LONDON (HPD) — Behind barbed wire in southeastern England, several children wave their arms and chant “freedom” to get the attention of people on the other side. A girl throws a bottle outside with a message inside that says: “We need your help. Please help us”.
The minors are among thousands of people held in a dangerously overcrowded center where immigrants who recently crossed the English Channel in small boats are processed. The situation there has reignited a heated debate over the UK’s Conservative government’s treatment of asylum seekers.
Located on the site of a former British airbase, which briefly lived as Manston Civilian Airport, the center in Kent was designated as a short-term processing facility accommodating some 1,600 new arrivals. As many as 4,000 were there this week, some of them illegally detained for a month or more, according to reports.
Independent government inspectors said they saw families sleeping on the floor in prison-like conditions, which posed fire and health risks. Inspectors warned of the danger of disease outbreaks, after cases of scabies, diphtheria and others were reported.
“Welcome to the UK,” read a headline in the Metro newspaper, accompanied by a photo of young children peering from behind the fence.
Facing pressure from the situation, Interior Secretary Suella Braverman defended the government’s policies, describing the growing number of migrants arriving across the English Channel as “an invasion.” Her comments were widely repudiated.
Details about conditions at the processing center in the town of Manston have also highlighted broader problems in Britain’s asylum system, which is struggling to cope with a record number of Channel crossings and trying to resolve a huge backlog in the processing of refugee claims.
“We have this kind of perfect storm of more people arriving — than the government was warned about — and then we have this huge waiting list of about 100,000 individuals who have applied for asylum,” said Jonathan Ellis, the Refugee Council’s chief for policy and Public relations. “There is a lack of political will, a lack of political focus, and therefore (a lack of) the associated resources to deal with this problem.”
Some 40,000 people from countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Albania have crossed one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in rubber dinghies and other flimsy vessels from northern France so far this year, seeking to resume their lives in Britain.
It is the largest number ever recorded and represents an exponential increase compared to 2018, when only 299 migrants were detected arriving in the country without authorization in small boats, according to official data. Last year, the number was 28,536.
Dozens of people have lost their lives crossing the Channel, including 27 when a boat packed with migrants sank in November 2021.
Braverman, who is known for her uncompromising attitude toward immigration, has accused criminal groups of facilitating the crossings and has targeted what she says are false claims by some asylum seekers.
The secretary told Parliament this week: “Stop pretending they’re all refugees in distress.” Her harsh words have been criticized, including by people within the Conservative government. Some critics accuse Braverman of fueling hatred against immigrants.
“The government’s rhetoric since I arrived has been to blame the migrants, to blame us for the problems in this country. But that has gotten worse,” said Hassan Akkad, a documentary filmmaker who fled Syria in 2012 to seek asylum in the UK.
“When you have a home secretary comparing asylum seekers to an invading enemy, you are giving people the green light to attack them,” added Akkad, who works for Choose Love, a refugee aid charity. .
Overcrowded conditions at the center in Manston reached a fever pitch this week after hundreds of people were transferred there from another nearby migrant processing center and it was firebombed. Police said the person responsible for the attack on October 30 and that he killed himself afterwards was almost certainly motivated by hate.
Braverman was also accused of blocking hotel reservations for asylum seekers seeking to alleviate the situation in Manston and of ignoring legal recommendations in this regard. The secretary denied the allegations.
Critics say the government’s incompetence in handling the asylum system goes beyond Manston and predates Braverman’s appointment as interior secretary. The opposition Labor party says only 4% of asylum claims from boat arrivals were processed last year, meaning more than 100,000 people are in limbo awaiting consideration of their claims.
Britain is one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe for migrants who speak English or who have family connections in the country. Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, many tried to arrive from France hidden in cargo trucks crossing the Channel Tunnel. COVID-19 travel restrictions and strict security measures on the route made the dangerous sea crossing a more viable way to reach the UK.
Yet despite the unprecedented rise in boat arrivals, Britain receives far fewer asylum seekers than many other European countries, including France, Germany and Italy. Last year, 48,540 people applied for asylum in the UK, compared to 148,200 in Germany and more than 103,000 in France.
A controversial British deal with Rwanda in April added to its reputation as not being a welcoming country for migrants. The agreement provides for the deportation of some asylum seekers to the African country, where their applications would be processed and successful applicants could stay in Rwanda. The plan was intended to deter people from entering Britain illegally, but no one has been deported so far due to legal challenges brought against the policy.
British authorities have also tried to work with their colleagues in France to curb Channel crossings. The two sides engaged in a tense tussle over the issue last year, but relations seemed to improve after Liz Truss — and her successor Rishi Sunak — took over as head of government.
In a conversation last week with French President Emmanuel Macron, Sunak said Britain and France were “committed to deepening their collaboration to prevent dangerous cross-Channel crossings that benefit criminal organisations”.
Ellis, of the Refugee Council for Policy and Public Relations, said authorities will ultimately have to focus less on hostile rhetoric and deterrence and more on providing safe routes for refugee claimants.
“We need to challenge this political rhetoric that people should only come to this country through legal means,” he said. “Ostensibly, that’s reasonable, but for someone who’s fleeing the Horn of Africa, where are they going to go? What are those safe routes? There isn’t any.”
Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.