In September 2020 the Home Office agreed to use the disused Napier Barracks in Folkestone to house asylum seekers who had presented in Kent, often having crossed the Channel in dinghies.
At times more than 400 asylum seekers were housed in the barracks.
This decision led to community tensions as the barracks became a rallying point for far-right extremists, who sought to utilise the situation to promote an anti-immigrant agenda.
Kent County Council (KCC) and Folkestone & Hythe DC worked together to engage communities and schools to support community resilience against far-right extremism and defuse community tensions.
Folkestone’s disused Napier Barracks was identified by the Home Office as a facility to house asylum seekers in September 2020. The proximity of the barracks to the Kent coastline (0.7km), where dinghies regularly arrived from northern France, made the barracks an obvious choice for selection as an accommodation venue, although placements to the barracks were made from contingency hotels.
As a result of this decision, far-right activists developed Napier Barracks as a cause celebre, making it a national focal point of the right-wing response to the asylum seeker issue. Whilst this mainly manifested online, far-right groups began stickering and graffitiing the area, and well-known far-right influencers shot films and broadcast online around the barracks and nearby beaches to promote division and increase hatred. A local community Facebook site received many new member requests – from outside the area but from individuals wanting to promote far-right anti-immigrant views.
This became a severe issue for community tensions in Folkestone, and both councils came together with other partners to manage the situation.
Although two-tier working can often be challenging, Kent has strong links between county and districts as a result of many years developing positive, trusting relationships. The relationship between KCC and Folkestone & Hythe DC became the bedrock upon which the response to the issues was developed.
In the first instance the local authorities and other partners came together to develop a set of partnership governance groups to manage the broader asylum seeker situation. Whilst this initially focused on the response to the needs of those arriving in Kent to seek asylum, it quickly became clear that these partnership arrangements should also be utilised to manage the increasing community tensions and extremist activity.
The links between county and district enabled direct delivery on the ground through a clear flow of governance, communication and activity. The situation at Napier Barracks was of national relevance, involving deep engagement with the Home Office and other bodies, but the impact was primarily felt at the local level; the engagement with frontline practitioners meant that local activity (eg online rhetoric/use of social media and community tensions etc) could be logged and flagged up the chain of governance to ensure local issues were being identified at the centre.
Key to the success of the partnership work in Folkestone was an emphasis on community engagement. Successful engagement with local people meant that where there were genuine issues with residents at the Barracks (for example, around ASB), these could be understood and addressed.
Tackling perceptions was crucial to managing tensions. Some residents reported that they were afraid to walk children past groups of far-right protestors congregating at the barracks. This led to a focus on communicating with residents to understand the situation and dispel myths, alongside ongoing work in schools to combat hate crime, with specific funding allocated for this to build resilience with young people, staff and parents/carers. In order to reassure the local community, direct engagement with the public and structured online community engagement events took place, with YouTube live link events chaired by the Leader of Folkestone & Hythe DC, and responses published and shared online. Speaking directly to residents supports the development of a more resilient community.
KCC established an online tension monitoring system which helped partners to understand developing rhetoric and anticipate how this might manifest itself as action on the ground. This monitoring system enabled the police, council and other partners to identify groups and individuals seeking to exploit the situation for their own political ends. This led to a campaign for greater respect and thoughtfulness in the online space, whilst encouraging the public to report hatred. Hateful personal comments targeted at individual elected members and a council officer were seen in open source media, but partners had a unified voice pushing back against them.
The role of the South East Strategic Migration Partnership was also crucial in providing strong support across agencies, and the establishment of an LGA-driven national forum to tackle asylum seeker harassment enabled the sharing of approaches and best practice, which proved very effective. The partnership also provided support to Welsh practitioners regarding a similar situation at Penally in Pembrokeshire.
Despite concerns to the contrary the approach in Folkestone ensured that there was not large-scale public disorder in the town. There was a significant positive impact for the community; building resilience amongst residents, improving respect and cohesion, and enabling communities to witness partners working hand-in-hand for their benefit. Partners themselves have new, strong relationships which will help them work better together in future.
As a result of this, communities reached out to support asylum seekers housed in Napier Barracks, providing supplies and working with voluntary sector organisations to deliver a programme of activity and support services. This has helped to diffuse tensions within the community, and the service users are now better engaged around the way they conduct themselves within the community. Reports of missing persons from the barracks have also greatly diminished as service users feel more settled.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The multi-agency partnership continues to meet weekly to manage the situation. Regular boat landings by new asylum seekers on the nearby coast have kept Folkestone and Kent in the news, remaining a focus for extreme right-wing narratives, but this is largely in the online space - although recent moves to extend the Barracks as a host for asylum seekers until 2025 have inflamed some tensions.
The most important lesson for Kent and Folkestone & Hythe has been the importance of working together across agencies and with communities, ensuring that communication and engagement across all partners is open, with a clear structure to share concerns and address them together.
Leadership has proved vital – Folkestone’s portfolio holder was highly visible, acting as an advocate for the community as required. The role of district council officers was also crucial in providing a single point of contact and coordination point across council services. Similarly, the leadership role of the SE Migration Forum was vital in coordinating a response.
For local government, a close and positive working relationship between KCC and Folkestone & Hythe DC was also key. Between these organisations they recognised the importance of sharing information to frontline practitioners to empower them to engage positively with residents and be consistent in lines of communication. Establishing close working relationships with colleagues in the Home Office, and their chosen suppliers operating the facility, also proved helpful in addressing matters of concern swiftly.
Through these mature relationships KCC and Folkestone & Hythe were able to manage a difficult situation of national interest with the result that there was a stronger, more cohesive community borne from the issue.
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