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Why we oppose the plans for Northeye

On behalf of Hastings Community of Sanctuary and Amnesty International Hastings & Rye, Pal Luthra explains why they oppose the Home Office’s plans for the former prison of Northeye in Bexhill, whether as an asylum centre or Immigration Detention Centre, as well as the stance of the local MP, Huw Merriman (article written for Hastings Online Times, 04/10/23).  

In March the Home Office Minister, Robert Jenrick, announced that a former prison in Bexhill had been chosen to house asylum seekers. There have been several demonstrations since under the slogan No to Northeye, opposing the proposals, to a large extent on public safety grounds.

In response to the protests, Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill & Battle, stated on his website in April, “My main concern is that local residents feel safe given those at the centre, whilst monitored for comings and goings, are not under a curfew.” Instead of challenging the misconception that asylum seekers pose any threat to the local community, it was Mr Merriman’s main concern for opposing the asylum centre. What was the basis of this assertion? Where was his evidence that asylum seekers posed a threat to the safety of locals?

There is no denying that asylum seekers, like any other group, would have some criminals, people with mental health issues and people driven to opportunistic petty crime due to poverty or destitution. According to the Oxford Migration Observatory, quoted in The Guardian, “There is little evidence that migrants are any more or less likely to commit crimes than any other members of the population.” His reasons for opposing it seem to be opportunism and political expediency.

It is maybe not surprising that No to Northeye and Mr Merriman’s main concern was safety. The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has also peddled a similar untruth about asylum seekers, that they pose a threat of “heightened levels of criminality” including “drug-dealing, exploitation, prostitution.” She claimed that her evidence was based on her “conversations with many police chiefs around the country.” However, according to the police, also reported in The Guardian, those who arrive in small boats are vulnerable and can be victims or become victims of exploitation…”

Mr Merriman gave credence to the prejudicial and racially biased propaganda. In August he claimed that due to his reasoned and constructive dialogue with the Home Office what is now being proposed is a closed site more suitable as a “detention centre and that those staying will not be expected to remain for longer than 45 days.”

The history of detention centres, otherwise known as Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), is not glorious. For example, the report of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (HMIP) on the Gatwick IRC (Brook House and Tinsley House) in 2022 found that 28% of detained men said they had felt suicidal at the centre and 80% said they had felt depressed.

According to the statutory Independent Monitoring Board report, there were incidents of assaults and violence, and detainees reported incidents of bullying, intimidation or assault by staff. The assessment process failed to prevent the detention of a significant number of men with mental health issues. Around 15% of the Brook House population had been in detention for an average of 23 weeks and some for a longer period, according to the Independent Monitoring Board’s annual report.

A recent public enquiry report published into Brook House found a toxic culture with detainees forcibly moved while naked and some subjected to unnecessary pain. Detainees were subjected to degrading treatment,  racist and derogatory language and inappropriate and dangerous force by staff.  Brook House is not an isolated example.

An HMIP report on the Colnbrook IRC said that a quarter of detainees said they had felt suicidal while in the centre. There had been 41 self-harm incidents in the previous six months, of which two were serious (HMIP Colnbrook report March 2022).

The truth is that the proposed detention centre in Bexhill will be a prison and a deportation centre, a place of misery where detainees feel suicidal and want to self-harm, where there is bullying, intimidation and/or assaults by staff and where dreams are crushed.  For Mr Merriman to present the possibility of such a centre in Bexhill as some sort of victory is delusional and shameless populism.

Mr Merriman seems to be only representing a small yet loud minority of constituents who are basing their increasingly racist arguments on totally unfounded concerns. The answer to objections to using this site is not to change its designation from a place of social isolation to a place of incarceration.

We oppose both proposals for non-detained asylum accommodation and deportation centre on the grounds of human rights, human decency and based on the reality of other asylum centres. Such centres across the country, including Napier Barracks and Manston in neighbouring Kent, have been an absolute disaster for the people placed there, with reports from residents and national charities and agencies confirming the appalling conditions, including people sleeping on cardboard on floors, lack of access to hygiene facilities, poor quality food, and outbreaks of serious conditions of ill-health.

More recently, the debacle with the Bibby Stockholm barge in Portland has brought to light the Home Office’s lack of due diligence, both in terms of the legionnaires’ disease present in the water system and its failure to heed safety warnings which has now resulted in the Fire Brigades Union taking it to court.

Detention centres have a similarly terrible record, such as the infamous Yarl’s Wood centre in Bedfordshire which has been the subject of several damning reports, and which, as of the latest report relating to 2022, is still housing vulnerable people, despite the previous recommendations to the contrary by the Independent Monitoring Board. We therefore have no confidence in the government’s ability to manage their facilities humanely. This government does not have a track record of acting humanely when it comes to asylum seekers.

If judged to be lawful when it comes before the Supreme Court in November, the draconian Illegal Migration Act gives the Home Secretary unfettered powers to expel virtually everyone who arrives or enters the UK without permission. It would almost entirely shut down the UK’s asylum system by blocking asylum seekers from claiming asylum in the UK. It has effectively outlawed asylum in this country.

It is unlikely to reduce the number of crossings but it will certainly increase the need for more detention centres as asylum seekers are classified as ‘illegal migrants’ subject to deportation with no right to appeal.

Furthermore, everyone affected would be detained indefinitely until expelled, either to their own country or a “safe third country” if the former is impossible. There is little or no chance other countries will be willing to take deportees from the UK – why should they?

Mr Merriman should instead demand that the Home Secretary put her department to work fairly, and efficiently, showing respect for our international legal obligations and human rights, in processing asylum claims. According to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, the act is in breach of the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness and international human rights law and would significantly undermine the international refugee protection system.

He should also demand that she repeal her Illegal Migration Act. Persisting with this unlawful, immoral and expensive policy can do no good for the people of Bexhill or asylum seekers. Simply ramping up the cruelty and cost by establishing Northeye as an immigration detention centre is as reckless as it is nasty and inhumane.

There is currently a lack of affordable social housing across the country, and this is being felt keenly across the whole of East Sussex. We suggest that the millions of pounds this project is going to cost would be far better spent on affordable social housing.

We are very clear: our position on the use of the Northeye site to house people seeking refuge has not changed. We are completely against this plan, which will see people seeking refuge detained in terrible conditions with little or no access to the support and services they require.