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Folkestone charities fear far right will target asylum seeker base

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/09/2020 Jessica Murray in Folkestone
a group of people standing in front of a building: Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The people of Folkestone have become used to the sound of helicopters buzzing over their heads at night, as authorities scour the waters off the south coast for asylum seekers crossing the Channel on small boats.

September has become the busiest month on record for migrant Channel crossings, while more than 6,500 have made the journey this year – more than three times the total in 2019. The sight of new arrivals, some in flimsy dinghies and using spades as oars, has become an almost daily occurrence.

“We’ll see border force officials shooting past heading towards the beach and I’ll think well, obviously some dinghies have arrived. It’s happening all the time around us,” said Bridget Chapman from the Kent Refugee Action Network.

Local services are stretched, and on Monday a barracks near Cheriton in Folkestone will be opened up to house 400 people.

Charities have expressed concerned, however, it could become a magnet for far-right protests. Nearby Dover was brought to a standstill by protesters 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”.

Last week, more than 200 people protested outside a training camp near Tenby in Wales, where the Home Office is considering housing 250 asylum seekers.

“It’s up to the government to ensure that these people are safe and not harassed. They need to be absolutely stomping down on this completely unacceptable behaviour from the far right,” said Chapman.

Dr Joe Mulhall, head of research at anti-racism group Hope not Hate, also voiced concerns about the far-right seizing on the issue. “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,” he said.

In the local community last week, opinion was divided. Patrick Marrin, 66, proprietor of Marrin’s Bookshop in Folkestone town centre, was concerned about the risk of protests and the conditions of the barracks, which has sat empty for years.

“I am worried because it’s not a populous area of town, it’s 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, but it is fairly remote up there,” he said. “And I have great doubts about the quality of the buildings.”

He added that if the arrivals were better distributed around the country there would be no need to resort to such measures. “They’ve got better and better at detecting people in lorries, so people are driven to the sea. I suspect the numbers aren’t much more than they ever were, it’s just the method of arrival is different.”

Some residents, local councillors and Folkestone MP Damian Collins, said 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,” they wrote in an open letter to the home secretary, Priti Patel.

a group of people standing next to a dog: Folkestone harbour. Asylum seekers regularly arrive in the area on small boats. © Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian Folkestone harbour. Asylum seekers regularly arrive in the area on small boats.

“It has bothered me because it’s very close, right next to a big housing estate,” said Pauline Musson. Fabio Chiellinni, who runs a flower stall on Folkestone high street, said those who arrive by boat should be immediately sent back.

“I’m not for people drowning or getting hurt or anything like that, but until you take a hard stance, people will still try to come. It’s sad, but it shouldn’t be our problem,” he said.

He was born in Sicily, coming to the UK aged three with his parents, and admits he shouldn’t be “throwing stones”, but he thinks high levels of poverty and deprivation in the area mean there just isn’t enough to go around.

A government spokesperson said 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%,” they added.

“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 of a black and white photo, just some of the 100,000-plus who came ashore in the town in 1914 after the German invasion.

“On the busiest day, 13,000 people arrived into 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,” said Chapman.

The wooden boats may have been replaced by dinghies but for many the issue is the same. “It seems to me that there is a great continuity between the two that has been completely forgotten. It’s terrible that people should subject themselves to the danger of crossing the Channel,” said Marrin. “There’s such a lack of humanity.”


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