Migrants: How the community in Dover views Channel crossings – BBC


By Charlotte Wright
Political Editor, BBC South East

For hundreds of years the white cliffs of Dover have been a symbol of home for many Britons.
Today they are a symbol of hope for the tens of thousands of migrants who make the perilous journey in small boats across the English Channel.
More than 28,500 arrived on British shores last year, putting the Kent coastline at the centre of a national news story and heated political debate.
And as I soon discover, many who live locally have picked a side.
On a Tuesday evening inside Dover Working Men's Club, men and women gather for a pool tournament.
Regulars prop up the bar, sipping from pints of beer. The mood is relaxed and jovial. But mention small boat crossings and you're met with a sharp intake of breath.
They tell me they feel migrants who arrive here in small boats are unfairly benefitting from taxpayer money, while they struggle to get by.
The barmaid, Jackie McAllister, is the nominated spokesperson.
"I think because it is just boat-load after boat-load that are coming over now that it's just making us all so anti-them," she said.
Before long, though, another man arrives to take part in the tournament. He's armed with his own pool cues and a very different perspective.
"To be honest with you," he says. "I think it's purely out of desperation. If I was in that situation where there was war and conflict in my country, I'd want to do my best to get somewhere safe."
After we finish the interview he disappears into the next room. The atmosphere is subdued. I'm told his perspective is unusual in this part of town.
Thirteen miles down the coast in Hythe, however, it seems others do agree with him.
As frothy waves crash over shingle, a group of swimmers tentatively pick their way through the pebbles, before plunging into the icy water.
It is a grey, drizzly day and it's not long before they emerge again.
"They must be desperate, they must be frozen", says Gwen Shoard, who swims here daily.
"This is a really perilous crossing. If you go in there for more than about ten minutes you'll probably get hypothermia."
She, like the majority of others we meet here, feels welcoming to those who arrive. But one woman tells us the feeling isn't universal.
"I have seen a video of a boat landing here, and heard what people were saying to them as they came up the beach, which was horrible.
"Saying you're not welcome here, and we don't want you. Get back in your boat. Yeah, it was not nice."
On the water, Dover's fishermen often have first sighting of the boats as they make their way across the Channel.
They're the people who alert the coastguard and, at times, get involved in the rescue.
Matt Coker runs Coker Sea Fishing Charters. He and his colleague, Tony Preston, take me out to the choppy waters in the middle of the Channel. The boat sways as we talk.
"You can understand maybe the plight… why they're coming", says Tony. "But at the same time, your own thoughts are where are these people going to live. What are they going to do?"
Does seeing them in person change his perspective?
"It depends on the situation and maybe the people aboard the dinghy," he said.
"Some look as though they possibly just left. Others look as though they've been to sea for some time. And when they've been like that you perhaps do feel, you know, a little bit for them."
Last year the British Government pledged £54m to France to bolster coastline patrols in an attempt to stop more of these boats taking off.
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I ask Matt what he makes of the operation to stop the crossings.
"If I'm honest I see no change", he says.
"They're coming over as quickly and as easily as they were four or five years ago. There's a lot of things I hear on the news that they're doing to stop it and all these things are going to happen. But it just carries on the same way as it always has."
Some seeking asylum choose to settle here, like Khalil, who fled Afghanistan when he was 12 years old. He travelled across the Channel in the back of a lorry. Now, aged 24, he lives near Dover and works as a chef. But he is still haunted by the journey.
"I had seen people coming in frozen lorries. They lost their lives," he said.
"It wasn't for me exciting. It was a scary move and a scary journey. That was the scariest journey of my life."
He is now trying to help his brother escape the Taliban too, but says the UK's legal routes aren't working.
I ask what he would say to those who think he should not be taking journeys like he did.
"I haven't heard or seen anyone yet saying oh you came to UK not legal and you shouldn't be here. I've not gone through an experience like that.
"But if there is anyone thinking like this, they have to look how hard the journey is. Lots of people have lost their lives through this journey. It's not easy.
"No one is happy or willing to leave their country if their country is safe. Because living in another country as an immigrant, as a refugee, is not easy."
Not everyone who arrives is made to feel welcome. In recent years, Dover has played host to anti-migrant marches, attracting protestors from across the country. In the past they've been met by counter-protests from groups welcoming refugees.
Many of those who attend these protests are from out of town, but some are local, too.
"We were just trying to get a level playing field for the homeless of the UK," says Ken Tranter, a former Labour Mayor of Dover.
He attended a march in September 2020, arguing that migrants are treated better than homeless military veterans. But he says he understands why people make the crossings.
He said: "Everyone has an opportunity to advance themselves and that should be every person's duty. To seek what a better life they can get. If that involves crossing the Channel in small boats then so be it. But at the same point, charity begins at home."
There are a number of charities in the area too. One of the most recently established is Deal Area Refugee Action. Its founder, Patricia Grist, says she was moved to take action after seeing events unfold in Afghanistan last summer.
"They're not going to travel thousands and thousands of miles to get a benefit from the British Government. They come over here because they want to do something with their lives or they're escaping from very dangerous regimes where if they go back to their countries, they will be killed or tortured."
The group meet regularly to arrange fundraisers for local refugee charities. Today it's on the beach, huddled around hot chocolates.
"I think it's very difficult for us to understand in England", Patricia says.
"I've travelled a lot, and I've seen poverty and I've seen the way people live in oppressive regimes, so I kind of understand what it's like. Whereas a lot of people haven't. They have absolutely no idea."
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has pledged to eliminate small boat crossings with the Government's New Plan for Immigration.
It's following repeated calls from Conservative MPs across the South East.
For Natalie Elphicke, the Dover MP, it's one of the most talked about topics by her constituents, but she says there is a lot of "compassion, support and understanding".
"What we've seen with the sheer numbers of people who have come in through this route is that there are strains on accommodation and on services, that's why re-settlement programmes are so important."
It's clear the local community feel at the centre of this story. Everyone we've met has had a strong view. While they may be divided on the details, they all agree that dangerous small boat crossings should be stopped entirely.
That is a problem for the Government, because many on the South East coast see no real sign of that happening any time soon.
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