Whitstable, United Kingdom – A sign, smeared with black dirt, marks the entrance to the Ladesfield Centre. In September, this dishevelled building in Kent county became a temporary home to teenage boys from Syria and Eritrea. They had come to the UK without their parents, hoping they could stay as refugees.
But their arrival has bitterly divided residents in this usually quiet, coastal town. Some people have welcomed Whitstable‘s new arrivals, baking cakes for the teenagers or offering to teach English at the centre. But others see the refugees’ presence as a betrayal by local government.
Lynn Hapgood, a Whitstable local, describes the location of the centre as a “slap in the face”. The building chosen for the young asylum seekers was once a care home for the elderly. But in 2011 it was shut down and its elderly residents moved out; the council said it could not afford a refurbishment.
Hapgood, who worked in the Ladesfield care home for 13 years, said she resents spending on refugees who have not contributed. “If that building was able to be revamped, then why wasn’t it revamped for care home places?”
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If a child arrives in the UK seeking asylum and they are female or under the age of 15, they are immediately placed in foster care. However, if they are male and aged 15-18, they are sent to a reception centre, such as the one in Whitstable. Here, they are assessed before they are moved into independent housing, where Kent social services will continue to support them.
When they turn 21, or if they are granted refugee status, they are encouraged to find accommodation independently or they can apply for social housing.
Kent County Council denied Al Jazeera access to the centre, but a security guard on-site confirmed that teenage asylum seekers had moved into the building.
The Eurotunnel and major ports, such as Dover and Folkestone, sit within Kent’s borders, making it one of the UK’s three “gateway” boroughs, which receive more asylum claims than anywhere else in the country.
These areas receive additional government funding to help deal with the growing numbers of unaccompanied children, but Kent County Council says the situation is still an “enormous strain” on its resources, and it is forecasting a shortfall of more than 6 million pounds ($9.3m) in costs to care for the new arrivals.
When someone under the age of 18 arrives in Kent, they become the legal responsibility of Kent Council. Kent is currently looking after 784 asylum-seeking children – double the number of children in March 2015.
The Ladesfield Centre will host up to 40 asylum seekers at one time, and they will each stay for up to eight weeks before moving on. The council has assured residents the arrangement is temporary, and the building will only be used as a reception centre until 2016. But with more unaccompanied refugee children arriving each month, locals are sceptical.
Afflicted by austerity?
At first glance, Whitstable looks like an affluent seaside town. The high street is packed with cafes, independent boutiques and tourist shops. But a layer of discontent lies beneath its gleaming, middle-class exterior. Like many communities in the UK, Whitstable has suffered from austerity policies, and many people here feel neglected by their government.
Although poverty in Kent is lower than the UK average, more than 70,000 people here have been affected by welfare reforms, and the number of people using food banks in the county doubled between 2013 and 2014.
In 2013, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights noticed a Europe-wide trend: “The economic crisis has also amplified manifestations of racism, xenophobia and extremism.”
Since the financial crash of 2008, a “what-about-me” attitude has emerged towards asylum seekers in the UK – one that has been spurred on and exploited by right-wing groups.
The following year, a report by Open Society Foundations studied white working-class communities across Europe. Nazia Hussein, who directed the research, said immigration often becomes an issue when people feel like they are forgotten by their government.
“When austerity bites, it bites really hard and these people from the white working classes haven’t had the access points to say [to the government] ‘these are my concerns’,” she said. “If attention was paid to the white working class, the issues around immigration and new arrivals would not be hijacked by particular [political] parties.”
Kent has seen a flurry of far-right activity over the summer. Anti-immigration groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First have held small demonstrations in towns such as Dover, Folkestone and Rochester.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), known for its anti-Europe, anti-immigration stance, is also fairly popular here. In Whitstable‘s local constituency, UKIP came third in this year’s general election with 14 percent of the vote. In nearby Thanet, the party won control of its first local council.
The Ladesfield controversy in Whitstable erupted last summer when a government leak publicised the plans to house unaccompanied asylum seekers in Whitstable‘s disused care home. The news sent the town into a frenzy. Residents worried the refugees would overload the town’s dentists; that crime would rise; and the proximity of the centre to the local Joy Lane Primary School, just a few metres away, would endanger the children.
Rival Facebook groups were set up: one to welcome the refugees and another to oppose the plans. Online, the groups began to attack one another. Members of the opposition group were labelled racists, while the welcoming group was called aggressive and naive.
On the opposition page, angry residents linked rising crime in nearby towns, Margate and Folkestone, to the number of immigrants and asylum seekers being housed in the area. But in a 2013 report released by Kent Council, this rise was instead attributed to welfare reforms.
The report – which linked welfare cuts to violent crime, homelessness, and the use of food banks – was suppressed by Conservative council leader Paul Carter, who said he did not agree with its conclusions. A new version, published two months after the original, denied the connection and said these links could not be proved.
‘Priced out of renting’
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The community has been split over Ladesfield, reflecting nationwide divisions. An opinion poll conducted by YouGov found 51 percent believed the UK should not take in more Syrian refugees. And in a Sky News survey, 67 percent said Britain’s resources could not take the strain of more arrivals.
One Whitstable resident, who manages the Facebook page “Opposed to the plans for Ladesfield“, said the system favours asylum seekers over local people.
“The council have spent nearly £200,000 [$308,000] just for that building [the Ladesfield Centre] to become habitable. At the same time, they’re telling locals they’ve run out of cash to fix the roads.” The resident asked not to be named, fearing his comments could damage his job prospects.
“Housing is a massive thing. People here are priced out of renting and there’s a severe shortage of social housing,” he said. “But they [refugees] don’t go on a waiting list for housing because of their link to social services. They will be given accommodation. I find that frustrating. I’m a taxpayer, but when I was looking for social housing, as a single male with no children, I was told I’ll be waiting for years.”
Neither the Kent County Council nor the area’s MP, Julian Brazier, were available for comment.
Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) is an organisation that works with young asylum seekers living in independent housing. Jessica Maddox, its communications and fundraising manager, said she has witnessed Whitstable‘s welcoming side. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from people in the town who really want to help.”
Malissa Taylor-Saks is one of these people. Originally from South Africa, Taylor-Saks is a parent at the Joy Lane Primary School but she does not mind the nearby location of the centre.
“I spoke to the security guard there and he said the facilities are really simple and basic,” she said. “It’s not somewhere an elderly person with dementia could live.”
Her 11-year-old son Jacob echoed her views. “I really want to meet someone from Ladesfield and say it’s good that you’re here. We’re all humans.”