Photographers on both sides of the Channel are being obstructed in their legitimate public interest pursuit of what is happening in and around migrant camps. More recent information has reached us which suggests that CoVID has been rife in the Napier barracks.
Kent photographer Andy Aitchison has been released without charge after he was arrested while he was taking photos of the fire at Napier barracks in Folkestone where hundreds of cross-channel migrants were being housed.
Over the past few weeks, news has been trickling out about the migrants’ discontent: they are under strict curfew; some have tested positive for Covid-19. But the premises are over-crowded, and many are fearful of cross-infection. Some have now been moved out into quarantine in hotels.
Above all, they are unhappy at the time the UK Government is taking to process their applications for legitimate status in this country.
Meanwhile, in France, in early January, two reporters, including Louis Witter, appealed to a court in Lille declaring that the authorities were obstructing their rights to do their work – by, for example, putting a hand over a camera lens that was pointed at the contractors, who were slashing the tents of migrants in the unauthorised forest camps.
The French authorities claim that there are plenty of legitimate ways to discover how migrants are treated, without needing this freelance photography.
Back in Kent, Aitchison said of the police: “They came into the kitchen and said ‘we are arresting you on suspicion of criminal damage’. If I had been sitting down I would have almost fallen off my chair, it was crazy”. Speaking to Kent Online, he continued: “I showed my press card. I said ‘this is ridiculous, I was doing my job’.”
On both sides of the Channel, therefore, journalists who are doing their jobs are noticing attempts to suppress stories about migrants.
The decision-makers in both countries are caught between the human rights activists (who want to know the truth about the treatment of migrants) and the patriotic tribalists (who want to exclude such aliens from their country). Both sides may seek to enlist more supporters by scare stories. And the migrants themselves also seek to gain public attention: in Folkestone, first by banners on the fence and then by starting this fire.
The migrants in France have certainly made life more uncomfortable for residents along the coast, some of which is now fenced off with kilometres of high wire (paid for by the UK Government). The migrants are dispersed in the forests because the NGOs are not allowed to feed them in the town centre.
In Kent, the problem is contained within a former barracks, out of sight, out of mind, until the recent efforts of the migrants to draw public attention.
Basically neither government wants to make life too easy for the migrants lest MORE are attracted, although there are some who point out that life is so dire in some of the countries they fled from that they would come anyway. One argument made by the charities is that a legitimate route should be set up.
But it is unrealistic to expect governments to set up visa offices in remote war-torn regions, and if such an office could be set up in northern France, it would merely become a magnet for more migrants and more people-smugglers, as those refused a visa would still try the illegal routes.
And migrants do need access to British lawyers to assist in processing their claim (see diagram of the process on the Kent Action for Refugees website). Brexit has just made it much more difficult for UK lawyers to work in the EU as they need a visa as “independent service providers”, an aspect of the deal that is not yet sorted (as Dominic Grieves pointed out last week).
So what’s to be done? Some EU countries (France, Germany) have various development programmes in the sending countries to divert potential young migrants. The UK Government is less interested in development now, having closed the overseas development office and shifted its budget to other items.
The French authorities claim that there are legitimate ways to find out how it treats migrants and they do meet basic human rights. British Government is not making such a claim.
So, for those worried about the human rights of these refugees, it is time to arrange for the press and human rights lawyers experienced in prisoner problems to legitimately investigate what is\was going on in the Napier barracks.
It is time to ask our politicans why asylum seekers have to face such long delays in processing of their claims.
For those wanting to be more involved, the Kent Refugee Action Network has centres in Folkestone and Canterbury. Their AGM is on 18 February from 4.30 – 6.00pm on Zoom.
Brief history of the Napier Barracks
A camp was established in 1794 when the British Army bought over 229 acres of land at Shorncliffe.
Shorncliffe was used as a staging post for troops destined for the Western Front during the First World War and in April 1915 a Canadian Training Division was formed there. The Canadian Army Medical Corps had general hospitals based at Shorncliffe from September 1917 to December 1918. The camp at that time composed five unit lines known as Moore Barracks, Napier Barracks, Risborough Barracks, Ross Barracks and Somerset Barracks. On three occasions there were German air raids which killed soldiers on the camp.
In January 2021, the Napier Barracks suffered damage as a result of an arson attack by migrants who had been housed there since September of the previous year. The migrants, many of whom had entered the UK via the English Channel, become restless after being informed that they would not be relocated following a COVID-19 outbreak at the barracks in an incident that Home Secretary Priti Patel, described as ‘deeply offensive to the taxpayers of this country.
The use of the barracks to accommodate the migrants has been controversial since it was commandeered by the Home Office in 2020 to cope with the surge in Channel crossings. Critics have denounced the living conditions and it has been subject to demonstrations from protestors. An online petition calling for its closure has garnered thousands of signatures.