‘People are just getting on with their lives’ … Dover, complete with white cliffs. Photograph: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy
The home secretary talks of ‘invasion’. Council leaders say Kent is ‘at breaking point’. But what’s the mood on the street in the town at the heart of the small boat crossings?
Wed 9 Nov 2022
On a Sunday morning at the end of October, a short while after a man had driven to an immigration centre in Dover and thrown three petrol bombs at it, Peter Martin arrived at a nearby pub, his local for 60 years and a place he comes, he says, “eight days a week”. There were a lot of police about, he reports, and an ambulance at the petrol station at the end of the road where Andrew Leak drove after his attack, before apparently killing himself.
“He was obviously annoyed, as we all are,” says Martin, sitting on a bar stool, wearing a T-shirt that reads Keep Calm and Drink in the Cinque Ports, with L-O-V-E tattooed across the knuckles of one hand. Not that he approves of Leak’s act. Martin saves his anger mainly for the French government who, he claims, “are not doing enough. They don’t want [asylum seekers] in their country, so they’re not trying to stop it.”
Leak was not from Dover – he drove 100 miles from Buckinghamshire – but it’s no surprise that the man who had a history of posting racist comments online and followed far-right content chose the town for what police later described as an act of terrorism. The day after Leak’s attack, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said there was an “invasion on our southern coast”, as if the steady number of boats that have arrived this year was similar to the way the Romans, or Napoleon, or Hitler once had Dover in their sights. Almost 40,000 people have crossed the Channel this year so far, and the port town on the south coast of England is where many of those people are brought, usually after being intercepted at sea by the RNLI or Border Force vessels. Occasionally, they land on the beaches around the town (as well as on beaches farther south, such as Dungeness).
The reception facility targeted by Leak is only the first stop, before people are moved to Manston, the processing centre about half an hour away, or elsewhere. One charity worker I spoke to says that until now the centre didn’t have much security – she used to be able to drive right up to deliver blankets. Nearby, says Simon (who doesn’t give his second name), co-founder of the human rights organisation Channel Rescue, there is often “a little party of far-right activists there filming on the days when there’s going to be crossings”. On 29 October, the day before Leak’s attack, nearly 1,000 people crossed in more than 20 small boats. “Most people in the town,” says Martin in the pub, “are annoyed.”
But it’s hard to find evidence that “most people” feel that way. There are certainly tensions, says one woman, sitting on a bench near a supermarket, who asks not to be named. “It’s things people say, but I don’t want to get involved with that sort of conversation with them. A lot of it is: ‘They get this for free and we’ve got to pay,’ which obviously is a sore point with prices going up. They say: ‘They’re coming here to get stuff.’” Whenever there is a report of a boat landing on the beach nearby, she says: “I feel sorry for them. It’s hard to believe that so many are actually coming across. It’s upsetting because you think they’re risking their lives doing that, and there must be a reason. Especially if they’ve got children.”
“The psychogeography of Dover is one of defence,” says Simon, with a castle up on the cliffs dominating the town. “Dover has always been the frontier, and a heavily defended one at that.” There are fewer asylum seekers and migrants coming in from mainland Europe now than before, he points out, “but they just come in by a much more visible route because a huge amount of money was spent on fortifying the motorway network around Calais and investment in detecting people on lorries. It has created a very visible phenomenon.” It has led, he says, to “this sort of media narrative developing, that you’ve got a whole town that’s petrified of invaders. It’s not true. People are just getting on with life in Dover.”
The day before I speak to Simon, a local news site reported that swastikas had been drawn on a bus stop, but there are no other obvious signs of tensions. The local Conservative MP, Natalie Elphicke, recently wrote that for her constituents, “the near-constant disruption to their everyday lives is intolerable”, but the town centre, at least, doesn’t feel like a place under siege. Like most high streets in the UK today, Dover’s has empty shops, but boards have been painted with bright murals, and independent cafes are busy.
But there are people in the town who are worried and frightened – one newspaper last month reported that a resident in the Aycliffe area was sleeping with a sledgehammer by her bed after she said a man tried to get into her house through the back door in August. The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, visited Aycliffe with Elphicke last week, listening to residents’ stories of people arriving on boats, and getting into people’s gardens and houses.
Early one morning a couple of weeks ago, says Nikki, who lives in Aycliffe, “there was a bit of a commotion outside. I looked out the window, and there’s these people running in all directions. There’s got to have been about 15, 20 running past my house. There were police everywhere in Aycliffe, but they took their time to get here.” One of the residents that morning had put a video of two boats landing on nearby Shakespeare Beach on a local Facebook group. “It’s quite a tight-knit community up here, everyone knows everyone, but it is still a scary situation to be in. Then a week later, we had the [firebomb] attack and later find out he was classed as a terrorist. It’s a bit too close to home.”
Residents have installed spikes on garden walls, and Nikki says people who used to leave back doors unlocked now lock them. One resident told the Times about a young man entering her house and asking to use a phone; she called her neighbour for help, though it soon became clear the intruder was a frightened teenager. The neighbour who helped has since reported that her teenage son had been attacked, alleging it was by a local gang of men who had migrated to the UK, and believes it was in retaliation for speaking to the press. There are, says Nikki, “a lot of angry people in Dover, because a lot of people work for their money. Our NHS, everything is overstretched … If the government are going to help all these people, why can’t you help your own first?”
When Charlie Zosseder, director of Samphire, a charity that supports ex-detainees and migrants and works to improve community cohesion, appeared in an interview on TV news, she says she received nasty emails (as well as supportive ones). “The rhetoric that’s going on is giving people licence. And it’s not just me – Border Force staff must be worried as well, local councillors, those of us who speak out.” Braverman’s language, says Zosseder, “is what’s causing people to think it’s OK to do what they’re doing, to spray swastikas on bus stops.”
Zosseder says the charity is looking at getting additional security measures at its town-centre office but she says that her experience of opinion in the town – as the charity’s director, and as a Labour councillor – is mixed. “There is the far-right rhetoric being stirred up by words like ‘invasion’, but that’s not general. You see a lot of people online who will shout, but I know several people who are taking it upon themselves to go out and challenge that, to show that there are a lot of people in Dover who don’t feel that way. There aren’t people shouting about it in the streets.”
The abuse is online, she says, “where they can get away with it”. Simon, from Channel Rescue, agrees. The organisation receives abuse “on our Facebook and our Twitter, from a virulent minority”. And they don’t tend to be local, he says. “The danger is, of course, that they give licence to people like Andrew Leak to do what he did. Online we get loads of hatred, whipped up by the rightwing media, that circle who feed each other. Now we would have to include the home secretary in that – she is straight out of that playbook.” When working in Dover, and along the coastline, he doesn’t experience any threats in person. “There’s almost a lack of interest,” he says with a small laugh. “We’ve got a lot of local volunteers – there are people in the area who are keen to show that Dover isn’t what it’s stereotyped to be.” In his experience, he says: “Local opinion is not hugely welcoming to migrants, but neither is it deeply hostile.”
Dover has seen protests over immigration but, he says, “whenever the far right have tried to stage a demonstration in Dover, they’ve had to come from outside. They haven’t got loads of [local] support.” This was true in 2016, when far-right and anti-fascist counter protesters clashed – including at a motorway service station en route – but another far-right demo last year was small. “I think that’s quite telling,” says Simon.
Immigration is not a new thing for the town, points out Graham Tutthill, who was a local journalist for 48 years until his retirement. “That’s what people seem to forget. They think: ‘You’ve suddenly got all these people coming.’ No – it’s been going on for 40 years.” There was more tension in the 80s and 90s, he says, when large numbers of asylum seekers, mainly from eastern Europe, arrived – “the authorities were taken completely by surprise” – and were housed in B&Bs concentrated in one particular area. Tutthill remembers writing a series of newspaper articles for the Dover Mercury in a bid to smooth tensions and explain cultural differences. But on the whole, he says: “Dover has always had a good reputation of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution.” There are some tensions, “but not as bad as there were”. Would he expect growing unrest now? “No, I don’t think so. Those that are arriving are dealt with temporarily at the docks and then go on to somewhere else, so they don’t impact on Dover so much.”
Last week, Trevor Bartlett, the leader of Dover’s council – along with the other leaders of Kent’s councils – wrote to the home secretary to say the county “is at breaking point” and warned about tensions and “the potential for the further outbreak of disorder and the risk this could pose to both service users and the local community”. He declined to be interviewed, but said in an email: “[The] petrol bombing incident involving someone who didn’t live in our area was shocking, and I don’t believe in any way reflects the views of the local community.”
Does the anti-immigrant feeling change when there’s another report about boats landing? “I think it gets more vocal,” says Zosseder. “And then you’ve got a lot of people who just want to get on with their lives, because there are some really deprived communities here in Dover and it doesn’t help that they’re scared where their next meal is coming from.” It is the politicians, rightwing media and far-right online content, she says, “who are saying: ‘Oh look, it’s the people in the boats that are taking your money,’ not people who aren’t paying proper tax in this country.”
Liliana, from Romania, has been in Dover since 2013. She thinks attitudes in the town are changing. “I think it is getting worse.” It makes it harder, she says, for “the other foreign people who are living here for longer and have been voting and paying taxes”. It’s not that she sees British people being less welcoming to her personally, she adds: “I just notice that they are not happy to have more and more people. Also, what I noticed on my street, there used to live a lot of British families and they’ve moved to different places just because they don’t like their new neighbours.”
Others think the situation is better. Giorgia, also from Romania, is watching her children in the park after school. She says anti-immigrant feeling in the town was worse just before Brexit. “They said: ‘Go away.’ We couldn’t talk our language on the street, I remember. At five, six o’clock, you start to be careful – you could never stay here [in the park]. You would go home.” Her friend Muska, from Afghanistan, says she hasn’t had any negative experiences in the town.
Susan Singleton, sitting in the park, doesn’t live in Dover, but near the Manston centre. She sees anti-immigrant opinions on her local group page on Facebook “but to counteract that, there are also lots of people who are supportive”. Does she think the anti-immigration feeling is getting worse? “It’s getting a lot worse. I can see why people are worried but they need to look into it and look at the figures because things aren’t nearly as bad as people are making out. You hear: ‘They’re being put up in five-star hotels.’ I think: ‘Read another paper, because it’s not true.’ I think people are being primed to blame everything on immigrants.”