On a windswept, bitingly cold day in Folkestone a discreet green portable building is a beacon of welcome on a stretch of the south coast patrolled by Border Force boats and self-proclaimed migrant hunters on the far right.
Inside its cheerfully decorated walls are workers from Kent Refugee Action Network. The organisation has supported young asylum seekers who arrive on the south coast for more than two decades.
Despite the plummeting temperatures and supposedly enhanced border patrols along the French coast, people continue to head for Kent’s shores in unseaworthy small boats.
While the row burns on in Westminster about where the blame lies for the record numbers of people reaching the UK in small boats, KRAN quietly gets on with supporting young arrivals and helping them adjust to life in the UK. A young Syrian refugee prepared lunch for any of the young asylum seekers accommodated in Folkestone who wanted to eat.
Many are too traumatised to speak of their difficult journeys and the dangerous circumstances they have fled from in their home countries. Forced separation from parents and siblings is particularly difficult. Unless the young people volunteer information, KRAN does not ask questions about the painful subject of their recent pasts.
One big change that KRAN has seen is that previously, people travelled to the UK closeted in lorries away from the eyes of the far right and the media. Now they are travelling in small boats and are easily visible to hostile eyes in their orange lifejackets after they have been rescued from dinghies by Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) or Border Force boats.
Many of the new arrivals are placed in poor quality accommodation managed by Home Office contractors. KRAN helps them with day-to-day tasks such as cooking and budgeting.
“Nobody explained to one new arrival how the microwave in his accommodation worked nor that metal objects should not be placed inside it,” said KRAN’s Bridget Chapman. “He left a spoon in a dish he put in the microwave and it set on fire. Young people need help with these things to help them adapt to life here.”
Chapman has seen many different phases of the hostile environment but says that the situation for refugees is the worst it has ever been under the leadership of the current home secretary, Priti Patel.
“Around the time of the Brexit vote the language around migration became significantly more toxic,” she said. “The government’s talk of pull factors is nonsensical. It’s the push factors that are the most important thing. This is not a crisis, and we are not overwhelmed by the small boat arrivals.
“Most refugees flee to the country next door when they are escaping conflict. Look at the numbers of refugees in countries like Lebanon. Very few of the world’s refugees are coming to the UK.
“What is happening now is that people who arrive on small boats are treated by government with performative cruelty. So many of the young people we have worked with have gone on to make massive contributions to our society – they work in the NHS, in care homes, they do driving jobs, and I’m sure many would be keen to fill the gaps we have at the moment with HGV drivers.
“They are not a problem for our society, they enrich it.”