During Victorian times, Folkestone was a trendy seaside resort in the UK frequented by artists and writers like Charles Dickens.
Today, this pretty port city on the south coast of England is in the throes of a bitter feud over post-Brexit immigration. More than 1,000 asylum seekers arrived in the UK by rubber dinghy in June alone.
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Since the end of last year, the British government has placed male asylum seekers arriving from France in rubber dinghies at a former base called the Napier Barracks – a row of squat red brick buildings surrounded by fencing.
The complex once housed troops heading to the front lines of war in Europe in the 20th century. Over the past nine months, the site has been hit by hunger strikes, suicide attempts, a fire and a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected nearly 200 men.
The reallocation of the barracks to detain migrants has been a source of controversy, and earlier this month a High Court judge ruled that the government had acted illegally in placing asylum seekers here. In response, some called for the closure of the barracks and the resignation of Interior Minister Priti Patel.
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“We said for a long time before people moved in that it was going to be very traumatic for those tortured to come to what is obviously a former military installation surrounded by barbed wire.”
“We said for a long time before people moved in that it would be very traumatic for those who have been tortured to go to what is clearly a former military installation surrounded by barbed wire,” said Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee. Action. Network, a local charity.
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“People were told that the reason COVID was spreading was that it was their fault; it is just ridiculous, it is inhuman and we should never have put anyone in this establishment, ”she said, adding:“ The way to destroy the business of human traffickers is to deliver humanitarian visas, increasing places in resettlement programs so that options, safe options work better for them and better for us.
Despite the government’s description of a crisis, the overall number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain is declining. Last year less than 30,000 came to the UK, while in neighboring countries like France and Germany the numbers were three or four times higher.
But while before they were hidden in trucks, the British government’s investment in securing France’s land borders prompted people to take boats instead.
Several migrants from the barracks who spoke to The World said they preferred to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize their asylum claims.
“The staff are quite good, helpful and cheerful, but it’s still not the right place to be. Some Brits may think people here have suffered a lot already, so it’s good to keep them here, but that’s an argument I don’t agree with.
“The staff are pretty good, helpful and cheerful, but it’s still not the right place to be,” said one Syrian. “Some Brits may think that people here have suffered a lot already, so it’s good to keep them here, but that’s an argument I don’t agree with.”
Another young man from Iran has been here for over a month.
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“You feel like a prisoner here,” he said, pointing to the barbed wire.
Although residents are generally free to come and go, he says that with 12 men sharing a room, the camp offers no privacy. COVID-19 tests are now done twice a week.
Asked about the UK government’s new strategy to deter asylum seekers, he said: “I don’t think that will happen. I had no plan before I escaped from Iran, I had no idea where I was going. And you can’t just apply for asylum in the UK [outside of the country]. “
The barracks dispute comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary Patel is trying to radically change asylum law. Patel wants to deny the right to seek asylum to those who arrive irregularly, telling parliament earlier this year that “the existence of parallel roads is deeply unfair, pushing forward those who can afford to pay the smugglers rather than those who desperately need it “.
The new immigration proposals call for more deportations for those who enter irregularly and a much lesser form of legal protection for those who cannot be returned immediately. But according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers cannot be punished for the way they enter a country.
Jonathan Thomas, migration researcher at independent think tank Social Market Foundation, says the government is on a fine line between the expectations of its constituents and its international obligations.
“A lot of immigration policies in practice are quite performative,” he said. “The government must be seen to be doing something at all times. There is always a tension between the fact that the government and the majority of voters want some sort of control, and the international refugee system really doesn’t give you that control.
Thomas believes the UK is trying to copy models from other Western governments. In Australia, migrants arriving by sea are denied asylum – either turned back or sent to notorious offshore treatment centers. In the United States, the Biden administration allows some asylum seekers to enter the country, but also has policies to automatically turn them back.
“The UK is trying to shift to a ‘no asylum seekers but yes refugees’ approach.”
“The UK is trying to shift to a ‘no asylum seekers but yes refugees’ approach,” added Thomas.
In fact, the government has closed almost all legal resettlement routes in recent years and still has not released details on what might replace them. This leads some Conservative Party supporters to push back on what they see as a hostile narrative.
Shabnam Nasimi still has vivid memories as a child arriving in the UK hiding in a refrigerated truck with his parents after fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan.
“It was so dark we couldn’t see each other, so my dad lit matches one after the other just so we weren’t afraid,” she said. “It was terrifying. At one point we felt we couldn’t breathe.
Nasimi is now director of the London-based lobby group Conservative Friends of Afghanistan. Although she is a supporter of the Prime Minister and Brexit, she challenges the government’s refugee policy.
“How can you ask people not to pay smugglers to get to the UK when they have no other options? It’s not British. And what British values stand for is not closing the door on people who need it at the most desperate time of their lives, ”she said.
Since 2015, the UK has resettled more than 20,000 refugees who fled the Syrian conflict to neighboring countries in the Middle East. But for most other nationalities, including Afghans, such an arrangement does not exist.
“No one wants to give up their dignity and respect to make it through such a journey, but you have to offer them legal means to enter. If the UK hadn’t welcomed us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. ‘hui, and I wouldn’t be so proud to contribute to British society, ”added Nasimi.
In the small museum in Folkestone, a painting hangs in the middle of the main exhibition hall. It represents destitute Belgian refugees arriving on the shore, after having fled the horrors of the First World War. Men, women and children of the city line up to greet them after more than 16,000 have arrived in a single day.
More than a century later, post-Brexit Britain now faces a battle over what kind of greatness it wants to resurrect.