Foxstone, using England-high-powered binoculars and a telescope, three volunteers from a humanitarian observation team stood on the Kent coast, watching across the English Channel. The clock tower of the French city of Calais was visible this clear morning, but had the distinctive outline of a small rubber dinghy.
The volunteer group, Chanel Rescue, was formed last year to visit a boat full of asylum seekers trying to cross this busy waterway, to watch them land on the beach, or to provide humanitarian assistance such as water and foil blankets. Heartache.
But they are also monitoring the UK’s border authorities for possible rights violations as the government takes increasingly drastic measures on immigration. For most of the year, the number of migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies has increased, political storms are raging in London and Home Secretary Preity Patel has approved tough strategies to get the boat back to France.
The proposal – not yet implemented – has rekindled the national debate on immigration and created further diplomatic tensions between Britain and France, whose relationship was already strained over both post-Brexit fishing rights and global strategic interests.
Rights groups and immigration experts say the government’s approach is exacerbating the situation and could put migrants at risk, many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence. Here in Kent, a place to welcome people who have escaped from centuries of misery, and the first point of defense when conflict with Europe has spread, there is the feeling that a conflict could come.
Far-right activists have come to the coast to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. Mrs Patel inspected a Border Ship and demonstrated the government’s tough stance. Last week, the Channel Rescue Border Force ships practiced pushback tactics.
“This hostile environment is really sick,” said Steven, a volunteer who asked that only his first name should be used after threats from right-wing activists.
The Home Office declined to comment on the exercises, saying they were “effectively sensitive.”
But experts say the directive could prove a little more than a political drama. Pushbacks can be life-threatening, experts say, and a boat can only be returned to France if a French ship agrees to accept it – an impossibly growing hostility.
France and Britain have long cooperated with the police. As recently as July, Britain agreed to pay more to patrol France. But under pressure from herself, Ms Patel threatened to cut off funding from the French if they failed to co-operate with the strict British line.
French Interior Minister Gerald Dermanin said he would not accept “any practice that goes against maritime law” and added: “Friendship between our two countries is better than a gesture.”
Opposition is also coming from the unions representing the border forces. Lucy Morton, a union official, said the push would cause inconvenience for officers and could persuade people to jump off the boat.
He said the home secretary had announced it without any warning. “This will probably increase tensions with immigrants, putting both immigrants and border force officials at risk.”
Even if a boat is never pushed back, the idea of how Britain should be welcomed for immigrants has sparked national controversy. British tabloids and some right-risk broadcasters have shown details of incoming immigrants কখনও sometimes confusing.
Former Brexit preacher Nigel Farage has denounced the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a nearly 200-year-old charity whose volunteers save lives at sea as a “taxi service”.
So far this year, about 1,300 people have traveled in small boats from continental Europe to England, with the government confirming that by 2020, there will be more than 500. But experts say the available data show no evidence of total unauthorized arrivals, as opposed to moving away from other means of entry, such as smuggling by truck.
Peter William Walsh, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, said the number of people on board has increased both this year and in the last year, with almost everyone seeking asylum after arrival, but the latest government figures show the overall asylum has fallen.
The angry politics of immigration has infiltrated towns and villages across the Kent coastline. Far-right activists have been present at the beach to record videos of migrant boats coming ashore, often abusing them.
To some in the area, a converted military site on the outskirts of Folkestone, Napier Barracks has become a focal point. The barracks housed about 300 people as they awaited a decision on their asylum application. On a Facebook page for Folkestone residents, heated debates about migration are common. A resident posted a picture last week showing men carrying soccer nets near the barracks.
Some assumed it was a theft, others quickly rescued the men, noticing – precisely – that the trap was theirs.
Soccer is one of the few ways for men like Thamesgen Goswami to wait for an Australian decision. A 32-year-old journalist who escaped persecution in Ethiopia, Mr. Gosay was in Britain for three months after crossing the river by boat.
“Honestly, I’m really grateful, because I know people are struggling in this country, and they’re supporting us in any way they can,” he said of the reception he received.
Across the city, Lord Morris Pub of Folkestone, patrons had mixed opinions when they chatted on Pint last week.
“You’re accused of being racist, but it’s not about racism, it’s just – we’re full,” said Eric Berek Collingham, a longtime Folkestone resident.
Richard Smith, 66, a former merchant marine, and Jacqueline Castello, 65, both felt there was much more to be done to find safe routes to seek asylum in Britain, as shipping routes are busy and sometimes fatal for small ships. A family of five drowned in their boat. The body of the youngest child has been washed away on a beach in Norway this summer.
“They’re looking for salvation, aren’t they?” Mr. Smith said. “You can’t give them back. You have to imagine yourself in that situation – what if we were going the other way? ”
Bridget Chapman, from the Crete Refugee Action Network, a charity that helps asylum seekers in the area, said most residents support humanitarian efforts, even if some unjustly blame asylum seekers for a lack of public service. Some of Folkestone’s neighborhoods are among the most deprived in the country. But, he said, that anger is in the wrong place.
“I think the central government has disappointed them,” he said. “But that’s what they need to be angry about.”
At the local museum in Folkestone, Mrs. Chapman displayed a large canvas depicting the thousands of Belgian refugees who fled across the channel during World War I who arrived at the port for a warm welcome. The area has historically been a defensive frontline during the war and a safe haven for people fleeing the conflict, a complex identity that has crept into its psyche.
“There’s a history of welcome and defense here,” Mrs. Chapman said. “Both are inherent – it just depends on which buttons are pressed.”
Orlean Briden Report contributions from Paris.