The lines of lorries and caravans snaking down to the ferry in Dover are familiar sights but if you walk alongside the traffic and go down a side passageway a lesser seen function of the port is in operation.
Along with customs and excise and passport control Dover docks is also home to Migrant Helpline’s reception service for asylum seekers.
The charity started out in 1964 and began by helping those in distress at channel ports but as people started to enter the UK to claim asylum in the 80s it changed its tack. It now receives the majority of its funding from the Home Office and runs a number of services for asylum seekers including the induction service at Dover.
This aims to help asylum seekers from their point of arrival, letting them know about what is going to happen to them and the procedures involved. Julie Larner, assistant development manager at the charity, explains how around 10-14 days usually pass from the beginning of the induction process to when asylum seekers leave Kent and are dispersed around the country.
The group are provided with emergency accommodation by the charity in one of three venues at Dover, Margate and Ashford during this time and the service is only available for families and adults with unaccompanied minors being the responsibility of social services.
The exterior of Cliffe Court, the emergency accommodation in Dover, looks swish and is reminiscent of the rows of Georgian terraces on Brighton seafront but once inside, although entirely adequate for its purpose, any claims that asylum seekers are being given better housing than local people would not stand up.
Larner explains how the Dover accommodation used to be in a different location on a main road which was referred to by the locals as “Asylum Alley”.
The three accommodation venues have strict rules requiring asylum seekers to sign in to prove their presence. Larner explains that if they are absent for two nights or more they go down as having gone AWOL and the National Asylum Support Service are informed. The group can have their support terminated if they break the rules. “They [NASS] see it as making yourself voluntarily homeless,” Larner explains.
As well as its base in Kent the charity’s other head office is in Croydon, South London – where the Immigration and Nationality Directorate is based. Larner explains that new arrivals who present themselves at Croydon are brought down to Kent every couple of days as there are no induction facilities up there. She says that the locals have coined another phrase terming this “bussing people in” and that eventually reception facilities will be available in Croydon.
The induction process is not compulsory. “If somebody comes and they say I want to go and stay with a relative in Manchester we check that that person is happy to look after them then the person can go,” says Larner. She adds that contrary to the impression given by certain quarters of the media only a small number of people go missing.
The process begins with each client being given a reception pack containing their NASS form, a diary in which to mark all of their appointments over the next few days and information on dispersal from the Home Office. A Migrant Helpline caseworker and an interpreter then help them to put their details and any special needs they may have onto the form. At 13 pages it’s easy to see why assistance is required. Larner explains that the facility has a close relationship with the NASS team based in Dover and that a team member comes in every day to collect the forms enabling any problems to be discussed swiftly.
The next stage involves an orientation briefing followed by the screening of a DVD produced by the Home Office. This covers asylum seekers’ rights and responsibilities, the asylum process and the support available to them.
It also takes asylum seekers through the differences between NASS, the immigration authorities and charities. “Because NASS don’t have a public face it’s hard for the clients to make the distinction,” explains Larner.
There is a lot to take in and to help their understanding clients are given time to ask questions after the screening.
The final part of the process involves a dispersal briefing and another chance to watch the DVD on the day before people leave. Larner explains that all of the briefings and the advice from Migrant Helpline workers is classed as contact time and each asylum seeker is allowed to receive up to five hours 45 minutes each.
“We see dispersal as a positive thing,” says Larner. She explains that asylum seekers can make special requests regarding dispersal and that the authorities will do their best to accommodate them but that they are not guaranteed. She explains how some asylum seekers have requested to go to Liverpool because they have seen the film Titanic while others have requested Manchester due its famous football team. On a more serious note she adds that if asylum seekers have family connections in certain parts of the country then NASS takes that into account.
The efficient well organised service offered by the charity must be a relief for asylum seekers arriving disorientated and exhausted from their journeys. For them the induction process is the first stage in the lengthy process of claiming asylum which, for many, will ultimately end in disappointment.