. That site is locked and on 30 October protesters filmed footage of young children shouting “Freedom!” through the fence. Since then that site too has been wrapped in swathes of tarpaulin.

Through the tiniest of gaps in the fence all that is visible are guards in fluorescent jackets and a huge coil of barbed wire. The site looks desolate and there is little sign of activity behind the big metal gates. Across the road in the back garden of a house facing the Manston site a union jack flag has been fixed on to a flagpole. If it’s intended to send any particular message to the asylum seekers across the road they won’t be able to see it due to the wall-to-wall fence cladding.

In the heavy rain and cold wind a group of asylum seekers walk the 15 minutes from Napier barracks to the Napier barracks drop-in centre wearing only flip-flops on their feet. Here they can drink tea and eat homemade cakes while playing games, chatting and doing art activities.

An ‘art refuge’ session at Napier barracks drop in centre where the refugees can get legal advice, talk with local volunteers and do art therapy.
An art refuge session at Napier barracks drop-in centre where the refugees can get legal advice, talk with local volunteers and do art therapy. Photograph: Andy Aitchison/The Guardian

A 29-year-old asylum seeker from Syria who worked as a chef in his home country is desperate to work.

“We don’t want to cost the government any money. We want to work and pay our taxes,” he said. “I had to run away from my country because people were dying there every day. We wouldn’t want to leave our home if it was safe.”

He said that conditions at Napier were not too bad and preferable to life in a hotel because there was a sense of community among the men living there, some of whom he had met in Calais.

Ahmed, age 22 from Sudan looking through a reel viewer at old pictures of animals.

Ahmed, age 22 from Sudan looking through a reel viewer at old pictures of animals.
Photograph: Andy Aitchison/The Guardian

“It’s hard to sleep, though, in a dormitory of 24. All through the night someone or other is going to the toilet,” he said.

Sally Hough, a local resident, who runs the project for Napier asylum seekers, said she used to look across the Channel and think about France as a holiday or shopping destination but now just worries about the safety of those crossing in small boats.

“I fervently wish there were safe routes to apply for asylum from outside the UK. I view the Channel as an extremely dangerous place where people risk their lives every day,” she said.

Charles Sturgess, another local resident, does not think the UK should be welcoming small boat arrivals. “One-10th of the Albanian male population has come here,” he said. “Everyone coming on small boats are economic migrants. They should be sent back to that friendly country called France.”

No government or other source has said a 10th of Albania’s men are coming to the UK on small boats, although there has been an increase this year in the numbers arriving from that country.

Hadi, who arrived in the UK seven years ago from Afghanistan, now works as a taxi driver in Folkestone.
Hadi, who arrived in the UK seven years ago from Afghanistan, now works as a taxi driver in Folkestone. Photograph: Andy Aitchison/The Guardian

For Hadi, a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who lives in the area and works as a taxi driver, Kent is a welcoming place for refugees. He arrived here at the age of 16 in the back of a refrigerated lorry stuffed full of frozen chips, claimed asylum and has now been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

“I have encountered very little racism here and have friends from so many different countries,” he said.

While people have different views about the best way to address the growing numbers arriving in small boats, there is broad consensus across the political divide that these dangerous crossings need to end. One of the windswept walkers along The Leas said: “All of this is down to years of mismanagement and a ridiculous lack of organisation on the part of the Home Office.”


Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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