Small boats not a doorstep issue

Bridget Chapman on standing firm for migrant rights then and now

On 4 May this year I was elected to Folkestone and Hythe District Council as a councillor for Folkestone Harbour ward. The ward is the eleventh most deprived in Kent and in the top ten percent most deprived in the UK. On a clear day you can see France, the white cliffs visible on the other side of the Channel. Because of our location we are, of course, on what some people would tell you was the “frontline” of the migrant “crisis”.

But let’s take a step back for a moment, to August of 1914. Germany has just invaded Belgium. And people have been displaced – as they always are – by violence and conflict. Historical reports show that in the space of a few months over 100,000 people crossed the Channel by small boat and sought sanctuary in England. Some put the figure as high as 250,000. But what we do know is that during just one day in mid-August of that year, 16,000 arrived at Folkestone harbour, wet, bedraggled, and looking for safety. To put that into context, Oxford’s Migration Observatory reports that during the first six months of this year 11,500 made the dangerous Channel crossing in small boats, arriving up and down the Kent coast.

A large oil painting depicting the arrival of the Belgian refugees hangs in Folkestone town hall. It shows the travellers making their way out of the boats, looking exhausted and gaunt after making such a hazardous journey. In the picture they are surrounded by the great and the good of the town who have formed a welcoming party. A nurse is there to check on their health. Two young girls hold up a tray of biscuits to feed the new arrivals. I take every visitor to see the picture. “What,” I ask them “has changed?”

The answer is much more nuanced than you might expect after reading the increasingly shrill rhetoric of the government as slavishly reproduced in such publications as The Telegraph or The Mail. I thought that the boat arrivals – the “invasion” as framed by the Home Secretary and the reactionary local Tories – would be a constant topic of conversation during the election. But I knocked on hundreds of doors over several months, and it was mentioned no more than a handful of times. People here on the “frontline” were much more bothered about whether they could afford their rent, feed their families, and see a doctor, than they were about fellow humans arriving here to seek asylum.

There were plenty of candidates pledging to stop the boats. The Tories put up two candidates, and the Foundation Party (a UKIP offshoot) also put up two candidates. Even if you put the votes of the best performing candidates from both parties together I would still have beaten them, and I stood on an unashamedly and explicitly pro-refugee platform.

So, with a general election looming what changes would I like to see? Firstly, we cannot continue to use our geography as an island to continue to shirk our responsibilities under international law. The numbers coming here to seek asylum are entirely manageable (as I’ve established, we’ve dealt with far greater numbers in the past), and people have very legitimate reasons for coming here. One young asylum seeker from Sudan, a former British colony, once said to me “I was always told this was the mother country. Where else was I supposed to go?”.

We need to establish safe routes for those seeking asylum, as well as expanding resettlement programmes and making them much easier to access. When asylum seekers arrive, we need to allow them to work while their claims are processed, process those claims swiftly, and ensure that there are adequate levels of English language classes available for them. We also need to restore foreign aid back to previous levels. Most displaced people choose to stay in their home regions. According to the UNHCR 70% are hosted by a neighbouring country and we need to support the often much less wealthy countries that are hosting them.

Finally, our treatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children needs urgent reform. As someone who has worked with this group of young people for around 20 years, I am appalled at how abusive the system that is meant to care for them is. When hundreds of children go missing, when young people commit suicide after wrongly being declared adults, we are failing them badly. Labour must act on this as a priority.

Voters desperately want to be given a vision of a better, fairer country. They want to know that we will stand up for the marginalised and those who aren’t able to stand up for themselves. We must be absolutely and unequivocally clear about our support for refugees and migrants. Not only is it the right thing to do, but people will also vote for it. The proof is here in Folkestone.

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