The British government says the port town of Dover is the subject of an “invasion” of asylum seekers who arrive illegally from Calais in France on small boats, and it plans a legislative crackdown. Yet many locals in the town, 120km east of central London on the Kent coast, rarely see a refugee.
“You would only see them if they managed to land their boat on a beach,” said local resident and retired journalist Graham Tutthill. “But that doesn’t happen very often. Most of them are picked up at sea by Border Force or lifeboats. To be honest, it doesn’t really affect the town all that much in a visible sense.”
Dover’s hidden “invasion” is still shaping up to be one of the top-three issues in British politics in the general election due in the next two years, alongside the economy and the state of the health service. In his first speech of the year, prime minister Rishi Sunak named five priorities for his Conservative government. “Stop the boats” was prominent among them.
According to official figures, last year more than 45,700 asylum seekers made the perilous 50km crossing from the northern French coast on inflatables and dinghies across the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel and also the busiest shipping lane in the world.
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Estimates from the home office, run by hawkish home secretary Suella Braverman, suggest it expects the number this year to rise to 65,000, the “medium case” scenario. That compares to 1,843 in 2019, 8,466 in 2020 and 28,526 the year before last.
The “small boats” issue, as it is now almost universally known, is a hot political topic in Britain, but still a relatively recent one. Meanwhile, the national attention means it is also the talk of the town in Dover, where all arrivals are initially taken. Within 24 hours, they are bussed out of the area to other locations, bypassing the town.
“But you have to be careful of how you talk to people about it around here,” said a guest house owner in central Dover, whose own parents were immigrants. “Some have strong opinions on either side. But you also have to have a sense of empathy. How desperate do you have to be to put your three year old into an inflatable dinghy and cross the sea?”
Tutthill says many residents of Dover, which has a population of about 30,000, want the issue handled with fairness for migrants but also for the rules to be applied. They remain bemused by the amount of national media coverage it gets.
Dover, meanwhile, trundles along dealing with many of the same economic issues faced by other English towns of its size. “Working-class lives matter” is scrawled prominently on a wall on the edge of the town centre.
The small boats issue has the potential to cause divisions in the Conservative party. Perhaps not open fissures, such as those caused by Brexit or over Boris Johnson. But more subtle ones over the proposed remedy.
Sunak and some of his Cabinet, such as Grant Shapps on the Sunday broadcast round, have promised to make it impossible for people who arrive in Britain via irregular routes, such as an inflatable dinghy, to claim asylum. Shapps, who moved from business to energy secretary in a reshuffle on Tuesday, said at the weekend that asylum seekers who arrive like this should have “no rights”.
The government is planning to introduce laws to bring this into effect. If those laws are deemed legally fit by British courts but are struck down by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, then government sources have briefed that Sunak will pull the UK out of the convention underpinning the court. This is making moderate Conservatives nervous.
The fiery nature of the UK’s immigration debates have caused trouble in Dover. Arrivals from across the channel are immediately processed in a secure corner of Dover’s port, known as the Western Jet Foil, before being bussed out..
Last October, 66-year old Buckinghamshire resident Andrew Leak, who had far-right sympathies, drove to Kent and threw petrol bombs at the gate to the Western Jet Foil. He then went across the road to a garage forecourt and took his own life.
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Security at the site has since been stepped up considerably. This week, four security guards were permanently stationed at the gate to the processing centre, where conditions for arriving migrants have also been criticised by official monitors. The asylum seekers are kept out of sight behind large, black gates.
Local pro-migrant activists say they are “disgusted” by what they see as the government whipping up hysteria over the issue. “When you have our home secretary calling it an invasion, that is so irresponsible,” said Kay Marsh, who works with local migrant charity Samphire. Braverman arrived in Dover in a Chinook helicopter days after Leak’s attack.
Marsh says local people who have seen their living standards drop are being encouraged to blame it on migrants. She plans to run in the local elections this May as an independent.
“It’s very easy for people to believe it is the foreigner landing on their shore when it is government failings – 12 years of cuts and bad budgeting. But: blame the migrants instead. It is easy to do.”