What kind of country awaits asylum seekers reaching the UK?
On the water, everything was black. Of course Ali had grown accustomed to darkness; it had been dark in the back of the truck that drove him here over three long days, and darker still in the hold of the ship where he had stowed away before that.
But this was a different kind of darkness, a darkness without walls that stretched to infinity – left and right, forwards and backwards, up above to the night sky and down below to the sea floor.
“I could tell this story a hundred times and you still wouldn’t understand it unless you were there,” he said, reliving the cold and the silence, the waves that sloshed into the tiny boat and the 17 frightened people, two of them children, who all cupped their hands trying to slosh them back. “I closed my eyes,” he said quietly. “Because when I opened them, I could just see black.”
Ali didn’t know it yet, but he was approaching the end of a journey that spanned 4,000 miles and at least 10 different countries, and which had cost his family somewhere in the region of £25,000. It began in the west of Iran three years earlier, when security officers told Ali that his life was under threat due to his political activism at university; it had since involved wrapping himself in sheepskins to hide among a consignment of livestock in Turkey; months spent homeless on the streets of Athens; and most recently a blind passage across Europe in a lorry – with only a bottle of water and a few dates for sustenance, and no idea where he would end up.
When he eventually tumbled out onto a strange beach in the early hours of the morning and was met by people-smugglers ordering him onto a dinghy, he had tried to back away at first, gripped by a fear of what the water held, and what might be waiting for him on the other side.
“I said, I don’t want to go, I will die,” he remembers. “They said no, you’re here now and you have to go.” So he waded in up to his chest, clambered inside, and embarked on yet another voyage into the unknown. It was four hours later, as the sun was beginning to rise, that a large vessel drew up alongside them. “Where am I exactly?” Ali asked the official-looking person in a hi-vis jacket who pulled him aboard. “You’re in UK waters,” the man replied. “Welcome to Britain.”
A nation arguing with itself
What sort of Britain Ali was being welcomed into, and in particular what sort of relationship this country has with nations and people beyond its borders, is the question that – sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly – sits at the heart of the contemporary national conversation. In recent years, as the UK has lurched through divisive elections, constitutional crises, and successive prime ministers, much of the turmoil has been driven by conflicting views on what it means to consider ourselves as being part of a community – and by extension, on where that community starts, and finishes. Now, at a moment in which Britain is carving out a new identity for itself outside of the European Union, those faultlines have assumed an even greater significance. Ali has landed in the middle of them.
For many of us, debates around migration play out on parliamentary benches, inside poll booths, or across the increasingly fevered pages of national newspapers. But in Kent, along a 35-mile stretch of coastline between Deal to the north and Dungeness to the south, these arguments take a more tangible form.
Under white cliffs and on pebbled beaches, in among fading guesthouses and brightly-coloured ice-cream kiosks and wrought iron promenade shelters specked with drizzle, people like Ali have been bumping up against the edges of what – or who – Britain is today, and what or who it is not. It’s here that train tunnels and ferry lines transport goods back and forth to the European mainland, and it’s here too that queues develop and resentments simmer when the system encounters friction and snarls up. It’s here that the infrastructure of border control is scored deepest into the landscape, from the imposing medieval façade of Dover castle on the town’s hilltop to the more prosaic modern-day Home Office facilities in the port below. It’s here that refugees have been arriving on boats from across the Channel, hoping to find a new home far from the violence of war or persecution. And it’s here that rival groups of British citizens have been patrolling the shoreline in wait for them – scouring the water and trying, in very different ways, to discern the outlines of our national future.
Kay Marsh is one of those citizens. Dover born and bred, the sea – and specifically the English Channel, that narrow arm of the Atlantic that separates England from France – has been a central part of her life. “To me, it’s an exciting thing, a happy thing,” she told me recently, as we walked along the Capel cliffs that link Dover with the neighbouring town of Folkestone. “When you’re out in the very early morning, it can be cold and muddy up here, quite unpleasant conditions.” She stopped to point out container ships in the distance, their huge hulks not much more than tiny smudges on the horizon. “But I always feel positively about the Channel itself,” she continued. “It just means very different things to different people.”
Marsh is a volunteer with Channel Rescue, a group of local refugee solidarity activists who watch the waves attempting to spot migrant boats approaching from France – like the inflatable dinghy that carried Ali here in the late summer of last year.
The organisation is only a few months old, but there has already been plenty for them to see. In 2018, fewer than 300 people seeking asylum in Britain travelled by small boat to the Kent coast; in 2019, that figure rose to just under 2,000. In 2020, more than 8,000 crossings were recorded. The Daily Mail has referred to “Migrant Madness” in its headlines; the Daily Express to “Lawless Chaos”. “ARE THEY JIHADIS?” screamed The Sun, reporting on the “Anguish of Kent villagers over endless boats of migrants they fear could be terrorists sneaking into UK”. In August, both the BBC and Sky sent television news teams out on vessels of their own to film, in real time, dinghies entering UK waters. “Please, no camera,” some of those on board shouted back to the media crews. “You can see why it’s dangerous today because the sea is pretty choppy,” declared BBC Breakfast reporter Simon Jones, as he drew up alongside one overloaded craft bouncing towards Dover. “They’re using a plastic container to bail out the boat… This is a sight that’s become increasingly common.”
Scenes of dishevelled, usually non-white foreigners washing up on British beaches have generated immense heat in the press, but little light; dramatic images of the small boat phenomenon are much easier to find than sober explanations of their context. In reality, although migrant boat arrivals quadrupled in 2020 compared to the year before, the UK figures remain far smaller than those of many other major European countries (Italy and Spain each received more than 30,000 people making similar journeys last year). Last year’s rise in dinghy crossings is largely accounted for by the Covid-19 pandemic which disrupted freight traffic and closed off more traditional routes inside lorries or trains for asylum-seekers attempting to reach the UK from northern France; it is also important to note that in the early summer, for example, when media panic over irregular Channel crossings began hitting its stride, overall asylum claims to the UK actually fell by more than 40% from the previous quarter.
Animating much of the coverage has been an underlying sense of outrage that so many people, having passed through so many other supposedly safe nations, are trying to reach Britain – a sentiment that fails to account for the fact that 85% of the world’s refugees remain in the global south. For the small minority who do travel to Europe, only a tiny number ever seek to make it as far as the UK. In 2019, Britain received 36,000 asylum claims (three times less than the EU average per capita), compared to 120,000 in France and 142,000 in Germany. The answer to the question ‘why do they come here?’ is, first and foremost, that the vast majority never come at all.
Such statistics could have taken the heat out of Britain’s political response to the small boat ‘surge’, but, emphatically, they did not.
A letter last year calling for tougher enforcement measures in the Channel, signed by 25 Conservative Party parliamentarians, accused migrants in dinghies of ‘invading’ the UK; Home Secretary Priti Patel, with a reputation as a hardliner on immigration, has ramped up her language on the issue. Insisting that she would no longer allow people-smuggling networks to “laugh in the face of the British people”, in early August Patel unveiled a new ‘Clandestine Channel Threat’ operation led by Dan O’Mahoney, a former Royal Marine, with the aim of ensuring that small boat crossings became an ‘impossible route’ to UK entry. Across the month that followed, more dinghies arrived than ever before.
In what has often felt like a rhetorical arms race with right-wing tabloids, the government has let it be known that it is considering deploying the Royal Navy off the coast of Kent, as well as building floating walls and laying steel dragnets across the world’s busiest commercial shipping lane in order to prevent the passage of migrant dinghies – most of which consist of cheap rubber and a low-grade engine, and measure less than 20 feet in length.
For asylum-seekers who evade these obstacles, the ministry has looked into purchasing decommissioned ferries in order to house them offshore and explored the possibility of constructing migrant detention centres on far-flung oil platforms – or even transporting them to the military outpost on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Migrant rights campaigners believe that, just as with previous efforts to ‘militarise’ other asylum routes into Britain – such as the installation of heat-scanners, surveillance drones, extensive fencing and dog patrols around the entrance to the Eurotunnel in Calais – these actions will have virtually no impact on the overall numbers of people attempting to reach Britain and claim refugee status; instead, they will merely expose those making the journey to ever-greater risks. “This policy of border securitisation has had the opposite of what I imagine is the intended effect,” Maddy Allen, the chief executive of Safe Passage, told a committee of MPs last September. “The UK has built a rod for its own back… it has driven people to the beaches.”
For Marsh and her fellow volunteers, official talk of prison hulks and warships and artificial wave-machines designed to repulse migrants back towards French waters – “The Home Office has explored a wide range of options,” government minister Chris Philp told a parliamentary inquiry last month, “I do not want to give any definitive commentary on what we have and have not thought about or rule in or out what steps may be taken in the future” – may amount to little more than outlandish posturing, but that doesn’t make it any less threatening, or in her eyes, despicable.
“It feels like they’re getting desperate,” she says. “Human rights monitoring is our number one concern, so we’re looking out for illegal push-backs by the authorities, or any illegal activity designed to stop people from reaching these shores.”
Channel Rescue is now raising funds to purchase its own boat which would help complement the existing land patrols. The organisation’s aim is to identify and if possible reach migrant dinghies so that they can offer legal advice, first aid and a friendly smile – before anyone with other intentions gets there first.
For Channel Rescue are not the only group currently pacing the beachfront with binoculars and a determined belief that something, somehow, has gone horribly wrong with the way Britain handles this issue. Ranged against them are people who are deeply angry about immigration, including an assortment of far-right actors, from well-established extremist movements to a fresh generation of individual social media personalities, all hoping to utilise small boat arrivals as a driver of cash, clicks and support. They too are convinced that the government are failing on this issue, and that this failure says something profound about the kind of country we are, and that we should be.
The two sides have clashed online, in the comments sections of news articles and YouTube videos. And they have clashed in person on the streets; four months ago, 10 far-right protestors were arrested by police after an anti-migrant rally in Dover.
Now, at the western fringes of Folkestone, on a ridge high up above the Sandgate Esplanade, these irreconcilable visions have come to a head outside a low-slung, partly-abandoned military barracks – the unlikely new epicentre of Britain’s fiercely contested immigration story.
The staging post
Shorncliffe Camp began life in the late 18th Century, as a training base for soldiers commanded by the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars. Military historians consider it to be one of the birthplaces of the modern British army: Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill both spent time here; and it was a staging post for troops heading out to the Western Front during the two World Wars.
Today, the camp consists of a series of red brick buildings largely dating back to the Victorian era, arranged around a public park where teenagers smoke and dog-walkers stroll and parents gather at the end of the day to pick up children from the adjacent pre-school. There is a local theatre and operatic society on one corner, and a new Taylor Wimpey housing development at the other. And in the middle, behind a screened-off, 10ft barbed wire barrier, there are now more than 400 people who arrived on small boats to Britain, waiting indefinitely to discover whether or not they will be permitted to remain.
The UK already maintains a network of controversial immigration removal centres where migrants can be held indefinitely prior to deportation (more than half of those detained are eventually released back into the community). But Napier Barracks is something else: Britain’s first modern-day refugee camp, of the sort more commonly found on Greek and Italian islands in the Mediterranean.
Ever since the Home Office announced in September that it had struck a deal with the Ministry of Defence to use it and another military site in Penally, South Wales, as emergency accommodation for asylum-seekers, Napier Barracks – a section of Shorncliffe that was slated for demolition – has become many things to many people. To the government, which has a legal duty to support and house anyone applying for refugee status who would otherwise be destitute, it was initially a practical solution to a straightforward capacity issue. It has since evolved into something far more complex: both a source of embarrassment, as reports of crowded and unsanitary conditions emerged from within; but also of political capital, where the conflation of incoming migrants and martial imagery is thought to play well among right-leaning voters.
To groups like Generation Identity, a far-right racist movement whose stickers are plastered over nearby road signs, Napier is evidence in bricks and mortar of ‘the great replacement’ – a widely-debunked conspiracy theory asserting that European elites are aiming to erode white populations in favour of African and Middle Eastern communities, partly through mass migration.
To Bridget Chapman, a caseworker with the local Kent Refugee Action Network, it is an indictment of Britain’s values. “Napier wouldn’t have been suitable before the pandemic,” she told me, “and it’s particularly unsuitable now. If I’d left somewhere because of persecution and violence, and reached somewhere else that I thought was going to be safe, I wouldn’t want to be crammed into a place like Napier, which is not safe. I think it’s deeply shaming to this country.”
But to people like Ibrahim and Waleed, Napier – for now at least – is simply home. Both arrived on boats in the autumn of 2020, the former from Libya and the latter from Darfur, Sudan. “Young people are dangerous for the military regime there, so they want to destroy young people,” Waleed told me when we met around the back of the park’s cricket pavilion, out of sight of the camp guards. After reaching Europe he had spent three months in the Calais ‘Jungle’ – the name given to what is now a fragmented series of informal migrant camps on the French coastline, regularly subjected to aggressive raids by security forces – before finally securing his passage across the Channel.
When I asked him what he thought of Napier, he gave a hollow laugh. “I don’t believe this is the UK,” he replied eventually, jerking his thumb back towards the barracks. “It’s like a prison, man,” muttered Ibrahim. “We’re not in Guantanamo.” Waleed said he had been under no illusions that life as an asylum-seeker in Britain would be lucrative, or comfortable; he had travelled here, quite simply, because he had to. “If I knew anywhere safer than here, I would be there,” he told me. “I don’t. But I never expected England to be like this.”
Napier’s residents are lodged in accommodation blocks that house 14 people in one room, each narrow sleeping area separated by a plywood screen and occasionally a sheet of fabric that provides some degree of privacy – although no protection against circulating aerosol particles that could be carrying Covid-19. The Home Office insists that a toilet and shower is available for every five inhabitants, but several people living at Napier told Tortoise that because the facilities often break down or run out of soap, up to four rooms – that’s 56 people – must sometimes share just two bathrooms. Meals are served communally, with residents having to queue outdoors to receive their food; the government says it has sought public health advice to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission on site, although Tortoise has seen videos of lines in which social distancing was clearly not being observed. To date, at least one resident has been hospitalised with Covid-19.
Charities, lawyers and medical experts have all condemned the use of Napier for asylum accommodation, not least because although in theory those inside are free to come and go during the day, the site has the look, feel and rhythm of a penal institution.
“Although these sites are not classified as detention centres, [they] bear many of the hallmarks of detention and operate like an open prison,” warned Doctors of the World, a human rights organisation, in a recent letter to the Home Secretary. Under the Geneva Convention, to which the UK is a party, anyone has the legal right to try to claim asylum in another country; there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ asylum-seeker, and although they may have circumvented the normal entry requirements for arriving in Britain, that does not mean that any resident of Napier is necessarily in breach of the law.
Yet that’s not how it seems inside a warren of metal fences and locked security gates, the opening of which is at the whim of guards carrying walkie-talkies. The fear is that following long journeys that have already left people physically and mentally vulnerable, and which were often precipitated by acts of state brutality, the environment at Napier risks inflicting fresh forms of trauma. There have been two reported suicide attempts inside the barracks; a video of the aftermath of one of them, sent by residents to Tortoise, shows a pool of blood in one of the sleeping areas, soaking through a tangle of bed linen. “Even in the [Calais] Jungle, we felt life, we felt like humans,” said Waleed. “Not here.”
The guards in question are employees of Clearsprings Ready Homes, a private company founded by two Essex-based brothers and property tycoons that has grown to become one of the biggest providers of asylum accommodation in the UK. The firm, which receives most of its business from the Home Office, has a chequered history: in 2016, pictures emerged of Clearsprings-managed asylum housing in Wales that was riddled with mould and broken fittings, while an infestation of rats and cockroaches at a similar Clearsprings site in London in 2019 prompted an urgent government intervention. The company’s executives have awarded themselves large pay packets from its taxpayer-funded contracts, including director and former army officer James Vyvyan-Robinson who in recent years has often received an annual salary of close to a million pounds. Tortoise contacted Clearsprings to ask about its management of Napier and previous controversies relating to its partnership with the Home Office, but the company declined to respond.
It should be noted that many of the Napier residents I interviewed had kind words to say about individual members of Clearsprings’ staff, as did some of the charity workers who have been given limited access to the barracks.
But the combination of uncomfortable living conditions and the seemingly glacial pace at which asylum applications are being processed (as of September 2020, official figures showed that three-quarters of those seeking refugee status in Britain had been waiting more than six months for a decision) has created an atmosphere of frustration that occasionally bubbles over. In November, on one of the days when I was reporting from outside the camp, an impromptu protest erupted on the other side of the fence after camp guards – for reasons unknown – refused to open the doors.
Residents, some of whom had clashed with one of the Clearsprings managers earlier in the day, began marching peacefully to the perimeter barriers and shaking them, all the while chanting ‘Freedom!’.
Within a few minutes several police cars drew up, sirens wailing, which ratcheted up the tension further. The commanding officer attempted to defuse the situation by asking the demonstrators to choose one English-speaking representative who could communicate the group’s grievances to him, which they duly did.
I was later told by people inside Napier that the man selected had subsequently been threatened with punishment by the camp management, and that some of residents who mentioned the incident online were questioned by guards and asked to identify their social media handles. In a statement to Tortoise, the Home Office said that “there is absolutely nothing preventing asylum seekers from talking about their experiences in Home Office facilities”.
There is a coda to the protest story that illuminates another core dimension of Napier – one that shapes both the life of its inhabitants and the barracks’ role in wider political debate. After I had posted a short video of the demonstration to Twitter, along with a thread explaining that it was fuelled by anger at the cold and crowded accommodation, and alleged problems accessing medical care inside the camp, I was surprised to find my footage reposted without proper attribution by Nigel Farage, who informed his 1.6 million followers that the asylum-seekers in question were demanding “four-star hotels and a trip to Anfield”, a claim that was flatly untrue. The Brexit Party leader refused to provide any comment for this story.
Farage has made Napier and the Kent coastline around it a home from home in recent months, regularly filming himself conducting shore patrols or travelling out into the Channel in search of migrant dinghies – drawing on motifs that also feature heavily feature in content produced by more extreme political figures.
“One of the core mobilising elements of far-right ideology is this mythologised history of Britain as an island nation untouched by invasion for centuries,” argues Joe Mulhall, senior researcher at anti-extremism organisation Hope Not Hate. “Their touchstones are the White Cliffs of Dover, Dunkirk, and so on, and the visual imagery of cross-channel migration, of boats on the beaches, chimes perfectly with this central idea that outsiders are coming here to do us harm. It ticks every ultra-nationalist box, and so it’s been important for them to get out there and produce that imagery.” Mulhall explained that the landscape of far-right organising has altered recently, with energy and resources shifting away from older movements such as Britain First and For Britain, and towards a new array of solo actors styling themselves as ‘citizen journalists’, and amassing personal fanbases on social media. Competition for followers and donations is intense, which is why many have resorted to prowling the public roads around the barracks and sticking a camera in the face of any asylum-seeker who steps outside, hoping to provoke a confrontation; the more outrageous the encounter, the greater the hits the footage attracts.
In absolute terms, the number of far-right activists in this region and even the size of their direct audiences remains fairly insignificant: a heavily advertised anti-refugee rally outside Napier in September, following a hundreds-strong ‘refugees welcome’ event earlier in the day, drew a grand total of 27 people. But their footage and their spin travels and they end up shaping the mainstream mood music for all of us. “Somebody like Nigel Farage, who is picking up on this sort of content but also has a foot in the centre-right ecosystem, with articles in the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, helps to create the impression that everyone is angry about this, and before long you have Priti Patel saying pretty outrageous things about ‘do-gooders’ and ‘lefty lawyers’, normalising rhetoric that should be beyond the pale and confined to the margins of British politics,” Mulhall told me. “That in turn legitimises and amplifies those extreme positions, so it becomes this cyclical thing that builds and builds and builds.” He sighed. “And you get to the point where there’s no need to face the stigma of voting for a far-right party, because instead you can support a politician in government who is saying exactly the same thing.”
Drive south-west on the A20 from Dover, along the frontier of Britain, and the architecture of defence and deterrence is unmissable. It’s there in the Martello Towers – small 19th Century forts that dot the coast – and in the Royal Military Canal that cuts through Hythe, and in the Battle of Britain memorial that rises high above the Capel-le-Ferne clifftops. Less apparent to the naked eye, but just as embedded, are physical reminders of this region’s record of hospitality for those who arrive from across the sea. Maison Dieu, a stunning mosaic of brickwork at the heart of Dover town centre, was built 800 years ago to accommodate European pilgrims on route to Canterbury. In the 16th and 17th centuries, countless members of the Huguenot community fleeing persecution in France made their homes here, encouraged and often financed by the British state. And in Folkestone’s museum hangs a painting depicting the landing of Belgian refugees down at the harbour; 16,000 arrived on small boats during a single October day in 1914, prompting King Albert to thank the people of Folkestone for a “cordiality that will never be forgotten”. Its artist, an Italian named Fredo Franzoni, was one of those who made the journey. “You can see the mayor is there to welcome them, and the priests of the town, and a nurse, and a small girl offering them a tray of biscuits,” says Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, who drew my attention to the picture. “The psychogeography of Kent is complicated, and contradictory. But welcoming groups of tired, bedraggled people who climb out of boats – that’s a part of it. It’s right there in our history.”
According to Roger Gough, leader of Kent County Council, it’s the visibility of small boat arrivals, more than anything else, that has driven local feeling on the subject. “This is certainly not a hostile environment,” he told me, referencing Kent’s widely-praised and severely-overstretched work on supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. “But there is an understandable sense that we in Kent are having to take on the response to what is fundamentally a national, or even global issue.” For Bryan Rylands, a Folkestone-based investigative journalist who first broke the news of Napier’s repurposing as asylum accommodation, the coastline here is one of those rare places that allow you to sit back and view epic political questions play out in front of your eyes, “as if you’re sitting in a cinema, watching a film.” As much as developments in southern Kent reflect the broader rise of migration as a national political obsession, they also reflect many of the factors underlying that rise: austerity, inequality, and a fragile relationship with place and community that has been progressively weakened over decades. More than one third of children in the area live in poverty, and Dover has the fourth-highest youth unemployment rate in south-east England. House prices have spiralled beyond the reach of many, especially in Folkestone where estate agents have started marketing the town to Londoners as ‘Greenwich-on-Sea’.
In the conversations I had with people living here with no direct connection to Napier, or the Home Office, or the asylum system more generally, I encountered – predictably enough – a wide range of views, but the ‘anguish’ of locals ‘terrified’ that boatloads of ‘jihadis’ are pouring into their communities, as The Sun’s headline had it, was nowhere to be seen. When I did come across anti-migrant sentiment – some of it accompanied by outright racism – it rarely took long for different villains to emerge. “You see refugees coming over and it’s like ‘hold up a minute’, what makes me angry is that they’re getting benefits and being put up in houses and yet there’s homeless veterans on the streets,” one man in his early twenties said to me. I asked him if that was the fault of asylum-seekers. “I guess really what I don’t like is our government, because they’re not looking after our own people,” he replied. We are relentlessly told, not least by politicians themselves, that politics is a zero-sum game. You win, or you lose. Little wonder that some stare at Ali, Waleed, or Ibrahim climbing out the Channel, and conclude that any resources or dignity the new arrivals gain from the world’s fifth biggest economy can only come at the expense of themselves.
What everyone I spoke to agreed upon, without exception, was that for someone huddled in a dinghy, the sea was full of horrors, and that nobody wanted bodies washing up on shore. In October, five Iranians from a single family – Rasul Nezhad, Shiva Panahi, and their three children Anita, Armin and Artin – were knocked overboard in high winds off the coast of Dunkirk after setting out for Kent, and drowned. Their names join a list of at least 289 others who have perished over the past 20 years upon contact with British borders in the Channel, according to figures compiled by the Institute of Race Relations. “Military-style solutions don’t solve humanitarian problems,” observes Frances Webber, a retired barrister who contributed to the Institute’s report, and one of many who has called for the creation of safe and legal asylum routes into the country which would save money and lives. “So why do we allow the government to keep on along the same path,” she asked.
“We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair,” a spokesperson for the Home Office told Tortoise, when pressed on this point. “We will seek to stop abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help.”
With the Brexit transition period now at an end, Britain has lost access to the ‘Dublin Regulation’ – a set of EU protocols under which asylum seekers can, in certain circumstances, be transferred to the first safe European country they landed in – as well as some of the security databases used to process migrant returns (and reunite families), not to mention the EU’s multi-billion pound funding pot which supports refugee resettlement.
Last month, the UK government passed new legislation designed to block asylum claims from anyone who has travelled through safe countries to reach the UK, supposedly a homegrown replacement for the Dublin scheme and a display of Britain’s new-found independence on immigration and asylum issues. But without bilateral deals with the EU states being asked to accept those the UK wishes to turned back from British shores, the new law remains almost entirely symbolic.
In the meantime, controversies surrounding Napier and Home Office housing for migrants more generally (29 asylum-seekers died in Home Office accommodation in 2020, five times more than the number who drowned in the Channel) have not dissuaded the government from seeking to build more refugee camps along the same lines.
Consultations are currently underway over the use of another Ministry of Defence site in Hampshire, where the Home Office intends to house a further 500 asylum-seekers in temporary cabins near the village of Barton Stacey, which has a population of under 1,000 people. Caroline Nokes, a former Conservative immigration minister under Theresa May, has pointed out that the proposed camp will have no mains-supplied electricity or water, and used a speech in parliament to label the proposals ‘inhuman’. As part of a video series for his YouTube Channel, Nigel Farage has already paid a visit.
So much is loaded onto the backs of those seeking asylum here – national identity crises, electoral rivalries, foundational questions over what we stand for, and who we are – that it’s easy to forget the voices of those at the centre of this story: the ones who risk the voyage, and who have continued to be at the mercy of distant, uncontrollable forces long after setting foot on dry land. “The stress of whether you are going to make it or not, it’s so difficult,” said an Iranian asylum-seeker called Samyar – who, unable to afford the fees of the people smugglers, piloted his own small boat from Holland to the UK. “Half of you belongs to the [people-smuggling] mafia, the other half to the French border force, and then there’s the weather, the sea… You are not in your own skin.” He says he has sympathy for everyone caught up in the asylum system – his fellow claimants, the Home Office, and even those protesting against him when he steps out of Napier. “I understand,” he shrugged. “It’s a difficult situation. They have their own reasons for disliking refugees.”
Ali, meanwhile, by virtue of a medical condition, has been spared the barracks; he is currently being housed in a small, single room at an unremarkable hotel by a motorway flyover in west London, waiting, like everyone else, to discover what comes next. “I am afraid of that place, really,” he told me, when I asked if he had heard of Napier. “It reminds me of the prison camps where they kept me in Greece.” Ali, who comes from a comfortably middle-class family, had a good life back in Iran – a nice car, expensive watch, and a place on the national youth volleyball team. We were sitting on a park bench on a clear winter’s day, watching toddlers chasing each other around a playground, and pausing occasionally to note the roaring planes coming into land at nearby Heathrow. In Iran, he told me, he had made the mistake of publicly professing that humans have a right to choose how they live their life; as a consequence, he had to escape to protect his own. “If people think I came here just for money…” he trailed off. “People come because we want to continue life, that’s it,” he concluded. “You just have to believe that, it’s what humanity is. You just have to try to show it to other people.”
Ali knows that unlike in Iran, volleyball is not a major sport here; he doesn’t know much about football, he admitted to me apologetically, but is resolved to learn. At the hotel, where some other asylum-seekers are staying too, he has a reputation for being the guy who helps everyone: translating a Home Office letter, offering directions to the pharmacy, sweeping the corridors to lighten the cleaning staff’s load. If his asylum claim is approved, and he is finally allowed to work (asylum-seekers are legally prohibited from employment), he would like to initially put his skills at the service of a refugee organisation that supports new arrivals in Britain. Ultimately, he told me with an embarrassed smile, his dream is to become a nurse. For now, though, he has nothing much to do but stare up at the sky and gaze around him at this strange, conflicted country – a country struggling to work out what to do with him, struggling to work out how it feels about itself and its relationship with the world.
To protect their identities, the names of people seeking asylum have been changed
Photographs by Andrew Testa for Tortoise and Getty Images