What It’s Like To Live Next To An Asylum Seekers’ Camp
By Simon Worley, as told to Sean Griffiths
Last September, the Home Office controversially moved asylum seekers into two disused army barracks in England and Wales: the Penally Barracks in Pembrokeshire, and the Napier Barracks in Kent.
Photographer and filmmaker Simon Worley happened to live directly next door to the Penally Barracks, and began to document the situation. We spoke to him to find out what it’s like to live next door to an asylum seekers’ camp.
He recalled, ‘The first we knew about the situation was rumours swirling around on social media just days before people started to arrive. The line from the government seemed to be to keep schtum, and a lot of frustration had built up from local residents who felt they weren’t being consulted or kept in the loop.’
‘We didn’t get a letter from the Home Office about it until two or three weeks after the asylum seekers had arrived. I’m generally sympathetic and empathetic to people who try to come to this country to have a better life, but you have to remember that this is a very small seaside community of around 800 people, and the majority of them are pensioners,’ he added.
When people heard there was going to be up to 345 male asylum seekers joining the village, it was like a nest of wasps had been disturbed. People can be fearful of the unknown and there was a lot of concern in the beginning, especially as people felt they hadn’t been consulted or kept in the loop. We were just entering the second wave of the pandemic too, and that was a big concern in an area that had avoided the worst of the first wave.
The night people arrived on September 28, a lot of residents gathered outside of the barracks holding placards saying things like ‘Protect Our Communities’. It was a mix of young families, local farmers, and teenagers with nothing else to do and keen to see what was going on. Voice of Wales, an organisation that got banned from YouTube recently for hosting interviews with far-right figures, was there in a shot too.
Simon explained, ‘I’m a filmmaker and photographer by trade, so having this going on literally over my garden-fence; I went into photojournalist mode. That first night people formed a human wall to try and stop the coaches coming in and the police backed off a little bit. The protestors felt like they’d won a small battle.’
After the migrants arrived at the camp, there were heavily policed protests outside the gates every Saturday. Protestors against the camp stood to the right of the gates, while anti-racism protestors stood to the left carrying Socialist Worker placards. Simon joined forces with a journalist and had his pictures used in The Times, Wales Online and The Daily Mail.
He didn’t hear any far-right rhetoric from people against the camp, but believes some people were very careful with what they said, always referring to the people in the camp as ‘illegal immigrants’.
Simon recalled, ‘As time went on, local people’s attitude towards the camp began to change. I have a friend who was in the Parachute Regiment and used to come down here to train, and apparently Penally Barracks is notorious, even within the military, for being run-down and inadequate.’
Once reports started to emerge in the news about the squalid conditions people were dealing with in there, the general attitude among local people started to be ‘they shouldn’t be in there, should they’. The protests and heavy police presence was much more of a disturbance for local people really than anything caused by the people in the camp, too.
Simon said that he remembered one night when there were some local lads outside the camp who seemed to want to intimidate the people inside, but once they’d spoken to them through the fence for a little while, they turned round and said, ‘he’s alright really isn’t he?’ A lot of people were curious more than anything, he added.
I do remember one story though, of a group of men in a BMW who were from elsewhere in Wales trying to intimidate someone from the camp, and a builder who was working opposite the nearby village shop sheltering the man and telling them, ‘He’s one of us, he’s part of our community now. Where are you from?’
He added, ‘The people in the camp were from all over, including countries like Sudan and Syria. I made an effort and learnt how to greet the people in Arabic or Kurdish. I spoke to one man in there and asked if everything going on outside the gates intimidated him and he laughed and said, ‘No, my country has been at war many times,’ but the thing he told me was he really didn’t like was the swearing and bad language people were using outside the gates.
The man had a degree in Mathematics and told Simon all he wanted to do was work. Simon would walk his dogs and if he saw someone from the camp they’d come and make a fuss of the dogs and were always very polite.
I was by myself mostly over the winter during lockdown so was glad to see them! I felt bad for them because of the conditions in the camp, and in winter, there’s nothing really here for them. All they could do was walk to Sainsbury’s and buy some sweets.
He added, ‘People can be dismissive of the concerns people in the community had and say things like ‘Oh, they’re just worried about their house prices’, but the worst thing was not being consulted. Priti Patel and the Home Office seemed to have zero concern for the inhabitants of the camp or the residents of Penally.’
When it closed at the end of the March, Simon was sad to see them go in many ways, but was hopeful they were moving to better conditions. He had chatted to some men from Sudan the evening before they went and took some nice photographs of them with my dog Sukki.
He concluded, ‘Our immigration system is broken but we’re all driven to survive at the end of the day. If I was living in a war torn country, I’d be doing everything I could to get somewhere better to provide for my family and have a better life.’
Featured Image Credit: Simon Worley
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