John Tart spent most of his 71 years fishing and managing a lighthouse along a windswept beach on the south coast of England. This summer he saw something new on the water that made him shake his head: dinghies and rickety boats filled with war-torn locals crossing the Channel.
The boats are barely seaworthy and are usually overloaded with men, women and children, drenched from their 11-hour journey. Last week, Mr. Tart found 60 migrants gathered along a dike, awaiting the arrival of border force officials. At other times, he saw young men jump from boats and run across fields, hoping to find refuge in the scattered houses that make up the village of Dungeness, only to be quickly arrested by police.
âIt’s getting worse and worse,â he said. âIf the weather is nice, you know you’re going to be busy. It’s ridiculous. They just need to put a stop to it.
This stretch of coastline from Dungeness to Dover, about 40 kilometers long, has become a new focal point in the refugee crisis that has plagued Western Europe for nearly a decade. More than 14,400 migrants have made the dangerous crossing from France so far this year, including 828 in a single day in August. This is almost twice as much as in 2020, and the numbers keep increasing.
The UK government has pressured France to do more to stop the flow of boats and even paid Â£ 54million ($ 94million) to French border guards this summer to beef up coastal patrols. Interior Minister Priti Patel last week went further and allowed border forces crews to turn back boats where possible. It is not clear whether Ms Patel’s directive is legal or even practical, as border force commanders will always be compelled by international law to rescue migrants in distress.
French officials reacted with horror and said they would play no role in what they saw as an inhuman and dangerous practice. Any attempt by Great Britain to turn around “would risk having a negative impact on our cooperation,” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
This is not the first time Britain and France have been at loggerheads over migrants. The port of Calais has long been a jumping off point for asylum seekers hoping to enter the UK, but the numbers started to rise in 2014 when refugees from Syria started crossing European borders. French police have dismantled several “jungle camps” in Calais where thousands of migrants lived in squalid conditions, but many smaller settlements remain, and Britain has regularly asked if French authorities are doing enough.
For years, migrants have tried to hide in trucks or trains crossing the Channel Tunnel to Dover. It has become more difficult in recent times due to increased police surveillance and falling traffic volumes due to Brexit and the pandemic, so many migrants have decided to try their luck at sea.
It is a perilous journey. On paper, it’s not that far – just 30 kilometers from Calais to Dover. But the currents in the channel are notoriously unpredictable, and a sudden change in wind direction can quickly lead small vessels astray. The channel is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the wake of giant freighters can easily overwhelm a canoe. In good weather, it takes about five hours for a canoe to cross, but this can more than double if conditions get rough.
A man died in August during a crossing after jumping from a sinking boat to lighten the load.
“It was dangerous and risky,” said Grmai Goitom, who made the trip this summer in a 40-person dinghy. âIt was very bad. There were a lot of women and children.
Mr Goitom, 29, traveled alone and paid the smugglers around â¬ 1,000 for a place on the ship. He is now one of some 400 migrants being held at a military base in Folkestone, near Dover, awaiting an immigration hearing which could take months. He said he left Eritrea in 2018 and has since traveled through North Africa and Europe. He wanted to come to UK because he speaks a little English and hopes to get an engineering degree. âI am very happy to be here,â he said. âNo need to run anymore. “
Mr Goitom and the other migrants received a mixed reception in Dover, an economically disadvantaged community where telltale signs of increased crossings are hard to miss. There is a warehouse full of abandoned boats near the waterfront, and a large tent has been set up in the shipyards to process migrants when they arrive.
Nor is it difficult to find people who dislike the constant flow of boats and accuse migrants of putting pressure on social services. A group called Migrant Hunters have started shouting curses at asylum seekers as they disembark from border force ships. “It’s completely out of control,” said group leader Steve Laws in a video posted online. âPeople have had enough. “
Others have rallied around the new arrivals and dozens of locals have formed a group called Channel Rescue, which watches the seaway for boats of stranded migrants.
On a sunny morning last weekend, four Channel Rescue volunteers stood on a cliff, looking out to sea through powerful binoculars. Next to them was a radio hooked up to the marine emergency network, and down the hill they had a car filled with aluminum blankets, water bottles, towels and rescue ropes.
At one point, they saw a border force vessel surround a dinghy and then stop to unload the occupants. Moments later, the radio crackled with the voice of a commercial ship operator calling for someone to help a “migrant boat with more than 10 people on board, all wearing orange life jackets.” By noon, a border force vessel had picked up 29 migrants, all young men, and taken them to Dover.
Last week the group helped a dinghy that had landed on a beach in Kingsdown, outside Dover. As they offered water and snacks to the 31 men and women on board, a small crowd gathered on the beach and shouted for the migrants to return home. âI wanted to be part of the team offering a friendly face and blankets or water or food to show that we’re not all like that,â said Jane, a 66-year-old volunteer who didn’t want to give it full name because the volunteers had received so many death threats.
Further up the coast in Hastings, Jane Grimshaw, co-founder of another refugee support group, fears the number of crossings will increase in the coming months as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. “They will want to come here because they have ties to the UK and may have worked for the British Army,” she said. âHow do you deal with this situation without depriving human beings of their dignity and hope – and their right to survival? “
She and other refugee advocates argue that the government’s hard-line approach will not work and that the only solution is to make it easier for migrants to cross the Channel so that their asylum claims can be assessed. âWe have to find a way to provide safe passage for people, and it could be as simple as a humanitarian visa that people apply for in France and then they get a ferry ticket,â said Bridget Chapman, who works with Kent Refugee Action. Network in Folkestone. âIt would be much better for our border security because you would know exactly who was arriving and when they were arriving. “
Ms Chapman added that Britain has handled much higher numbers of refugees in the past. During World War I, thousands of Belgians crossed the English Channel in small boats after the invasion of Germany, 16,000 of whom reached Folkestone in a single day in August 1914. “There is a painting in the local refugee museum welcomed with a welcome party that includes priests, the mayor and all city businessmen, âshe said.
But in the nearby town of Hythe, recently, many villagers were furious when the seaside Stade Court hotel was taken over by the Home Office this summer to house migrant families. It remains closed to the public, and last weekend two security guards could be seen patrolling the patio.
âAt first everyone was just outraged,â said Tom Clark, who lives in the village. âBut it’s calmed down now. We hardly see anyone entering or leaving the hotel.
His friend Tim Smith said the village has come to accept its role in the crisis. When asked if he’d rather turn around, he shook his head. âIt won’t work and it won’t stop them from coming. I don’t know what will happen.
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