Guest post by Fraser Paterson, Detention Support Manager at Samphire. Samphire supports men detained at Dover IRC, and carries out awareness raising work on immigration detention. They also run a national support project for ex-detainees. Find out more at www.samphireproject.org.uk. This post is the third installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Volunteer Visiting in the Hostile Environment organised by Ali McGinley. [Editor’s note: This week The Guardian reported that Dover IRC will be closing.] 

The town of Dover, nestled in the far South-East of England, has great symbolic value for Britain as its primary frontier with the rest of Europe. However, living in Dover and working with refugees and migrants gives a glimpse at the contradictions underlying immigration at the Dover border. I manage the Detention Support Project at Samphire, a charity that provides emotional and practical support for people detained in Dover’s immigration detention centre. Dover detains single male detainees, and our work involves coordinating a volunteer visitor scheme as well as our staff’s casework, which is aimed at helping people who are detained get access to legal advice and other support. We also have a project that runs a phone line and supports people released from detention nationwide. Our volunteers visit on a one to one basis, supporting those held at Dover for as long as they need, providing emotional and practical advice, as well as signposting to specialist help. We’ve supported thousands of detainees in Dover since we began in 2002.

Refugees and the ‘swarm’ that never happened

Local opposition to a far-right march in Dover
Dover’s importance to immigration and its control in Britain doesn’t stand up to at the reality of passenger numbers: London’s Heathrow airport transports 68.1 million international passengers per year, around five times more than the 13 million passengers using Dover’s ferry port. Perhaps, however, there’s no escaping the romance of a physical frontier which gives the Dover-Calais border a lasting allure. Another reason that the Dover border is seen as particularly significant when immigration is discussed is because it is a route refugees take to Britain. Asylum seekers comprise only 4.6% of immigrants to the UK but they can be unpopular with the popular press as many are unable to get visas for travel and so may be forced to travel without documentation, at great risk and expense:  

The summer of 2015 saw one of the greatest gaps between the Dover that’s shown on the news and the Dover in which I live and work. The media coverage documented traffic management problems (known as Operation Stack) around Dover’s port at the same time as they covered efforts by refugees to cross to Britain. Pictures of lorries tailed back on the M20 and footage of people climbing out of the lorries that travelled from Calais to Dover are perfect material for apocalyptic media reports. Prime Minister David Cameron was clearly watching such news coverage when he talked of the ‘swarm of migrants’ that threatened Britain.

However, the reality was very different. This summer Dover IRC transferred many of the people detained there to the remote Verne IRC in Dorset in an apparent attempt to make way for the expected surge in refugees from Calais. But the refugees didn’t come and Dover IRC is still half empty with two of its five units closed. Meanwhile, the queue of lorries, caused by disruptions to ferry services from striking French workers more than by refugees attempting to cross, swiftly disappeared once the strikes ended.

Protection abroad, detention at home

Looking back on the comments of Prime Minister Cameron about Calais and the media coverage in July makes for particularly uncomfortable reading. In part this is because of his dehumanising language as well as the totally inaccurate representation of the numbers of people involved. However, it feels particularly shocking in light of changing public opinion following photographs of a drowned boy washed ashore in Turkey and the Refugees Welcome campaign that followed. Prompted into action by those photographs, the British Prime Minister gave a feeble response, offering money and the resettlement of 4,000 more refugees a year from a region hosting 2.9 million displaced Syrians. This underlines the policies of many European countries on refugees: compassion only lasts until refugees reach the borders of Europe.

Britain was quick to withdraw funding for search and rescue in the Mediterranean in 2014 and Syrians are still detained in Dover in order to remove them to countries such as Italy where many are left homeless (as Samphire wrote in a blog post back in 2013). The most basic of safeguards aren’t in place in the UK with no time limit on detention and the continued detention of children. Meanwhile, those who seek protection here still aren’t given a right to work while their claims are processed, keeping those who most need our help in poverty. Soundbites about caring for refugees doesn’t counter the hostile environment developed in recent years which has made it harder for refugees and migrants to enforce their rights and integrate into British society.

Facing the facts on your doorstep

The final contradiction is that Dover, across the sea from Calais and with a detention centre on the hill above it, is no more aware than the rest of the country about how Britain treats immigrants and refugees. The people who do come through Dover from Calais are predominantly from well-known conflict regions such as Syria but the myth that asylum seekers come to the UK for our benefits is often repeated here. Dover residents should’ve seen that the numbers of people who came through Dover to claim asylum this summer reflected the fact that the UK is not even in the top-five European countries for asylum claims and has a lot of work to do to take its share of the world’s refugees, who are hosted primarily by the world’s poorest countries. However, negativity prevailed over responsibility.

One cause of these negative attitudes towards immigration is economic. Dover is an area of high unemployment and it occasionally feels like it has been forgotten amidst the regeneration of nearby Margate and Folkestone, dependent as it is on its port and the far from picturesque infrastructure that goes with it. In such an environment it’s more easily believed that the outsider is to blame. However, we’ve recently seen changes in Dover. In April 2015, Samphire managed to fill Dover Town Hall with our Against the Tide event that shared the positive side of migration. A recent march of the far-right through Dover was also met with more local resistance than we had seen before and some fledgling anti-racism networks are forming. One contradiction we can begin to hope for is that Dover can hold its head up high and become a frontier that galvanises support for the protection of migrants and their integration in Britain, not detention and divisive politics.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Paterson, F. (2015) Unpacking the Contradictions at the Dover Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/10/unpacking (Accessed [date]).