Photo: Andrew Aitchison / In Pictures via Getty Image
A few days after being moved into the Napier Barracks, home to one of two asylum seeker bases opened in the UK last month, Reza* noticed a lone man in a coat standing outside the fenced perimeter, who was gesturing towards him. The 22-year-old refugee, who fled political persecution in Iran, waved back, thinking it was a greeting. But the figure gestured again, this time more energetically.
Reza approached the barbed wire fence. The man was smiling and began to take photos and videos with his smartphone. “He told me: ‘How much did you pay to get here? Don’t like it here? Is the WiFi not strong enough for you? We don’t want rapists like you around our daughters,” recounts Reza, who didn’t reply. As he turned and started to walk away, the man punched the fence.
“I don’t know why these people come here,” says Reza, who was training as an electrician when he was forced to leave his home city of Tehran in 2018. “They don’t know me. They don’t know what I’ve been through.”
Humanitarian organisations working in Kent, the county where the barracks are located, say that gangs of far-right activists are becoming increasingly aggressive, stirring up hate and harassing charity workers, volunteers and, like Reza, those seeking asylum. One of the key weapons being used by these extremists, they say, is the spreading of abuse and disinformation via social media platforms including YouTube and Facebook.
“It’s very upsetting and very wrong,” says Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, a humanitarian charity that provides aid and support to refugees in both France and the UK. “They intimidate the staff in the centres, the refugees and volunteers. Sometimes you’re only talking about four or six people, but they are very effective and organised in the way that they use their online networks.”
Tanya Long is the director of Samphire, a local charity that provides education outreach in schools and support to former immigration centre detainees. “Many people sit up on the cliffs and film the refugees coming in, saying all sorts of nonsense and untruths,” says Long. “We’re trying to change that ethos and make it more welcoming for refugees. They’ve been through a lot of trauma. But the Home Office wants to make an issue out of it politically, and this hostile environment is only getting worse.”
The Napier Barracks – a former army camp in the port town of Folkestone, Kent – was set up in September as housing for about 400 people as their asylum claims are processed, in response to an uptick in arrivals of asylum seekers in recent months.
At the time, Folkestone’s Tory MP, Damian Collins, and two local councillors wrote an open letter expressing “great concerns about the impact this large, open camp will have on the welfare of the local residential community”, in a move refugee charities have called “dog whistle xenophobia”.
In September, nearby Dover – which has long been a rallying point for far-right activism – was brought to a standstill by protesters from the fascist Britain First, the anti-Muslim For Britain party and the English Defence League, while a swastika was found scrawled over a sign welcoming people to the famed White Cliffs. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, then filmed a video outside the Napier Barracks, claiming it would house “illegal migrants” and become the next Calais “jungle”.
Charities say that Farage’s claims of a migrant “invasion” are unfounded. “The media has become very interested in the crossings,” says Judith Dennis, policy manager at Refugee Council, a charity that works in Dover’s port, caring for unaccompanied refugee minors. “But there hasn’t even been a rise in numbers, it’s just a change in the mode of arrival – instead of lorries, it’s boats. It’s been made a very political issue.”
The disinformation has since spread rapidly online. A YouTuber called Active Patriot UK, who has more than 50,000 subscribers, has racked up over 100,000 views across a series of videos at the barracks. He films himself illegally flying a drone over the premises, telling security guards they are “gay”, making numerous inaccurate statements about asylum law and describing asylum seekers at the base as “terrorists” after recording a pair of them for over half an hour.
Another YouTuber, who runs a channel called Daddy Dragon, posted a video outside the Napier Barracks and called for a “militia” to be formed in reaction to the decision. “It’s disgusting they’re being rewarded for crossing the Channel. That’s only going to send the wrong signal […] People need to get off their arses now and take back the country,” he told his 22,000 subscribers.
Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, who also authored a 2018 report into disinformation about immigration, says politicians’ rhetoric and social media has played a key role in the spread of falsehoods. “When these far-right actors exploit these issues, it makes a big difference,” says Banulescu-Bogdan. “Social media means people can curate their own universe, and very little of this information is vetted. These things can snowball and take on a life of their own, and they become very difficult to control. It’s easy to mobilise fear.”
This comes in the context of what experts say is a deepening “hostile environment”, with controversial immigration policies recently touted by Home Secretary Priti Patel, including the construction of floating walls in the Channel to block asylum seekers, and a proposal to send claimants to remote islands in the South Atlantic.
Dan Sohege, an international refugee law specialist researching the language used by pro and anti-asylum groups, says arguments around immigration are often based on fundamental errors. “There needs to be a shift in the way more moderate and mainstream voices talk about asylum seekers – stopping framing them in terms of legality, because they aren't actually breaking laws by crossing the Channel or seeking asylum,” he says.
“There needs to be more focus on depoliticising the debate around asylum seekers and trying to get politicians to talk about facts and evidence, rather than myths, such as that asylum seekers should stay in the first safe country – something which is not actually stated in any international law instrument.”
Last month, Nick Wilkinson, a Prevent and Channel strategic manager at Kent County Council, told a public meeting streamed online that activists from outside the area were spreading “misinformation” online and that a small number of people were trying to “fuel hate within our communities”.
However, hate only appears to be travelling in one direction. Moseley, of Care4Calais, says there is an ongoing police investigation into an incident that took place a few weeks ago at the Napier Barracks. Far-right activists shouted abuse at a volunteer who was delivering essential aid to the facility, she explains, tracking down her social media profiles and sharing videos of her in groups. “Normally that volunteer is thick-skinned, but this was a lot to take,” adds Moseley.
Efforts have nonetheless been made by the local community to fight digital disinformation with real world “welcome” events for refugees, including a demonstration staged outside the Napier Barracks. “Far-right groups like For Britain have been trying to undermine our work, sharing the event online,” says Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee Action Network, a Folkestone-based charity that co-organised the event. “It’s a desperate situation.”
Aside from the outside threats, the conditions inside barracks are a cause for concern for many. Following warnings over crowded and sub-standard conditions at the repurposed site, the first coronavirus case of an asylum seeker was confirmed last week. “I’m grateful to have a bed to sleep in,” says Reza. “But I’m afraid here.”
When asked what efforts were being made to tackle far-right extremism, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The government takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers and the communities in which they live extremely seriously. Efforts to fuel resentment towards asylum seekers and create community tension are completely unacceptable, and all incidents at asylum accommodation sites are reported to the Home Office immediately.
“Our asylum system is broken and we are determined to introduce a new system that is firm and fair. We will seek to stop abuse of the system, while ensuring it provides safety to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny, and is compassionate towards those who need our help.”
* Name altered to protect identity