Reporting on the barracks asylum accommodation: a review of The Times and The Telegraph in recent months.
Introduction, Felicity Laurence, Campaigns Team Chair, HCoS
The ever-increasing desperation of the people being held in army barracks and other similarly inhumane locations (including prisons where several hundred are now confined to their rooms 23 hours per day) is documented widely at the present time. There is some pushback gaining momentum, both to the current containment of people in these near or actual prisons, and to the Home Office plans to open further such places.
However, it is interesting to note where this is being reported, and consequently, who is likely to be informed about the realities of what are, effectively, refugee camps now being established throughout the country. The Independent (also here) and the Guardian maintain extensive coverage, and the Morning Star along with many other smaller news outlets. Local media are very active where the camps are being used, or being mooted; hence the abundant coverage in local Kent papers, which tend strongly to support the closure of the Napier barracks there.
There has been limited coverage on the BBC; again, in this tends to occur in their local broadcasts. There is more from other television channels; recently, it was ITV who ran a compelling report on the conditions in the Napier barracks, with a film crew on the ground and direct representation of the people there. Recently, there has also been detailed and non-partisan coverage of this particular situation from the Daily Mail and the Sun.
But in the mainstream broadsheets, we are finding a silence, punctuated at times by profoundly inaccurate reporting which can only remove any chance for people to make valid judgements for themselves; so that people who rely for their news – and their sense of what is seen in general as important – on what is reported in the Daily Telegraph or The Times – will not be aware in the same way of the issues, debates and simple facts on the ground.
Researcher and HCoS web manager Irfan Chowdhury has analysed reportage from both of these newspapers in recent months: what he finds is illuminating, given that many MPs will be taking their lead from, and forming, or reinforcing their views, on the basis of these reports.
What The Telegraph and The Times Have (and Haven’t) Been Saying
‘Army barracks to become UK’s first ‘migrant camp’ following surge in Channel crossings, despite complaints from MPs’ (15 September 2020). https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/09/15/army-barracks-become-uks-first-migrant-camp-following-surge/
This article discusses the government’s plans to hold people seeking asylum at the Napier Barracks in Kent. It quotes Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins as stating in a letter to Priti Patel: “We have great concerns about the impact this large open camp will have on the welfare of the local residential community and also those people in the asylum system who will be placed at the barracks itself. We would ask that you reverse this decision and find more suitable accommodation for people who are currently having their cases processed by the asylum system”. The article then states: “So far this year, more than 6,200 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats and reached the UK. Many of them have been housed in hotels for months, costing the government millions of pounds”. The Home Office is then quoted as stating: “This move will save the taxpayer millions whilst ensuring vulnerable people have somewhere secure to stay until their claim is decided… When using contingency accommodation we work closely with organisations, including local authorities and law enforcement, throughout the process to ensure value for money and that vulnerable asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, have suitable accommodation while their claims are processed”. The final word is thus given to the Home Office.
‘Saving two migrants in the Channel has only confirmed to me the folly of the Government’s approach’ (1 December 2020). https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/12/01/saving-two-migrants-channel-has-confirmed-folly-governments/
This is an op-ed by Nigel Farage on why the UK ought to simply shut its borders to the people who are crossing the Channel. Farage states: “Last year, the British public was assured that illegal crossings in the English Channel would cease; this year more than 8,500 illegal immigrants – a record number – have been recorded arriving at the Port of Dover alone. (These are just the people we know about. There are doubtless hundreds – maybe thousands – more who have sneaked into the country undetected). It’s fair to say most Britons are fed up of the Government’s appalling failure to protect our borders”.
Farage’s characterisation of these people as “illegal immigrants” is, of course, inaccurate. He asserts that they are “bringing with them a host of expensive practical problems that must be paid for by hard-pressed taxpayers”, and that they should be grateful for the conditions in the former military barracks in which they are being housed: “The expectation of the life on offer has reached the point where some who arrived this year have been protesting angrily about the conditions of the former army barracks where they are being held. These people have claimed asylum in Britain having supposedly fled war-torn countries, yet some seem to think that they can automatically move into their own room in a four-star hotel. They represent a very different kind of asylum seeker to those who have come before them”. He goes on to argue that “Unless and until Britain refuses to receive those who cross via this route on the basis that at least 80 per cent of them do not even qualify for asylum, people will continue to come” (Farage does not provide a source for this claim, and it contravenes the Home Office’s own view that nearly all of these people who are crossing the Channel have valid asylum claims). His concluding sentence is: “The time has come to adopt the measures used by Australia and turn the boats back”.
‘Two migrants a week are absconding from Kent Army barracks, exclusive figures reveal’ (13 December 2020).
This article discusses how government figures have revealed that two people have been leaving the Napier Barracks facility in Folkestone every week. The article quotes Nigel Farage as saying: “The fact is that anyone can come to Britain illegally and then flee. That they’re able to do that from army camps, I’m sure most people will view it, is not just ridiculous but potentially quite dangerous. France are effectively closing their borders at the moment because of the fear of terrorism and I think this is an issue of national security”.
Farage’s claim that these people have come to the country illegally is not fact-checked, and nor is his insinuation that the people being housed at the Napier Barracks are a threat to national security. Towards the end of the article, Bridget Chapman, the learning and project coordinator at Kent Refugee Action Network, is quoted as stating: “Most people arriving have strong asylum claims and want them to be processed. It would have to be extremely bad for them to remove themselves from that process, so it is extremely concerning. Before Napier opened, we asked questions about how people were going to be able to properly social distance. But they aren’t – you’ve got 14 people in one room”. However, the final word is once again given to a Home Office spokesperson, who states: “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair. We will seek to stop abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help. We hand details of anyone who flees the site to the police and our specialist tracing team, who do everything they can to track these individuals down and, once found, their claim may be rejected”.
‘Anger at proposals for migrant camp in disused Kent army barracks’ (16 September 2020). https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/anger-at-proposals-for-migrant-camp-in-disused-army-barracks-qc0l7fsrx
This article is very similar to The Telegraph’s article: ‘Army barracks to become UK’s first ‘migrant camp’ following surge in Channel crossings, despite complaints from MPs’. However, as well as using the same quote from Damian Collins that The Telegraph uses (“We have great concerns about the impact this large open camp will have on the welfare of the local residential community and also those people in the asylum system who will be placed at the barracks itself…”), it also quotes Jon Preston, Plaid Cymru county councillor for Pembrokeshire, as stating: “Whilst I fully appreciate the need to accommodate those fleeing from persecution, my role is to represent the people of Penally who would be directly affected. I have pointed out the fragility of our tourism industry during Covid-19 and the close proximity of the camp to the residential areas in Penally”. The article also describes an incident in which a “family with two young children were seen walking along a coastal path near Kingsdown, Kent, after landing near by”, and were “confronted by a woman” who “gestured with her finger and shouted at the group to “piss off home”’. The final paragraph in the article describes how Priti Patel asserted in a meeting with the Board of Deputies of British Jews that “EU countries had all “signed up” to a system “ensuring that where people went to the first safe country, they would claim asylum and seek refuge there… I’m afraid that system has broken down and . . . many of our counterparts are not supporting that and actually that is helping to facilitate people trafficking and smuggling across the continent and that is deeply unhelpful”’.
‘Far right targets Kent migrant camp’ (17 September 2020). https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/far-right-targets-migrant-camp-ww56z57zl
This article discusses how far-right activists are “attempting to muster a “militia” against proposals to turn a disused barracks on the Kent coast into Britain’s first migrant camp”, and provides a broader context of anger among locals in both Kent and Penally against the government’s proposals to set up camps there. Three representatives of refugee groups are quoted regarding these proposals. The first is Clare Moseley of Care4Calais, who is quoted as stating: “The idea of deterrence does not work when people are running away from death and torture”. The second is Bella Sankey of Detention Action, who is quoted as stating: “The use of military barracks to accommodate traumatised asylum seekers is typical of a Home Office that is unprepared, in denial about its responsibilities and insensitive to the needs of those fleeing persecution”. The third is Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee Action Network, who is quoted as stating: “Wherever they are housed there are likely to be people trying to get to them. It is up to the government to prevent that”.
The article describes one incident involving a far-right activist in Kent: “A YouTube user who runs the Daddy Dragon channel, which has a symbol with the words “England I want my country back”, filmed the Napier barracks this week, telling his 21,000 subscribers that he was “showing you what they’re building for these illegal immigrants. It’s disgusting they’re being rewarded for crossing the Channel. That’s only going to send the wrong signal . . . the answer is you’re not helpless but people need to get off their arses now and take back the country. Again, that’s why we’re talking about the militia”’. The article also notes that “about 100 people blocked a road” near the Penally Barracks in protest against the government’s plan to house people seeking asylum there.
‘Tensions build over migrant camps’ (25 September 2020). https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tensions-build-over-migrant-camps-fwhp08ptg
This is an in-depth report on the attitudes of locals in Kent and Penally towards the presence of people seeking asylum at the former military barracks in both places. The article quotes Mark Davies, a 40-year-old barber from Tenby, as stating: “It feels like Beijing at the moment and not Tenby. We are being told what is happening — ‘This is happening and swallow it’. Politicians are in their jobs to serve the people and they are not doing a good job”. Davies was one of the organisers of a protest scheduled for September 26 2020, titled: ‘Penally Against Illegal Migrants’. He states: “We were trying to voice our legitimate concerns but it got taken over by the far right… You don’t realise the extreme views people have until something like this happens, but they are not the views of Penally or Tenby”.
Michael Williams, a 62-year-old bricklayer, is quoted as stating: “The Home Office has just steamrolled us… Tenby and Penally are the jewel in the crown of the tourist board. These guys [asylum seekers] are going to be all right for the first few weeks but then they are going to get bored. There is nothing for them to do. We hear about them from other places hanging around on street corners. We have a holiday annexe we rent out and we don’t know how this will affect that”.
With regards to the Napier Barracks in Kent, the article states: “A small group of agitators filmed the arrivals on iPhones and posted racist videos and commentary on social media… Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was quick to give his YouTube followers a tour around the wire perimeter fence of the partly derelict barracks, although he admitted that housing migrants there was a cheaper solution than in hotels, which he has complained about”. Lynne Champion, who walks her dogs in the field besides the Napier Barracks, is quoted as stating: “I’ve seen all the comments on Facebook and I’m not going to get involved with all that because it causes so much hate. People say, ‘Send them back’, but that takes time. It’s a process. Live and let live”. Liz Flynne, a 35-year-old resident of Kent, is quoted as stating: “We’ve been here nine years and we’re still not considered Folkestonians by some — and we’re from Maidstone… [The protesters] didn’t want [the people seeking asylum] in hotels. They don’t want them here”. Flynne’s husband, Tim Skinner, is quoted as stating: “Let’s be honest. That site is the best place for it. If it’s security they’re worried about, it’s a military site. There’s swathes of land around, plenty of space… You’ve got people trying to come in and they have to go somewhere. If you claim to be a humane, intelligent First World country, you have to treat them properly, not shoot them out of the water like Farage in his little dinghy”.
There appears to be no further coverage of this crucial issue in either The Telegraph or The Times since December 2020, which reveals an apparent lack of concern over the fate of these traumatised people who are being held in such horrendous conditions. This silence is even more shocking given that on 11 January 2021, the residents at the Napier Barracks began a hunger strike to protest against the conditions there, and that same week it was reported that there was an outbreak of coronavirus at the facility (which the Home Office responded to by blaming the residents for not following social distancing rules). At the very least, the public ought to be informed about such developments so that they are aware of how the government is treating some of the most vulnerable members of our society.