The Roots of Anger at Britain’s Migrant Barge

Residents of Portland believe their town is too far away and weak to matter in London

The Roots of Anger at Britain’s Migrant Barge
The Bibby Stockholm barge anchored in Portland, England. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At the beach resort of Weymouth in West Dorset, restaurant staff warn tourists to guard their fish and chips from peckish seagulls strategically perched on awnings and rooftops, children in colorful dresses on a fast-spinning Ferris wheel look like dancing birds, and the general scene exudes a happy vibe with families from humble backgrounds building sandcastles.

A half-an-hour bus ride away is the quieter sister town of Portland — a perfect day trip with plenty of sightseeing and a rest from the hustle and bustle of Weymouth. Among the attractions is a lighthouse, a D-Day museum on the embarkation site for the historical battle of Normandy that changed the course of the Second World War and a 16th-century castle built by Henry VIII to protect the English from a French invasion.

Lately, however, the small town on the south coast of England has become prominent in the national consciousness for completely different reasons. Since the British government chose the Portland harbor to dock the Bibby Stockholm, the barge that will host 500 adult male asylum seekers, the town has turned into a test ground for the Tory government’s harsh anti-immigrant policy, which it hopes will return it to power in elections next year.

A British government factsheet says that about 51,000 “destitute migrants’’ are currently being accommodated in hotels at a daily taxpayer cost of more than $7 million. The government says to reduce the costs it will use “alternative accommodation options, such as barges, which are cheaper and more manageable.’’

But many residents of Portland don’t see it as a national saving but rather an imposition on a small town of 13,500. They complained that London chose to dock the barge on their shores because they were too far away as well as too small and too economically weak for their voices to be heard in the capital. There have been protests against the barge and counter protests against these protests. The opposition to asylum seekers here is emblematic of the larger opposition they face elsewhere in the U.K. and in Europe but with its particular set of local grievances that have contributed to an anti-refugee sentiment.

As I stepped out of the bus and made my way to the nearest point to see the barge, I met Bev Lesueur, walking her dog. Lesueur has lived on the island for more than three decades and said that while the mortgage on her house has gone up by $600 a month because of inflation, the value of the house itself has dropped, probably because of the news of asylum seekers docking on the Portland harbor.

“They have got to go somewhere,’’ she said but then seemed to suggest that somewhere was elsewhere. “Portland is a poor place.’’

In a largely affluent parliamentary constituency of West Dorset, Portland juts out as among the more disaffected towns, and among the 10 most-deprived in all of England. The sense of disaffection is further heightened by the brightening prospects of the port owner, who people here say will make a mint for docking the barge. “The port makes so much money, but little to nothing is poured into businesses here,’’ added Lesueur.

Portland’s economic woes, fear of a slump in housing prices, piling riches of an already wealthy port owner and a deeply ingrained bias against people from a different culture will emerge as leading themes behind the opposition to housing the asylum seekers on the barge.

As I neared the port I heard people shouting at buses carrying tourists staying at a cruise liner, also docked at the harbor. About 20 mostly retired middle-aged residents of Portland had lined the pavement and were wielding placards that read No to the Barge. This group was driving the campaign against the docking and petitioned the British Parliament, organized regular protests and opened a Facebook page where some people described refugees as “rapefugees” and “channel rats.”

“Where are you from?” asked the first middle-aged lady I requested to interview. (I would be asked this question a few more times perhaps because of my skin color or maybe just because they were curious.) She pointed me to Alex Bailey, the campaign manager.

Bailey was carrying the placards and walked from the other end of the pavement toward us. He spoke at length and claimed that the campaign was about giving voice to the people of Portland, exposing a “secret’’ deal between the CEO of the Portland Port and the government, and for the sake of asylum seekers themselves. He had given several media interviews before, and his comments seemed well rehearsed.

“This is about inhumanity,” he said, claiming that the private port’s owners, Langham Industries and headed by CEO Bill Reeves, “made a secretive deal with the Home Office. This was inhumane. It didn’t consider the asylum seekers; it didn’t consider the people of Portland.”

Bailey’s concern for the asylum seekers appeared to be factitious, since his long spiel on poor infrastructure centered on too few police officers and CCTV cameras to track the movement of the men to be housed on the barge, portraying them as a potential threat to locals.

“What policies are being used when these men are being bused to various areas?’’
“What’s the curfew?’’
“Is there a curfew?’’
“How are the taxis going to be involved at certain times and when?’’
“We have been told (police community support officers) will be hired for the isle. They have yet to be hired.’’
“The economy here, the social services, there are so many issues, especially (with) public services (such as)” the National Health Service, he said.

Several people in Portland told New Lines that there was a severe crunch of doctors and many of them were waiting for weeks, if not longer, to get an appointment for severe ailments.

Patricia Johnson complained that she had been waiting to get surgery for her aortic aneurysm, which might burst at any time. She sat on a bench holding on to a leash around a dog and nodded in agreement with Bailey at several points during our conversation, her white hair gleaming in the midsummer sun. Johnson moved to Portland from London 30 years ago and fostered difficult children.

“Two 15-year-olds who come to my house quite often, stunning, long blond hair, are scared to go out,’’ she said. “Five hundred single, testosterone men roaming freely, with no money — to me that is the most dangerous,’’ she said as other women, also retired, gathered around her and concurred.

“It’s not right for children, teenagers, to be scared to go out. Even I’m scared to go to some areas to walk my dog.’’

“But are the men here yet?’’ I asked.

“They are not here yet, but they are coming and we don’t know who they are, where they are from. They are a different culture.’’

A different culture was the crux of the fear of the people here. They felt that most men were coming from countries where they had not seen women in bikinis or witnessed freer interaction among genders. But without any evidence, they pushed the bounds of their imagination into believing that men from conservative societies must turn violent in the Western world.

Johnson admitted she knew nothing about the men and said that if she knew she could perhaps give confidence to the teenagers. However, when I asked if she was open to building trust and meeting the men to find out who they really were, she didn’t give a clear answer.

“You can never know where they are from,’’ she said.

Johnson though promptly dismissed the charge of racism and said she had a Black cousin. A discussion ensued with Johnson and others around her with at least three women claiming they would object to unknown men from anywhere in the world.

The other common thread was anger toward Langham Industries, highlighting a local dynamic of haves and have-nots that had generated an antagonistic response to people fleeing war and extreme poverty.

“We are trying to let Bill Reeves know that we are not going to be walked over,’’ said Paula Lyall, a member of the No to the Barge campaign. “He is getting 1.7 million pounds [about $2 million] a year into his pocket to have this barge here.’’

Langham Industries has long been seen by many people as a Portland villain. For a long time the local economy here depended on a naval base that was shut down in 1999 at the end of the cold war as part of spending cuts. The closure cost thousands of people their jobs and millions in losses to the local economy, according to a study carried out for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in 1995. Langham Industries bought the site from the Ministry of Defence. Years later, the HM Prison Weare, a prison ship that hosted 400 prisoners, was docked.

With prisoners first and asylum seekers now, people here said their town is used as a “dumping’’ ground by the port owner and the government.

“The government just does not have a handle on the problem. they don’t know what to do with these people” Lyall said. “Instead of dealing with the problem and processing these people, they’ve decided that they will just dump them in small communities where they believe that people aren’t going to kick back. This is a very small island. It’s a poor island.”

A rich industrialist getting richer reminded people here of their deprivations, and it worried them that they may have to wait longer to get doctors’ appointments if they have to share the same services with the new arrivals.

Lorraine Beckett, another retiree, spoke of a glaring shortage of doctors and dentists in the area and said the locals deserved healthcare before asylum seekers.

“How do you determine whether somebody is more needy than yourself?”’ she said. “My friend here, she’s waiting for five weeks to speak with her doctor; I’m waiting seven weeks to have a tooth taken out.’’

Even though the British government has said that the barge will get dedicated basic health care facilities to mitigate the burden on NHS operating in the area and avoid a clash with the community, the protestors here believe if the state can spare any medical staff they should serve indigenous English first.

“Four doctors for a population of 13,500 people in Portland and one doctor and nurse for 500 men on the barge — where is the justice in that?’’ added Lyall.

After a long conversation with Beckett, Bailey, Lyall and others, it was clear that they felt left behind in a largely affluent nation with the sixth-highest GDP in the world, but some of the reasons they gave to oppose asylum seekers also sounded like the outcome of misinformation and mistrust toward people from other cultures.

Newspapers splashing sensationalistic headlines exacerbated their sense of being deprioritized. At a newsstand the front page of the Daily Mail on July 25 read: “Lawyers charging up to £10,000 [about $12,000] to make fake asylum claims,” and on July 21 the Telegraph reported: “Migrants housed on barge to get free festival and cricket excursions.”

The people of Portland see themselves as compassionate and said among those seeking asylum in Britain “very few’’ cases were genuine. But the fact that asylum has been granted to more than 90% of those who have arrived by boat since 2018 suggests that, while the path may be irregular, the cases are legitimate.

Furthermore, it was hard to see how shouting slogans at tourists staying in the cruise liner and actively discouraging them from spending money in their town helped the local economy.

Bill Reeves has been quick to advertise the losses. In Mid-July, a Regal Princess cruise ship with 3,000 passengers onboard refused to stop in Portland, costing the economy $500,000, Reeves said, according to the Portland Port website.

“This includes spending in shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs, tourist attractions, for guides and taxis as well as for those in the supply chain such as bus and coach operators and through indirect spend,’’ he was quoted on the website.

The members of No to the Barge made familiar arguments heard in communities opposed to refugees from the Middle East and Africa and said that if the asylum seekers were genuine then they should be accompanied by their wives and children. They did not know the families were brought later to spare them the hardship and risks that come with irregular modes of travel. They said those battling war-inflicted poverty should come through the airport and had no idea that there were few schemes and no humanitarian or asylum visas. They did not believe that these men were fleeing persecution, because if they were, they asked, then wouldn’t they choose the first port of entry rather than the U.K., even though for many refugees their familiarity with English makes the U.K. a more sensible choice?

The European countries that these refugees come through have recently signed a deal with Tunisia to make sure they don’t enter the European Union. Last month EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said the EU will provide Tunisia with more than $120 million to improve border management. Some 72,000 migrants have entered Europe this year through Italy, which also has a deal with Libya to force migrants back.

Back in Portland, the residents are split. In opposition to the No to the Barge campaign, a rival group called Stand Up to Racism has been protesting in favor of the refugees, welcoming them to the U.K. As the residents of Portland clash, bigger political machinations are at play.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made an anti-immigrant law — the Illegal Migration Act — a major election plank with an eye on consolidating conservative voters. The barge, meant to supposedly reduce the costs of hosting irregular migrants, is a part of that plan. The Labour Party is hoping the government’s policy would fail in reducing the overall numbers of irregular immigrants and instead alienate Tory voters, to their advantage.

Portland is too small to change the balance of power but perfectly situated for the theater of migrant politics.

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