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Skegness: The seaside town at the centre of asylum debate

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Skegness seafront

A popular tourist destination, Skegness has become a temporary home for newly arrived asylum seekers

Skegness normally offers a warm welcome to outsiders, with hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to the Lincolnshire coast for a taste of the great British seaside each year. But the latest influx of visitors – asylum seekers spread across five hotels – are being given a frosty reception. BBC News’ Kevin Shoesmith went along to find out more.

It’s an overcast late November day and many of Skegness’s seafront spots are all but deserted as the autumnal gloom closes in. But, despite the absence of holidaymakers, the ‘no vacancy’ signs glow brightly in the bay windows of some of the town’s hotels.

Pedestrians pass security guards sporting body-worn cameras with chirping walkie talkies. The guards, standing outside hotels, usher groups of young men inside as they return from the shops and medical appointments.

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But a sight which may once have seemed strange has become increasingly common after a number of hotels more familiar with bucket and spade breaks were block-booked to accommodate newly-arrived asylum seekers.

Speaking to some of those who have made the often perilous journey across the English Channel, they tell me they came looking for “a better life” but have been met with a sense of trepidation and, at times, hostility.

Binjam, 29, who has fled conflict in Ethiopia, is among those in the eye of the storm. He only speaks a little English but tells me he has no trouble reading the anger and mistrust on peoples’ faces.

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He arrived in Skegness a week ago, hoping it was the start of a new chapter, but as we talk in a dank, seafront shelter, he tells me it is not the food or lodgings that have made him question his decision to abandon his homeland.

“Even if the government tell me to sleep here, on this bench, that would not be a problem,” he says, gripping a bar on our metal bench. “The problem is the way people here treat us. That’s very, very bad for us.”

Binjam spreads his arms, palms facing up. He appears to be close to breaking point.

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He says: “People insult us. People shout things out of their windows. We are scared about coming out of the hotel. It is very difficult here for people with this type of skin. I wish I had been sent to a big city like London or Manchester.”

An official wanders over from his lodgings and attempts to put a stop to the interview. But Binjam wants to finish his story. The official retreats.

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Binjam spent six weeks at the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais where he says conditions were “very difficult”, before paying people smugglers to take him across the English Channel in an 8m-long (26ft) dinghy.

“It was very dangerous,” he says, referencing the journey, “but I had no choice.”

He says he is not – in his own words – an “economic migrant”, adding: “People need to know this. I had a good job in the government in Ethiopia. I did not want to leave my country. There is war in my country. I had no choice. I lost everything. I came here looking for a better life.”

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Dawit, 35, from Eritrea in eastern Africa, who also arrived in Skegness a week ago, tells me he does not like it here.

“There is nothing here for us,” he says. “We are stuck here doing nothing. It is not our fault we are here. It is distressing.”

Like Binjam, he does not feel welcome here.

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He tells me: “People are scared of us. I want to communicate with people. Nobody enjoys this life. Hotels are for vacation but it’s like a prison for me. You get your meals and you sleep. That is it.”

Migrants arrive in Dover

Many asylum seekers entre the UK via perilous boat journeys across the English Channel

He says he arrived in the UK on 15 October, also in a small dinghy, having paid 2,000 Euros (£1,740) for the crossing.

“There were 45 people in this little boat,” he tells me. “It was full of water. I thought I was going to die. I do not know how to swim. The motor was about to stop working when Border Force rescued us. It took six hours.”

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He tells me he spent three weeks at Manston, the migrant processing centre in Kent that has been at the centre of concerns over conditions, before being bussed to Skegness.

I ask Dawit why it was he fled his home country.

“If I stayed, I would have been made to fight,” he says. “They push you to be a soldier. I am a Protestant Christian, and so it was very hard to live there.”

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Dawit had intended to secure asylum in Germany but tells me his application was rejected.

Dee Allen, director of Hatters Hotel in Skegness

Dee Allen, director of Hatters Hotel in Skegness, twice refused Home Office requests to house asylum-seekers

A short distance from the beach and seafront amusement arcades is Hatters Hotel, run by husband and wife Gary and Dee Allen.

Mrs Allen says they have twice refused requests from the Home Office to house 52 asylum seekers in their hotel.

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“Both times we were offered £10,000 per week,” she says. “But it would have meant us letting go of all our staff and cancelling bookings.

“We could not do that to Skegness. It’s shocking to think some hotels have been willing to do this. They are choosing money over their own community.”

Meanwhile, Jonny Whelbourn, a manager at The Storehouse, a Christian church which also runs a coffee shop and food bank, tells a different story.

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He says between 50 and 100 asylum seekers have been attending services and many volunteer their time, including preparing food bags for local residents.

“We love all the people that we have met,” says Jonny. “These people sweep, move items and help in our food bank. They are committed and work really hard. They are all really nice people.”

Beneath the dark clouds, blown in on a stiff North Sea breeze, that view is not one shared by many I spoke to on the streets.

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Inge Tweed, 67, and her husband Thomas, 58, stop me to talk before gesturing at a group of about a dozen men and telling me “they should not be here”.

The couple say it is “outrageous” that UK taxpayers are footing the bill to look after asylum seekers – a bill the Home Office say stretches to £5.6m a day for hotel accommodation alone.

“We are paying for this lot,” Mr Tweed says. “They have paid nothing into the system. It’s the people of this borough who are suffering for it.”

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Chantelle Kelly

Chantelle Kelly believes the country is not in a strong enough position to support asylum seekers

Chantelle Kelly, 43, a full-time carer, echoes their view.

“I know England is a safe haven but we are in trouble as well. We’re going into a recession,” she tells me.

Kim Clarke, 63, visiting the resort from Derbyshire with a friend, says they have been put off going into town after dark as they “don’t feel safe”.

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However, student Chris Cordingley, 44, tells me he has not witnessed anything that would cause him alarm, adding: “I see them up the parade quite a bit. Everyone is friendly. They cause me no harm.”

Such is the depth of feeling among residents a public meeting to discuss concerns will be held at 17:30 GMT on Friday at The Storehouse, in North Parade, Skegness.

In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those in our care.

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“Where concerns are raised we work with the provider to ensure these concerns are addressed, while asylum seekers have access to 24/7 helpline to raise any concerns they have and are able to make formal complaints which will be followed up.”

They added that it views the use of hotels to house asylum seekers as “unacceptable” and is only a “short-term solution” while it is working “with local authorities to find appropriate accommodation.”

Back in the shelter, Dawit delivers a message for the people of Skegness and the wider population.

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He says: “Just be friendly to us. You do not know our situation. It is not our fault that we are here.”

Follow BBC East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Send your story ideas to yorkslincs.news@bbc.co.uk.

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