Historians' Watch

Refugee resistance and the persistence of ‘ingratitude’

Events at Napier barracks outside Folkestone in Kent have moved fast since it was opened as a temporary holding facility for asylum seekers in September 2020. It, and a similar facility in South Wales, came into operation at short notice to accommodate those who had arrived in small boats on the south coast over the summer and autumn. In recent weeks, reports have filtered out of the degrading conditions and appalling overcrowding of the 400 male asylum seekers held in Kent. The resulting rapid spread of Covid-19 among them has been painfully inevitable. The Home Office and the operating company, Clearsprings, have sought to impose isolation on the barrack’s residents, excluding outside observers and support organisations.

Despite this, these living conditions have been actively resisted. Support organisations have laid bare the conditions being endured by those on the inside and have mounted a petition to close the barracks. Meanwhile residents have used a range of tactics, including hunger strikes, over-night sleep-outs and setting fire to one section of an accommodation block to draw attention to their situation. Conditions at Napier barracks may be deplorable, but neither they, nor the acts of resistance, are without precedent. For, wherever we find these squalid and impersonal living conditions, we find ‘troublemakers’: camp residents willing to take a stand against them.

Portrait of a Vietnamese refugee, Sopley Refugee Camp, Hampshire, UK, March 1980: by Dr John2005. Creative Commons License. 

It is tempting to place these events within the recent history of Britain’s carceral response to the presence of asylum seekers – sometimes dated to the opening of Harmondsworth detention unit in 1970, but more often associated with the legislative changes of the 1990s  that formalised the existence of detention centres. The 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act marked a shift in Britain from detention as an exception, something temporarily resorted to in times of major crisis, to detention as an administrative mechanism underpinning Britain’s refugee and asylum regime. This change was embodied in a new physical infrastructure, as purpose-built centres sprung up across the UK to incarcerate those deemed eligible for deportation.

There is, however, another history lurking behind the events in Kent, in the use of barracks and the responses of those living in them. The three big reception and resettlement programmes for refugees to Britain saw the extensive use of ex-military facilities to house the arrivals – Hungarians fleeing Soviet invasion in 1956; Ugandan Asian expellees from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972; and the arrival of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ following the UNHCR-sponsored programme after 1979. These quarters were intended as temporary accommodation, to last a few days or weeks before residents were moved into more permanent housing, and sometimes also work. Instead, thousands of refugees found themselves living in camps for months.

Such accommodation was utilitarian at best. Far more often, it was cold, over-crowded and uncomfortable, ill-suited for families, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions. Often brought into use at short notice, having been mothballed sometimes for years, camps were dreary and institutional, if not dilapidated, and lacking reliable hot water and heating. While staff tended to be quartered in the officers’ accommodation, the refugees were put in the ‘ranks’ barracks, most often large huts with bunk beds, partitioned off with curtains or boarding to try and give some private space to families billeted in them. One visitor to the ex-RAF camp at Stradishall in Suffolk – which became the main reception camp for Ugandan Asians – described it as ‘Spartan… no luxuries, no comforts and next to no privacy’, with understandably ‘low’ morale. Another camp, housing over a thousand expellees, was described by a visiting councillor as ‘squalid’. The grounds were ‘littered with rubbish’, beds were ‘crowded together by families seeking personal living space’ and ‘lavatories were fouled with excreta, and the stench… nauseating’. Canteen facilities were little better: food tended to be of poor quality, ill-adjusted to the refugees’ dietary preferences and sometimes downright ‘uneatable’.

It wasn’t just the physical set up of the camps which made them unsuitable for housing refugees. They tended to be isolated, far from towns and cities which might offer work and contact with existing migrant populations. Physical distance was often reinforced by the fences and entrance gates marking off the camps from any local population: Sopley camp in Hampshire was guarded by the military and patrolled by dogs throughout its time as a residence for refugees from Vietnam. Inside, as much as volunteers sought to make the camps welcoming spaces, running social centres and activities, the space worked against them.

Adult and child, Sopley Refugee Camp, Hampshire, UK, March 1980: by Dr John2005. Creative Commons License.

If these descriptions of camp life and facilities might chime with those inside Napier barracks today, then so might their predecessors’ reaction to their situation. Faced with inedible food, people organised canteen boycotts and hunger strikes; enduring demoralising and inadequate accommodation, residents refused to take part in cleaning, formed organising committees, wrote petitions, called on the press and support groups to visit, and sent deputations to London to put their case. In almost all the incidents we find in the archives, the response of the authorities was not to change policy, or even improve catering or accommodation. They instead labelled those taking part in protests as ‘troublemakers’ or ‘desperadoes’, blaming them for not being sufficiently grateful for what the British government and people had provided for them.

In 1973, at Maresfield camp in East Sussex, a group of six were accused of trying to ‘drum up a petition of protest against the charges for accommodation and food’, refusing to co-operate or to take their share of the camp cleaning, and spreading ‘false information concerning resettling in Scotland and Brighton’. This catalogue of crimes culminated in the men being formally rebuked by the camp administrator, split up and dispersed among a number of different camps to prevent them from acting again. However, the agitators pushed back, protesting against their treatment:

we are most hurt by the insults that we had from you without any reason. We have self-respect and it is very very dear to us, dearer than our lives. We would also like to know what made you insult us, and why were we deprived of our legitimate right to speak. Is it called DEMOCRACY?

Just occasionally we find someone in authority willing to listen. During the Hungarian resettlement programme, the head of Thorny Pits’ camp, Mr Armor, interviewed eleven ‘desperadoes’ who had been sent to him having refused to work at their previous camp. Their detailed responses led him to conclude that they had all been ‘provoked by unreasonable behaviour on the part of the British staff’. Listening to them, he discovered that they had been living in ‘half igloo-like buildings’, with the promise that they would only stay there for a few days: ‘At the end of a month they were still in these damp and dark rooms and nobody would tell them how to go about getting a job in this country or what were their chances of emigrating’. Armour’s findings led him to conclude that, if they were ‘troublesome’, it was because they were anxious, lacking information and ignored, not because they were unreasonable, demanding or ‘desperadoes’.

This longer perspective is useful because it helps expose a number of historical continuities the underpin Britain’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers; well before the shift to the hostile environment visible from the 1980s. Just as there is a longer history of turning to ex-military facilities as a solution to unexpected arrivals, so too is there a history of their persistent inadequacy as spaces to house refugees. It is no surprise that Napier barracks is utterly ill-suited to house the recent arrivals, because army camps have always been the wrong places to accommodate vulnerable strangers. That the government makes recourse to such places is a sign that it persists in viewing asylum arrivals as an aberration and something to be resisted at all costs, rather than something to plan for.

Second, the protests of asylum seekers show that now, as in the past, people seeking refuge in the UK have taken Britain at its word as a self-proclaimed liberal democracy. Britain continues to position itself as one of the upholders of human rights in a world of global injustice, and justifies its continued influence on the world stage in no small part on the back of that claim. There are material costs to that position, one of which is that people – concerned British citizens and asylum seekers alike – expect the government to meet its obligations. This involves not only upholding valid asylum claims, but also housing people and treating them with dignity throughout the asylum process.

Finally, criticism of the protests from the political right illuminate a third persistent historical thread. Labelling refugees protesting against their treatment as troublemakers exposes the fragility of Britain’s ‘welcome’ of vulnerable strangers, even for groups who enjoyed official sponsorship. This welcome always relied on refugees performing a certain kind of compliance and gratitude for being taken in, no matter the conditions they faced on arrival. Those who insisted that this ‘welcome’ was insufficient, and that their basic needs were not being met – then, as now – were seen as unfit for British generosity. But we might consider the words of Hungarian-born journalist George Mikes, writing in the Observer in March 1957:

It is utterly irrelevant whether the Hungarian refugees are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is irrelevant, not because the West owes a debt to the Hungarians… but simply because the Hungarians are homeless people, a crowd of miserable fellow-humans. The English owe it to themselves, not to the Hungarians, to do whatever they can for them.


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