By Fraser from Samphire. Samphire are a member of the Detention Forum.
Dover Immigration Removal Centre stands above the town of Dover on its Western Heights, holding around 400 detainees. I work for Samphire, a charity in the town of Dover which provides emotional and practical support to those detainees in Dover and to ex-detainees nationwide.
Dover: on the cliffs
Perched on this hill facing the English channel, the weather plays a large part in the experience of detainees in Dover detention centre. On good days the sun splits through the wire and the fences and it feels airy and relatively bearable. You can see France sometimes, although that is easier to appreciate when your stay is for an afternoon rather than months or years. But in winter, the wind whips the rain into your face and your thoughts are not of France but of staying warm and dry.
The detention centre is built around a set of fortifications originally built to defend the country against Napoleon (complete with a moat). This, together with its location so close to France, makes it an easy metaphor for how many Dover residents see the UK’s immigration system – an outpost defending against foreign hordes. However, that metaphor ignores the complexities both of Dover and the detention centre that stands above it.
The detention centre is not a simple processing point for those who come off the boats from Calais. In reality, most detainees we meet have been transferred there from another centre, or have been detained at one of their weekly signing appointments with the Home Office. Many have been in the UK for years and some for decades.
For many, particularly the stateless and unreturnable, they can face an arduous shuffle around the detention system that can take years with no time limit or sentence to count down to. For them Dover is anything but a point of arrival or departure.
Dover: in the town
Down in the town itself, tourists passing through Dover from France only glance at the picturesque Dover Castle perched on the white cliffs to the East as they drive through a town unable to thrive on its tourist attractions. So it’s little surprise they’re not aware of the detention centre hidden from sight on the hill to the West.
That oversight extends to most of the town’s residents as well. In this part of the country the most innocuous conversations turn to the topic of immigration with bewildering speed yet there seems little interest in the 400 migrant residents that Samphire work with. In our work and personal lives we hear the same views on migration that have been entrenched and reinforced by the media despite the fact that the truth of those affected by the immigration system stands so close to the residents. It’s hard not to feel that the more striking border is not between Calais and Dover but within Dover itself.
Between two Dovers: Samphire’s work
Since 2002 Samphire have organised for members of the local community to visit detainees in Dover to help ease the loneliness and stress inherent in immigration detention. We’ve then brought our experience the other way and we raise awareness in the local community using the insights gained from our work at Dover detention centre. In this way we hope to bridge the gap between these two sides of Dover.
Meanwhile Samphire’s Ex-Detainee Project provide support to many of those left in poverty and unable to work after release from detention. This serves as a reminder that detainees’ problems don’t end on release from detention – at which point fences and wire are replaced by electronic tags and the restraints of poverty.
We’ve also expanded our Detention Support work as the shrinking legal aid available and the complexity of the immigration and asylum system pose extreme challenges to the residents at Dover detention centre. We provide a link to solicitors and other services and we have a small Legal Project that tries to fill the increasing gaps in legal provision.
In the midst of this the Prison Service, who run the centre, express a genuine desire to maintain good conditions for detainees. However, we see in all areas of our work the toll immigration detention has on the wellbeing of detainees and their families. The difficulty of trying to maintain decency while detaining migrants indefinitely is something that we don’t see being resolved.