Outcry over influx of asylum seekers to English village

Naomi O'Leary
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A migrant protects himself from the rain with a plastic trash bag in the "New Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, where thousands of migrants live in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain

A migrant protects himself from the rain with a plastic trash bag in the "New Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, where thousands of migrants live in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain (AFP Photo/Philippe Huguen)

LONGFORD (United Kingdom) (AFP) - An influx of Channel-crossing asylum seekers into a tiny English village has become a tension point in the migration crisis as a surge of people flee war and poverty to Britain.

The migrants, many of whom were previously living in the tent camp in Calais, are bussed into the hamlet of Longford to be temporarily housed at the Heathrow Lodge and in surrounding houses used by the hotel.

Home to a few hundred locals, the villagers see the steady arrival as just the latest encroachment.

Once surrounded by farms and orchards, the vast car parks and hotels of Heathrow Airport now border Longford and planes roar overhead, seeming close enough to scrape the chimneys of the thatched cottages.

A planned extension to Heathrow, already one of the world's busiest airports, threatens Longford with the same fate that befell the small village that gave the airport its name: total demolition.

In the meantime, dozens of asylum seekers have made Longford their temporary home.

"It used to be beautiful around here," said flight engineer Trevor Gordon, 64, seated at the bar under the low wooden beams of the White Horse pub.

"It's nothing to do with racism," he added. "But why are they here?"

A woman, who declined to be identified but has lived in Longford for 25 years and works in the nearby airport, complained about the numbers of arrivals.

"I know they have to go somewhere but it's the volume. It's rubbish in the garden, that kind of thing," she told AFP.

- 'I saw death' -

Those housed by Heathrow Lodge stay for one or two days after they have gone through initial asylum screening including fingerprinting, receiving full meals and accommodation, according to Britain's Home Office.

However, those spoken to by AFP said they had been there for several days, with one man saying he had been housed in a Longford room for two weeks.

Karim, a 40-year-old from Iran, said he paid $10,000 (8,800 euros) to people traffickers to take him out of the country.

"If I return Iran, dead," he said, drawing a finger across his throat.

The Home Office does not release data on how many migrants make it across the Channel from France on ferries or trains, although dozens have been reported arriving on a single night.

Karim was being housed with seven others, some from Syria, Sudan and Eritrea, in a Longford home that has been divided up into simple motel accommodation, with a shared bathroom and locks on each bedroom door.

Abdul Kataloni, who gave his age as 15, looked visibly exhausted as he detailed a journey that took him from Darfur, through Libya, across the sea to Italy, before he jumped on a train at Calais.

"Very dangerous. People died," he said of the sea crossing. "I saw death," he added. "My grandmother. She couldn't go on, she was too tired."

- Europe 'a soft touch' -

The company in charge of housing asylum seekers in the area on behalf of Britain's Home Office is Clearsprings, one of three private companies chosen to house asylum seekers in Britain.

But locals blame the influx of migrants on the owner of the Longford hotel properties: Surinder Arora, a one-time baggage handler who worked his way up to a £356 million fortune (485 million euros, $550 million).

Arora reportedly bought up a clutch of Longford houses, first using them as overnight accommodation for airline workers, before being used for temporarily housing recently arrived asylum seekers.

A spokesman at Arora Hotels reached by AFP was reticent when asked for comment.

"This is not something we want to engage on. We have had a lot of conversations with locals," said the spokesman, who did not give his name.

Some locals however see opportunities in the new arrivals.

Businessman Nav Singh, 42, grew up in the area and lives nearby.

He approached AFP to ask what company was managing the housing of the asylum seekers, in the hopes of cutting a business deal himself.

A son of migrant Sikhs who came from India in the 1960s, Singh warned that letting asylum seekers into England was dangerous however.

"Europe is too much of a soft touch," he said.