Collage created by Finn Souter with images sourced by Roxanne from Pexels
Roxanne De Rossi-Leslie examines how the government’s treatment of asylum seekers today follows a historical pattern of abuse
As a young woman of colour, with grandparents who emigrated to the UK from Guyana, hearing stories of xenophobia and racism is nothing new to me.
What I find frustrating and disturbing though is how the government still mistreats immigrants and people seeking asylum.
An asylum seeker is defined as an immigrant who flees their native country to seek refuge and protection in another country. This is usually as a result of war or violence in their homeland. Those seeking asylum have to provide proof to the government of their need for protection.
The asylum system is complex and difficult with long waiting lists. Government immigration statistics show that just over four out of ten were granted asylum in 2020. During this process, the UK government has the power to detain these people, including children, indefinitely.
At the moment former army buildings, Napier barracks, in Folkstone, Kent are being used as temporary housing for up to 400 people seeking asylum. Living conditions have been worsening since November of last year with reports of broken toilets and no heating in freezing temperatures.
In December 2020 it was revealed by the Guardian that residents were being denied legal aid, even when being moved from the camps to removal detention centres. Tensions rose and in January 2021 protests took place outside the barracks, calling for an end to its use.
The barbaric living conditions have in some cases been triggering traumatic experiences for asylum seekers
Medical staff wrote to the home secretary, Priti Patel, urging her to shut down the accommodation after concerns were raised about the lack of mental health services and healthcare accessibility.
According to a report in the Morning Star, some of the residents have been on hunger strike, and there have been multiple suicide attempts. Also, there has been an alarming rise in coronavirus cases; at one point 197 of the 400 residents tested positive.
A testimonial, obtained by the Mirror, from a group of men living in the barracks shed light on the harrowing environment: “We are all locked down with each other. We have asked to be tested again but nothing has happened. No help. No support. I know of two people who have tried to commit suicide. We can’t go out at all. Please help us.”
Atrocious conditions have not only been spreading illness, but it’s also been suggested the barbaric circumstances have in some cases been triggering traumatic experiences for people. The fenced enclosures and barbed wire, as well as the restrictions and curfews enforced, have been criticised for creating an environment similar to the torture, imprisonment and abuse previously experienced amongst many of the asylum seekers.
Conditions continued to decline. On January 29th 2021, a fire broke out in the dilapidated barracks, leaving even more inhabitants without heating, stable electricity, drinking water, or medical attention. 14 of the asylum seekers were arrested in connection with the fire.
Clearsprings Ready Homes, providers of the army barracks in Kent, has contracts with the government worth up to £1bn
The government’s response
Public Health England warned the Home Office as early as September 2020, that the disused army barracks were unsuitable housing amid a pandemic. Instead of admitting her failures and apologising, Patel responded with apathy:
“The damage and destruction at Napier barracks is not only appalling but deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country who are providing this accommodation while asylum claims are being processed. This type of action will not be tolerated and the Home Office will support the police to take robust action against those vandalising property, threatening staff and putting lives at risk.”
The contractor, Clearsprings Ready Homes, providing the army barracks in Kent as a residence, has contracts with the government worth up to £1bn for supplying accommodation.
Previously the company had been exposed for housing people seeking asylum in appalling conditions. Accommodation provided in West London was deemed by lawyers as “unfit for human habitation” and reported by the Guardian to be overrun with cockroaches, rats and mice.
People seeking asylum crowded on a boat. Photography by geralt from Pixabay
How this is institutional
Despite the Home Secretary’s claims to ‘reform’ the asylum system, the Guardian reports that the Home Office is looking into dispatching asylum seekers, being processed, to an island in the South Atlantic. In spite of protests, the government has still decided to continue with plans for more immigration centres. Patel released this statement:
“A reformed system will prosecute the criminals and protect the vulnerable. That is what a firm and fair system should look like.”
This, as well as her vow to make the English Channel “unviable” for refugee crossings, show that the government’s ‘solution’ to asylum seekers is simply more persecution. Amidst this, she is calling for longer sentencing to be given to people smuggling refugees into the country. As if the government’s harsh policies on immigration are not one of the main causes of smuggling.
Britain’s ill-treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers is emblematic of how the country was built and funded from the colonisation and exploitation of other countries and their people.
There is clear evidence of systemic racism and xenophobia in the UK. with factors such as Brexit engendering anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media, as well as a report by Forbes marking a rise in hate crimes against South East Asians.
But this is not new. Britain was founded on the ideologies of imperialism and blind patriotism, so it is easily explainable why the government views immigrants as second-class and disposable.
Together we must change and fight in solidarity with those locked away from their freedom
Anti-immigrant hate speech is practically a rite of passage among politicians. Boris Johnson stated immigrants should not “treat the UK as their own” and described migrants as “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal”, and former Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage referred to refugees arriving in Kent as an “invasion”.
Britain’s fear-mongering and nationalistic propaganda have led to the institutional dehumanisation of immigrants. They have become so vilified by the media and politicians, that they are not seen as deserving of safety or protection.
But together we must make changes and fight in solidarity with those locked away from their freedom.
Refugee Action is an organisation supporting and fighting for the rights of asylum seekers. You can donate or sign petitions here.
Refugee Council is also looking for support with their work. You can find ways to get involved here.
Roxanne is a college student studying English Language, Sociology, and Philosophy. She loves reading and writing – as well as learning about society and how its structure affects people. She is always looking to educate herself further and hopes to channel this into her writing in the future.