Opposing a migrant camp for all the wrong reasons

Opposing a migrant camp for all the wrong reasons
5 min read
23 Sep, 2020
Comment: Opposition to migrant camps must be rooted in human rights concerns, not hatred and xenophobia, writes Malia Bouattia.
The Home Office plans to convert the barracks into 'temporary accommodation' for asylum seekers [Getty]
The recent news that the army's disused Napier Barracks in Folkestone, UK will be used to "house" hundreds of asylum seekers has caused outrage among many. In order to manage the processing of migrants entering the country, the Home Office has decided to use the space as "temporary accommodation" - more commonly known as a migrant camp.

Deeply concerning, however, is that the main worry voiced by local politicians, invokes the supposed negative impacts the presence of migrants will have on the community, rather than any form of human rights issues.

Conservative MP for Folkestone, Damian Collins has written to the Home Secretary over his "great concerns", asking for a reversal of the decision not with the migrants' rights, health, and safety in mind, but alluding instead to the strain on public services that the camp may cause, and to ask whether more resources will be issued to healthcare and policing.

The welfare of the 400 migrants expected to be living in the barracks, is apparently a secondary affair - if it is one at all. 

A similar scuffle is taking place over the Penally Training Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales, which has been offered by the Ministry of Defence to the Home Office to facilitate similar services. There, the response from local councillor Jonathan Preston, was no better than that of his Folkestone counterpart. Professing his general "sympathy" for the plight of the refugees, Preston went on to point out that the Penally camp is "a bit too close to a small village which depends on tourism, and it may have a negative impact on the tourism industry." The councillor perfectly illustrates the saying that liberals only care about causes when they happen in the past, or far away. 

It's disappointing to see that the calls for better infrastructure, adequate funding and more resources for local services, are leveraged on the basis of anti-migrant hatred

It's disappointing to see that the calls for better infrastructure, adequate funding and more resources for local services, are leveraged on the basis of anti-migrant hatred. Not only is this approach reprehensible, it is also a missed opportunity to mobilise more widely, alongside concerned locals, migrant solidarity and anti-racism groups, anti-cuts campaigners and healthcare workers, encouraging solidarity, joint action, and values that don't perpetuate division and exclusion.

The struggle for universal, free, and quality welfare services does not run in opposition to solidarity with migrants. In fact, when our welfare services are privatised, and migrant vulnerability is exploited, it's the same people who benefit. And so, our joint struggle should target the rich and powerful, not the weak and vulnerable.

In addition to a total lack of political leadership from local MPs - and no doubt emboldened by it - both local areas have seen anti-migrant street activity. In Pembrokeshire, around 100 people blocked a main road to protest the expected arrival of migrants, and in Kent, far-right protesters took to the streets to oppose the entry of migrants into the country via the shores of Dover. Blocking a dual carriageway, they sang 'Rule, Britannia!' and chanted "we want our country back".

The MP for Dover and Deal, Natalie Elphicke expressed her 
disapproval of the protests, which had nothing to do with their racist, xenophobic and violent nature, citing instead the Covid-related risks.

Read more: France and UK play blame game as migrants wash up dead on their shores

It is important to note that the most urgent issue here, is in fact the continued ill-treatment of migrants. The Home Secretary presents the scheme as simply a more efficient way to deal with the influx of asylum cases, and provide vulnerable migrants with shelter. 

But her claims ask us to make abstraction not only of the fact that there are other options; that she could provide them with better, safer housing that doesn't dehumanise migrants as though they were merely numbers to be processed, but also that far from helping them, this government has been waging a relentless war against migrants - putting their lives at risk since day one.

If detention centres, border forces, deportations in the middle of the night while handcuffed were not enough, now the state will hunt them at sea.

The highly problematic symbolism of this government has not gone unnoticed. A few weeks ago, Patel was mobilising the use of armed forces to deal with migrants risking their lives crossing the Channel to reach the UK. She reinforced the criminalisation of migrants that the Tories have long peddled through their policies.

Now, even if they escape military repression, they risk being put in military barracks. Use of the facility also represents increased Ministry of Defence involvement in "dealing with" refugees.

Let's not forget that during the national Covid-19 lockdown, detention centres were emptied and scores of appeals against deportations were being approved. Furthermore - and in contradiction to the hysteria and fearmongering taking place in Kent and Pembrokeshire - migrants released from detention were, unsurprisingly, living peacefully among local communities.

The struggle for universal, free, and quality welfare services does not run in opposition to solidarity with migrants

Simultaneously, the government was actually actively encouraging emerging migration from Eastern Europe to work in the agricultural sector. 

Yet, here we are. Not only is it business as usual, but the state's handling of migrants is more aggressive and dangerous than before. We must not be complacent. We cannot accept that this is simply going to become the new normal.

Anti-racism and pro-migrant protests opposed fascists marching in Kent, but local MPs and the media have given them little air time. It is high time to remobilise the kind of national solidarity with migrants and refugees we saw in the early years of the last decade, spanning across society, and putting at the centre of the political agenda that we will not be divided nor fooled into punching downwards instead of fighting upwards. Lest we forget, our enemies are in Downing street and the City, not on our shores. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.