‘Only a matter of time’ before more deaths, Dover residents warn

Local charity worker says ‘it’s proof that the government’s strategy of deterrence isn’t working’

Rory Sullivan
Dover
Friday 26 November 2021 19:22
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Migrant boats on shores of Dover after Channel crossing deaths

Dozens of exhausted migrants are wrapped in red blankets, trying to warm themselves as they sit on a red double-decker bus parked beside Dover Marina. Those still awake rub the windows clear of condensation for a better view of their surroundings.

The new arrivals reached England early on Thursday morning, less than a day after at least 27 asylum seekers, including seven women and three children, drowned off the coast of France when their boat sank.

A Border Force vessel and an RNLI boat brought more than 50 people to the harbour at Dover between 4am and 5.30am on Thursday. The migrants were then given blankets and masks, before being ushered onto the bus.

As the bitterly cold morning progresses, the quayside swarms with police, border officials and paramedics. But those penned into the double-decker are kept on board until after midday, when they are shepherded onto coaches.

A stone’s throw away, the two 15-foot inflatable dinghies they used to make the crossing from France to the UK are lashed close to the marina wall. A worker clears away what is left: grey plastic oars and some discarded damp clothing.

“It’s almost like the boats have been hand-stitched from bouncy-castle material,” says Kay Marsh, who works in community engagement for the migrant charity Samphire.

“These homemade dinghies, they are like paddling pools. They are not sea-worthy vessels and they are overloaded with people.”

The UK government must rethink its asylum policies, in light of the deaths, Ms Marsh says. “It’s the biggest tragedy we’ve seen in the last few years. It’s proof that the government’s strategy of deterrence isn’t working.”

Migrant boats are stored in the marina

If deterrence worked, then Thursday’s arrivals would not have risked their lives so soon after the Channel tragedy, she adds. “They would all have known what happened yesterday and they still didn’t change their minds. If that wasn’t deterrent enough, I don’t know what would be.”

Instead, Ms Marsh, who also volunteers for the human rights organisation Channel Rescue, which monitors the safety of migrants on the route, thinks British ministers should offer people a secure way to seek asylum in the UK.

Unless change comes fast, a similar tragedy will soon occur, the community engagement officer warns.

In response to the disaster, other charities have issued similar warnings to the government, with Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council charity, saying that ministers must provide “safe ways that people who are in search of safety can get to the UK”.

So far this year, almost 26,000 migrants have reached Britain via the treacherous sea crossing, many more than the 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019 who did so.

People smugglers now favour the route, as tightened security in northern France makes it harder for migrants to stow themselves away in lorries.

Following the mass drowning, the British and French governments have vowed to clamp down on those profiting from the desperation of migrants.

The Home Office said on Thursday that it sought “to protect lives and break the business model of criminal gangs facilitating these crossings”.

Some have also suggested greater patrols in France, including Simon Gardiner, a truck driver who pulls up in Dover after returning from Italy. “There should be more ways of keeping migrants in mainland Europe,” he says.

However, given the length of the coastline, commentators like Pierre-Henri Dumont, the French MP for Calais, think this proposal is unrealistic.

“But if the soldiers and patrols are in Calais with the migrants they will still find a way to cross, because you cannot monitor 200km of shore at the same time,” he told Sky Newson Wednesday.

Mr Dumont added that asylum seekers needed to be moved from the French coast, otherwise they would attempt to cross the Channel. “We need to move them, even if by force, to health centres in the middle of France,” he suggested.

Back on the coast of England, a pub owner in Dover tells me the government does not have an adequate system in place to look after the new arrivals.

Some migrants have recently been kept in the marina for more than a day before being taken to other facilities, he says. “Every morning you wake up, look out the window and see more coaches [of migrants],” he adds.

Graeme Scrivener, 69, a life-long Dover resident, frets about what asylum seekers have to go through. He explains how he saw a group of migrants disembark at the quayside on Wednesday. “It was terrible, very sad, seeing the young girls crying over there,” he says, pointing to the dock.

Later, in a fish and chip shop overlooking the Channel, Ms Marsh, the charity worker, tells me she has little time for the government’s show of sympathy on Wednesday.

Boris Johnson said yesterday that he was shocked at what happened. He wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t shocked. Priti Patel wasn’t shocked. No one was shocked,” she explains. “Everyone following this story was expecting this to happen.”

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