“You don’t see them until the last minute”: how a small Kent town became part of a refugee crisis

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Dungeness has always been a special place. Not so much a city as a windswept cluster of low-rise buildings set on a dense pebble beach, in the shadow of a nuclear power plant and served by a single winding road. It is known as “Britain’s only desert” due to the low pebbles that stretch towards the coast. Director and artist Derek Jarman famously survived his last years in a cottage by the sea.

It is also a promontory on the Kent Peninsula that overlooks the English Channel towards France, and one of the shortest crossings. Hundreds of refugees heading for British shores ended up on its beach over the summer. There was a record day yesterday in the area, with some 600 refugees arriving, including babies and young children. Meanwhile, 27 people heading here on November 24 died when their boat capsized in the English Channel.

Today, Dungeness is vibrant, breezy, windy and icy: few dare to go to the beach. The tourist covers her face with a hood. “We didn’t plan it,” she laughs as a gust of icy wind threatens to knock her over. Meanwhile, the Pilot Inn’s Dungeness estate is booming, offering fish and chips to dozens of elderly customers who came to “get some air” but ended up sheltering from the biting wind.

Further down the beach, two men in neon suits stand outside the RNLI lifeboat station, doing the unenviable job of loading the recently arrived refugee boats onto a truck. In hard-to-find khaki and black, the 10-meter inflatable boats are “first-class”, one said. Some of them looked more like “Airfix kits” this summer.

Inflatable boats carrying migrants across the canal are seen at the RNLI station in Dungeness, Kent.

Two men attach the boats to a low loader before rolling them up like sleeping bags, squeezing the air out of them. At the bottom of one is a sock.

In their small community, the residents of Dungines can be “pretty quiet,” says a dog walking dog on the beach who brought water and supplies from her home near Paradise. Few enterprises in the city are tired of telling journalists about the crisis. “I tell reporters all the time: this is too political,” says one disgruntled worker. “I’m not being rude. But we are a business and people have different views. “

One of her clients, Michael Brown, doesn’t mind this. He lives on a beach in nearby Greatstone and says “hundreds” of migrants have landed in his garden this summer. He is skeptical about how the newcomers are portrayed in the media.

He says the people who landed near his house were “all young, combat-ready children.” “They have an iPhone, they have everything,” he adds.

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“I have friends in Dover with four children, they can’t even get a seat on the council. But today Afghans come and get housing. How is it correct? “

The RNLI is a source of controversy here. The charity, which is run and staffed by volunteers, has been criticized for what some, including Brown, perceive as helping refugees arrive in the UK. A taxi is scrawled in black marker on the sign at the lifeboat station.

[See also: How much does the UK government really care about fixing the migrant crisis?]

Boris [Johnson]RNLI will never receive any donation from me again – and a lot of people say the same thing, especially everyone here, ”he says, pointing to the surrounding houses.

“Whereas we live on the coast, so obviously we don’t want people to drown, we want the RNLI to do what it has to do. But this is not the case. They go out, take them. “

Ian Fraser, who is fishing with a friend, is more responsive. “They have jobs, they have things to do. The number of challenges they have now, and what they see and what they are going to experience, they also need to support in their lives. “

Although Fraser lives about a half hour away, he says he often goes on vacation in Dungeness. “I’m just fascinated by this place,” he says.

On a recent fishing expedition, he witnessed the “entry of about 40 migrants.” “You see it more and more, of course, over the past three months.”

“You see the lifeboat coming out, and because they are usually so low in the water, you don’t see them until the last minute.”

“Crafts are getting bigger. They are not small – they are 30-seaters. “

As the sun began to set behind the power plant, two men finally strapped the last of the boats to the truck, and it flew away from the lifeboat station. “Where are they going?” I asked. The man shrugged. “An ordinary place.”

Power plant in Dungeness, Kent

[See also: Why the language we use to talk about the refugee crisis matters]

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