Last week in Parliament, the Immigration Minister announced that four sites across the country had been selected to accommodate asylum seekers. These would help to end to the use of hotels across hundreds of sites in East Sussex and the wider country.
For those with these hotels in their community, this news has been welcomed because it turns hotels back to tourism and hospitality. For residents in, and near, Bexhill, the news is much more impactful because one of the sites announced is at Northeye, near Little Common.
It is proposed that up to 1200 single male asylum seekers will be housed at this site. The first 400 are due to arrive by September and the remainder by December. The site requires some major rebuilding and surveys, so the dates are not fixed.
I only found out that the site was being included three days before the announcement in Parliament. Even then, contracts had not been exchanged so it remained in the balance. I had, last year, been aware from local conversations that the Home Office were looking at the site. When I met with the former Immigration Minister last summer to point out the proximity to Bexhill town, I was told the site was not deemed cost-effective and was not being considered. It appears that the owner of the site considerably reduced the price at the time the Home Office were about to announce the other sites. Due to this site being brought on at short notice, plans are still being formulated.
A day after the announcement, I went to the Home Office to meet the Immigration Minister and his officials to seek answers to the initial questions I had, and had brought from constituents and District and County Councils.
My main concern is that local residents feel safe given those at the centre, whilst monitored for comings and goings, are not under a curfew. Until a claim for asylum is decided, these people are asylum seekers. When the decision is made, which is expected to take 6 months, the individual will likely leave Bexhill; either to a secure deportation unit if their claim is refused or to another area of the country for settlement if their claim is successful.
I was told that the residents would likely comprise those from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea. To my concerns about security, I was told that it was expected around 50% of the residents would never leave the camp. It is not in their interests to break the law because it would negatively impact their asylum application. Nearly 70% are expected to have a successful application. The camp would have sport, recreational and religious amenities to occupy the residents and deter leaving the camp. Given the proximity to our town and coast, I suggested that these facilities would need to be ramped up.
I asked for financial assistance and was assured this would be given, based on a figure per asylum seeker. I have asked our local authority, police, fire, and NHS leaders to assess what they believe is needed to resource this centre. There will be no need for school places and they will have on-site primary healthcare.
I recognise the frustration a lack of detailed information causes. Whilst I understand the concerns, I would appeal for calm.
If the site is deemed suitable then it will be used by the Government. I am a member of the Government but I cover Rail. I do not have responsibility for immigration policy. An MP has no legal powers to mount a legal challenge, as has been requested by some. Only local authorities do. What I can do, is to argue the case for the resources and controls which will mitigate the impact. My case is more likely to be received if I work with partners.
On the day I write this, I will be meeting representatives of the residents adjacent to the site. I will then meet local clergy to discuss community impacts. This is the start of many meetings with the Home Office, community stakeholders and leaders over the coming weeks.
Some will have empathy for those who have travelled from afar. Others will be less welcoming. My job is to represent every person in the constituency, and I hope to do so in this challenging environment.