Migrants trying to enter the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats have created a huge political furore. To hear government ministers talk about “protecting our borders” you might imagine that these migrants were the D-day landings in reverse. It is true that number of migrants coming in small boats has risen. There have been an estimated 9,000 this year so far, from countries including Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria, which is more than the total for 2020 (though overall asylum applications to the UK have gone down). But having whipped up public hostility to these people, the government seems to think that if they do reach the UK they can be detained at Dover in quite shocking conditions.
I saw these conditions for myself last week as one of a group of members of parliament from the home affairs select committee who visited the holding facility in Dover. The facility 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 which 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 be held for 24 hours in this facility. The Home Office official in charge explained that there was an administrative process whereby the time could be extended to 48 hours and longer if necessary. When I tried to get her to explain how long individual migrants were actually staying, she said that she did not know.
The crowded facility presented an obvious public health risk, both for Covid-19 and other communicable diseases. People were sleeping inches from each other, there was no ventilation and no face masks. Before entering the facility, migrants must get a negative lateral flow test result for Covid 19. But it is known that these tests do not necessarily detect every case.
We also visited another part of the facility on the same site, where migrants go when they are no longer legally in detention and are waiting for onward travel. Home Office officials called this space the “atrium”, which makes it sound misleadingly salubrious. In fact, it was essentially unused offices with no proper facilities. Some people had been staying there for at least 10 days. MPs were told that since June, when Kent county council stopped accepting unaccompanied child migrants as it didn’t have the resources for more, there have been at least five stays by migrants of more than 10 days in the “atrium”. The permanent secretary wrote to the select committee to say that one of the migrants held in this space for more than 10 days was an unaccompanied child. On our visit, we saw that one girl was sleeping on a sofa in one of the offices, because it was the only available separate sleeping accommodation.
What is even more shocking is that these conditions have not grown up overnight. The chief inspector of prisons visited the Dover facility last year. The chief inspector can be assumed not to be overly squeamish. But he made it clear to the Home Office that conditions at the Dover holding facilities were unacceptable. He recommended that there should be contingency planning for varying numbers of migrants; that migrants should only be held overnight in exceptional circumstances; and that the Home Office should make sure that it complies with its legal duty to safeguard children. Anyone who saw children sleeping on the floor in crammed rooms in 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 chief inspector’s other recommendations.
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 lanes in the world. We know that so far this year nearly 1,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. This is four times the death toll in 2020. Just last week, 57 people died when a boat capsized off the Libyan coast. The UK coastguard is rightly proud that there has been no loss of life in the 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 horrible conditions in the Dover holding facility for people who come over in small boats. The government has no excuse. It should listen to its own chief inspector of prisons, stop treating these people in an essentially punitive way, and create a holding facility that meets basic standards.