Bexley: Talking about Calais

We have recently visited Bexley where asylum was a high profile issue for our citizens’ panel, much more so than in many other locations we have visited. Our participants were sympathetic to the plight of refugees, but were concerned about the situation in Calais and the arrival of clandestine migrants in this part of London.

“I honestly don’t know whether the people who say they are refugees are refugees. I know that a lot of people are. It’s you get people coming over who aren’t. You hear, again, I don’t know if it was spin or not, people who are lying about their age or that they’ve got families and stuff like that. I just don’t know what to believe”

Bexley is an outer London borough which borders Kent and it is home to many commuters. Until recently, Bexley’s population was overwhelming of white British ethnicity, with 88% of the population identify with this ethnic group in the 2001 census. By the 2011 census, the proportion of those identifying as white British had fallen to 77%. This change has been brought about by migration from overseas, but also because black and minority ethnic families have moved into Bexley to take advantage of larger and more affordable housing.

Our Bexley citizen’s panel reflected the social make-up of the area. They were a pragmatic group of ‘balancers’ who  described many positive impacts of migration in relation to the jobs that migrants did, the skills they brought and the contribution they made to the economy.

Many of the views of the Bexley panel were informed by what they saw in the local area. As with many citizens’ panels held in London and the south east, overpopulation was a significant concern, alongside pressures on housing, the NHS and school places. This is not surprising given the significant recent population increase in much of outer London.

“There is a good side to immigration, filling jobs that people in this country can’t or won’t do. But it’s the fact that we are now the most heavily overpopulated country in Europe. Two of my children work in the National Health Service and they have noticed there has been a greater increase of people coming mainly from Eastern Europe”

The Bexley participants spent a long time discussing asylum.  The debate was well-informed, polite and constructive. They made reference to the situation in Calais throughout the discussion. As with many other citizens’ panels, they felt that the arrival of age-disputed young people who had been evacuated from Calais to the UK was evidence of lax border controls. The main roads from the Kent coastal ports pass through Bexley and clandestine migrants are discovered hidden in road freight frequently.

“I think if people watch the news or the newspapers and you see a guy jumping out the back of a lorry on the M20. It just sends out the wrong picture, that it’s a free for all and any minute now they will be running through the tunnel. That’s how it looks to us, that every point migrants are jumping out of vans and lorries and are hidden. It’s what we read about all the time. It’s madness”

The Bexley citizens’ panel wanted to help refugees, but as the quotes above show, the situation in Calais and the arrival of clandestine immigrants had damaged their trust in the ability of the Government to control and manage the asylum system, as well as denting support for refugees.

Charities that work with refugees need to give consideration to the views of this group and those like them. Building greater public support for refugees is crucial, if we are to achieve a fairer asylum system. We need the support and confidence of people such as those we met in Bexley.

So what needs to change to get Bexley fully on board? First, we need a durable solution to Calais. There have been encampments of migrants in the area since the early 1990s, but little by way of strategy to deal with this situation, other than erecting bigger and bigger fences around the port. The UK and France need to work together on this.

Second, we think social integration makes a difference to attitudes to refugees. Our National Conversation on Immigration visits have shown that where people of different backgrounds have positive contact with each other they base their opinions of each other on these social interactions, rather than hearsay or what they read in the media. Giving asylum-seekers the right to work would help them rebuild their lives. It would also mean more of us would get to meet them and form our views from these contacts.

Finally, it is essential that politicians stand up to the principal of asylum. Britain was one of the first countries to ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Supporting refugees is a foundational British value, rooted in our sense of fair play. We need politicians of all parties to say this, in language that reaches the average member of the public – in Bexley and throughout the UK.


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