METERThe igrants trying to enter the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats have created a major political scandal. Hearing government ministers talk about “protecting our borders,” you might imagine that these migrants were the D-day landings in reverse. It is true that the number of migrants arriving in small boats has increased. There has been an estimate 9,000 this year so far this year, from countries like Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria, which is more than the total for 2020 (although asylum applications overall to the UK have dropped). But having provoked public hostility towards these people, the government seems to think that if they arrive in the UK they could be detained in Dover in rather dire conditions.
I saw these conditions for myself last week as a member of a group of members of parliament from the select committee on home affairs who visited the detention facility in Dover. The installation was terrible. There were 56 people crammed into a small room, including women, young children, and babies. They were sitting or lying on thin mattresses that covered the entire floor, including the aisles between a small number of seats. At night they would sleep on these same mattresses. Legally they are only supposed to stay for 24 hours in this facility. The official in charge of the Ministry of the Interior explained that there was an administrative process by which the time could be extended to 48 hours and more if necessary. When I tried to get him to explain to me how long individual migrants were staying, he said he didn’t know.
The crowded facility presented an obvious public health risk, both for Covid-19 and other communicable diseases. People slept inches from each other, there was no ventilation or face masks. Before entering the facility, migrants must obtain a negative lateral flow test result for Covid 19. But it is known that these tests do not necessarily detect all cases.
We also visited another part of the facilities on the same site, where migrants go when they are no longer legally detained and are awaiting their journey. Interior Ministry officials called this space the “atrium,” which makes it sound deceptively healthy. In fact, these were essentially unused offices without adequate facilities. Some people had stayed there for at least 10 days. Parliamentarians were told that since June, when the Kent County Council stopped accepting unaccompanied migrant children because it had no resources for more, there have been at least five migrant stays of more than 10 days in the “atrium.” The permanent secretary wrote to the selection committee to tell them that one of the migrants held in this space for more than 10 days was an unaccompanied minor. On our visit, we saw that a girl was sleeping on a sofa in one of the offices, because it was the only separate sleeping place available.
What’s even more shocking is that these conditions haven’t developed overnight. The chief inspector of prisons visited the Dover facility last year. It can be assumed that the chief inspector is not overly scrupulous. But he made it clear to the Home Office that conditions at the Dover detention facility were unacceptable. He recommended that there should be emergency plans for a variable number of migrants; that migrants should only stay overnight in exceptional circumstances; and that the Ministry of the Interior must ensure that it fulfills its legal duty to protect children. Anyone who has seen children sleeping on the floor in crowded rooms at this Dover facility could only conclude that the Home Office had completely ignored the recommendation on children, in the same way that it has ignored all the other recommendations of the chief inspector. .
It could be worse. Some of these desperate people, in their flimsy boats, could have lost their lives trying to cross the Channel. It is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. We know that so far this year about 1,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. This is four times the death toll in 2020. Last week, 57 people were killed when a ship capsized off the Libyan coast. The UK Coast Guard is rightly proud that there has been no loss of life in the English Channel in recent months. But there are other voices. Nigel Farage has been highly critical of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for its role in saving lives.
Just as Farage’s complaints about the RNLI reflect a toxic political narrative about migrants, so do the horrific conditions at the Dover detention facility for people arriving in small boats. The government has no excuse. You should listen to your own chief prison inspector, stop treating these people in an essentially punitive way, and create a detention center that meets basic standards.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism