The sound of helicopters buzzing overhead at night has become a familiar sound for the people of Folkestone, as authorities scour the waters off the south coast for asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats. This September is set to become the busiest month on record for migrant Channel crossings with three times more people making the crossing than in 2019. The sight of new arrivals, some in flimsy dinghies and using spades as oars, has become an almost daily occurrence.
Bridget Chapman, from the Kent Refugee Action Network said: “We’ll see border force officials shooting past heading towards the beach and I’ll think ‘well obviously some dinghies have arrived’. It is happening all the time around us”.
Local services are stretched, and a barracks near Cheritan in Folkestone is to be opened to house a further 400 people. Charities have expressed concern that his could become a magnet for far-right protests. Dover was brought to a standstill earlier in the month and Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, has stoked anger by suggesting the army base could become the next ‘Calais jungle’. More than 200 people recently protested outside a training camp near Tenby in Wales, where the Home Office is considering housing 250 asylum seekers.
Chapman said: “It is up to the government to ensure that these people are safe and not harassed. They need to be stomping down on this unacceptable behaviour from the far right”.
Head of research at anti racism group Hope not Hate, Dr Joe Mulhall, also voiced concerns about the far right seizing on the issue, he said: “Ultimately, this problem can’t be solved until we have an honest conversation about migration and racism, instead of using the issue to pander to populism”.
In the local community opinion is divided with some being concerned about the risk of protests and the conditions of the barracks, which until now has been empty for years. There is a worry that because it is not a populated area of town it is a fairly easy place for people to hang around and cause trouble. If it was in the centre of a populated area it would be much more difficult. There are also grave doubts regarding the quality of the buildings. It is felt that if the arrivals of immigrants was better distributed around the country there would not be a need to resort to such measures.
Residents, local councillors and Folkestone MP Damian Collins say they weren’t consulted by the Home Office over the decision. “We have great concerns about the impact this large open camp will have on the welfare of the local residential community”. This was written in an ‘open letter’ to the home secretary, Priti Patel.
A government spokesperson said that the barracks decision followed detailed discussion with local authorities. The move will ‘ease our reliance on hotels and provide savings for the taxpayer of up to 50%”. During these unprecedented times we have worked tirelessly with local authorities and other partners to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation – as we are required to do by law”.
The asylum seekers are the latest in a long history of arrivals in the area. In Folkestone museum, weary faces of Belgian refugees stare out a black and white photo, just some of the 100,000 plus who came ashore in the town in 1914 after the German invasion.
Chapman said: “On the busiest day 13,000 people arrived in Folkestone. In two years we’ve had about 4,500 people arrive by dingy and people say it’s a crisis, we’re full, we can’t cope”.
The wooden boats may have been replaced by dinghies but for many the issue is the same. It seems that there is a great continuity between the two that has been completely forgotten. It is terrible that people should subject themselves to the danger of crossing the Channel. There is a distinct lack of humanity.