What Kind of a City Are We? How Portsmouth Treats Refugees

Many international problems have a local dimension, and the refugee crisis is no exception. Andrew Larder asks whether our city, which has a long and proud tradition of welcoming desperate people from all over the world, could be doing more for those fleeing violence, privation and persecution. 

How far is twenty miles from Portsmouth Guildhall? To the west, Eastleigh, to the north Petersfield, south is Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and to the east there is Chichester. Twenty minutes in the car on the motorway, considerably more if you have to walk it. The Isle of Wight has a stretch of water to negotiate, so a bit longer.

How do we treat people from these places? As a Pompey fan I like a bit of banter but at the same time there is an irrational section of football supporters who really do not like Southampton. People from Petersfield or Chichester are often thought of as a bit ‘posh’. Derisory remarks are also heard about the residents of the Isle of Wight, referring to them as ‘caulk heads’. And how do others outside of Portsmouth refer to our city? Skates; a city full of crude ruffians. These same people are our neighbours, live in the same county and are all classed as southerners. Divisions are everywhere if we look for them.

But in the words of the late Jo Cox MP, ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’

Twenty miles is also the distance between Dover and Calais. Our European neighbours are currently dealing with a situation where thousands of folk wish to cross the channel and enter the UK to become one of us. Flattering in some respects. That families would risk their lives several times over just to come and live in Great Britain. In February, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg was lambasted for suggesting on BBC Question Time that we, the UK, had a duty to help refugees, including an estimated 3,000 unattended children in France. People on social media questioned that we had a duty to take anyone in. But we do, as we are one of the 142 countries signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. International Law that we agreed to shows we have a duty. ‘What kind of country are we?’ Bragg asked.

In 2015, our then prime minister David Cameron described the Calais Camp occupants as the ‘swarm’. If you break down the ‘swarm’ there are some distinct groups. Refugees fleeing war, asylum seekers escaping persecution and economic migrants looking for a better life. The problem is not UK- or Europe-specific, it’s a global one. However, I often hear people saying that schools, hospitals and our infrastructure cannot cope.

Historically Portsmouth has welcomed those seeking a new life. There is a Jewish cemetery in Fawcett Road dating back 270 years. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers were taken in by the local community after a failed coup in Russia. Muslim mosques and Sikh temples are well established. Chinese, Kurdish, Bangladeshi and African communities live here. So, there is both the tolerance and potential for communities to exist and integrate here in Portsmouth.

I approached both Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, and spokespeople for the Council’s Housing Department for their views. I did not get a reply. I wanted to know what chances a refugee has of getting a home in Portsmouth. Point 3.4.6 in the Portsmouth City Council policy on housing states ‘Anyone fleeing violence who does not meet the local connection criteria will be considered under the homeless legislation.’

The process for asylum seekers applying for legal status in this country is a long, undignified and frustrating one. After surrendering themselves to the Border Force, they are housed by a private company contracted by the Home Office. The three main cities in the southeast of England that accommodate refugees are Hastings, Southampton and Portsmouth. Despite our local council voting in 2015 to end Portsmouth’s status as an ‘asylum hub’, Conservative councillor Luke Stubbs said in February this year that the Home Office would endeavour to limit the number of refugees who re-settle in our city to 200. Currently there are between 140 to 150 in Portsmouth, this includes fewer than 10 children of school age.

Sustained by lottery grants and national fund-raising campaigns, British Red Cross offers support and advice to refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants. Malcolm Little of their Portsmouth office believes the 200-person cap is simply wrong. He also told me about the struggles displaced persons face when they come to Portsmouth: ‘Asylum seekers are given £36 a week towards food, clothing, and transport. This is on a card and can only be spent at certain shops. Refugees must sign on at Fareham police station, wrongly conflating police and immigration control roles. Whilst waiting for a decision on their status, sometimes for years, they are not permitted to work and contribute to society. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people in detention centres indefinitely.’

Furthermore, Malcolm told me, ‘delays in processing their applications exacerbate any mental health problems they may have and seems to me a deliberate implication of an inhuman policy.’

I tried to find out how many refugees and asylum seekers attempted to enter the UK via Portsmouth Continental Ferry Port. The Home Office does not publish figures for individual ports; the only available statistics refer to the ‘number of clandestines detected’ when desperate people try to enter the country. From 2010 to 2013, this number was an average of 10,000 people per year. This spiked in 2013/14 to 19,000 and in 2014/15 before dropping back down to 11,920 the following year.

The British Red Cross website estimates that refugees currently living in the UK make up 0.18% of the population. That is 117,234 out of 64.1 million people. Last year less than 45% of applications to remain in the UK were approved. In February 2017, there were an estimated 3,000 unattended children in Calais. Portsmouth are accommodating around twelve children. Hardly a swarm that will cripple our infrastructure.

One question I wanted to ask the Council was could Portsmouth cope with a housing crisis. Ours is a densely-populated city, homes are in demand. However, the city has responded to much larger problems before. During World War II, thousands of American soldiers were camped at Hilsea in preparation for D-Day. This year on Southsea Common a small town will exist during the Victorious Festival. If we can facilitate tens of thousands of people for music and war, surely, we can organise something similar for humanitarian reasons?

In the last eighteen months, we have seen harrowing pictures of refugee children drowning to reach safety. The bottleneck at Calais has temporarily cleared. But what if one built up at Le Havre or Cherbourg? Just twenty-six miles away. How long before fear and frustration builds up and leads to desperate acts? We should try to take control of the situation now before it is too late. But I fear that nothing will be done until children are washing up on Eastney Beach.

Once a refugee himself, Dr Ahmed Terkawi sits in Sweden and via his mobile phone guides thousands of refugees making the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. Dr Terkawi once put his own family at risk completing this crossing.

‘When my children are older,’ he says, ‘I will teach them that there is only one nationality and that is humanity.’

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.