FOLKESTONE, England – Using powerful binoculars and a telescope, three volunteers from a humanitarian watch group stood on the Kent coast, looking across the English Channel. The impending clock tower of the French town of Calais was visible on this clear morning, as was the distinctive outline of a small rubber dinghy.
The volunteer group, Channel Rescue, was formed last year to monitor boats filled with asylum seekers trying to cross this busy waterway, to offer them humanitarian support – like water blankets and aluminum – when they land on beaches, or to spot those in distress.
But they are also monitoring the UK border authority for any possible rights violations as the government takes an increasingly hard line on migration. For much of the year, the number of migrants crossing the Channel in canoes increased, causing a political storm in London and leading Home Secretary Priti Patel to authorize harsh tactics to push boats back to France.
The proposal, which has not yet entered into force, has reignited the national debate on immigration and created a new diplomatic row between Britain and France, whose relations were already strained after Brexit on issues such as than fishing rights and global strategic interests.
Rights groups and immigration experts say the government’s approach is making the situation worse and could endanger migrants, many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence. Here in Kent, for centuries both a home for people fleeing poverty and the first point of defense when conflict broke out with Europe, there is a feeling that a confrontation could occur.
Far-right activists have come to the coast to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. Ms Patel presented the government’s hard line by visiting a border forces vessel. Channel Rescue last week documented border force ships engaging in pushback maneuvers.
“This hostile environment is really disgusting,” said Steven, one of the volunteers, who asked that only his first name be used after threats from far-right activists.
The Interior Ministry declined to comment on the exercises, saying they were “operationally sensitive.”
But experts say the advice may turn out to be little more than political theater. Pushbacks can put lives at risk, experts say, and a ship can only be turned back to France if a French ship agrees to accept it, which is unlikely given the growing animosity.
France and Great Britain have long cooperated to control the Channel. As recently as July, Britain agreed to give France more money for the patrols. But under the pressure herself, Ms Patel has since threatened withholding funding from the French if they did not cooperate with the tougher British line.
Gérald Darmanin, the French Minister of the Interior, declared that he would not accept “any practice contrary to maritime law”, and added: “The friendship between our two countries deserves better than posturing”.
Opposition also comes from the union representing the Border Force. Lucy Moreton, a union official, said the push-backs would create hardship for officers and could cause people to jump boats.
“This was announced by the Home Secretary without any warning,” she said. “This may increase tensions with migrants, putting both migrants and border force agents at risk. “
Although no boat is ever pushed back, the idea has fueled a national debate over how Britain should welcome migrants. British tabloids and some right-wing broadcasters have published fear-mongering – sometimes misleading – accounts of arriving migrants.
Former Brexit activist Nigel Farage has denounced the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a nearly 200-year-old charity whose volunteers save lives at sea, like a ‘taxi service’.
So far this year, around 16,300 people have taken small boat trips from mainland Europe to England, up from around 8,500 in 2020, the government has confirmed. But experts say the available data contains no evidence of an increase in the total number of unauthorized arrivals, as opposed to a shift from other means of entry such as smuggling by truck.
Peter William Walsh, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, said a growing number of people had arrived by boat this year and last year, with almost all of them applying for asylum upon arrival , but the most recent official figures have shown a decline in overall asylum. applications.
In the towns and villages of the Kent coast political anger over immigration has set in. Far-right activists have taken to beaches to record videos as migrant boats disembark, often shouting curses.
For some in the area, Napier Barracks, a converted military site on the outskirts of Folkestone, has become a focal point. About 300 male migrants are accommodated in the barracks pending decisions on their asylum applications. On a Facebook page for the people of Folkestone, heated debates about migration are common. A resident posted a photo released last week showing men wearing football nets near the barracks.
Some speculated it was a theft, while others were quick to defend the men, noting – and rightly so – that the nets were theirs.
Football is one of the few ways for men like Temesgen Gossaye to pass the time while waiting for an asylum decision. A journalist who fled persecution in Ethiopia, Mr. Gossaye, 32, has been in Britain for three months since his boat trip.
“Honestly, I’m really grateful because I know there are people who are struggling in this country, and they are supporting us in any way they can offer,” he said of the welcome he received.
Across town, in the Lord Morris pub in Folkestone, patrons had mixed opinions as they chatted over a pint last week.
“You’re accused of being racist, but it’s not about racism, it’s about – well, we’re full,” said Beric Callingham, 68, a longtime Folkestone resident who has felt it was time to stop the boats.
Richard Smith, 66, a former merchant navy, and Jacqueline Castelow, 65, both felt more needed to be done to find safe routes for those seeking asylum in Britain because the sea route was very busy and sometimes fatal for small ships. A family of five has died after their boat sank. The youngest child’s body washed up on a beach in Norway this summer.
“They are looking for salvation, aren’t they? Mr. Smith said. “You cannot refuse them. You must imagine yourself in this situation – what if we went the other way? “
Bridget Chapman, of Kent Refugee Action Network, a charity supporting asylum seekers in the region, said most residents support humanitarian efforts, though some have wrongly accused asylum seekers of their own lack of public services. Some areas of Folkestone are among the most disadvantaged in the country. But, she says, that anger is misplaced.
“I think they were abandoned by the central government,” she said. “But that’s who they must be mad at.”
In the local museum in Folkestone, Ms Chapman pointed to a large canvas depicting thousands of Belgian refugees fleeing the English Channel during World War I who arrived in the port for a warm welcome. The region has historically been both a defensive front line during war and a refuge for those fleeing conflict, a complex identity rooted in its psyche.
“There is this story of welcoming and also of defense,” Ms. Chapman said. “Both are rooted – it just depends on which buttons you press. “
Aurelien Breeden contributed to the report from Paris.