Folkestone Road in Dover was once a street of the wealthy. Today is down at heel and home mainly to guest houses. (Picture: http://Ron Hann – geograph.org.uk)

From a distance Dover looks almost impressive. Iconic cliffs, a castle and a constant flow of trucks on and off ferries. Closer, perhaps it is a bit rundown behind its pebble seafront. Closer still, something is up. The sign on the road out of the ferry terminal says, “Welcome to England.” But if you ask, “What do you think about the boats from France?” people know you don’t mean the ferry. And there is a noticeable pause.

Since other routes to Britain have been made harder, people come in small boats across freezing water. The Channel is packed with huge ships, uncertain weather and strong tides, so it is definitely not a safe journey. And people who live by the sea know it. 

The rescue records on the walls of Dover lifeboat station go back to 1837. An RNLI volunteer, who emphasised that they spoke only for themselves, said, “Sometimes we’re too busy so we don’t count rescues now. We’re always the front line. Wars, refugees, migrants—that’s what Dover is. But I’ve seen the faces of people who wish you weren’t doing what you’re doing and that can wind you up.”

The most widespread emotion people express for those who come is compassion, but not straightforwardly so. The constant feed of racist hate against migrants from politicians and the media seeps in. In some cases deeply. Some people say how bad it is for the poor migrants but, in the same sentence, insist there are people that are getting all the benefits. One version is, “Look I’m not happy they’re coming, but the fact the boat people are prepared to risk sea crossings shows they must be pretty desperate.”

Another comes from a man in a cafe in a tired bit of town saying, “It’s probably not their fault. It’s terrible. They’re risking their lives for a better future. “You can’t really blame them, some countries are very bad. I’ve worked all my life, I‘ve got a pension so I’m lucky. But the government aren’t even looking after their own are they? I think it would be nice to see the government looking after the English, they seem to be forgotten.”

A better version in the same cafe was, “People say, ‘They get this for free and we’ve got to pay,’ which is a sore point with prices going daft. They say, ‘They’re coming here to get stuff’. But I feel sorry for them. 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 local Tory MP, Natalie Elphicke, has claimed that for the people of Dover, “the near-constant disruption to their everyday lives is intolerable.” But it is simply not true. The town is very much not under siege.

Like most high streets it has empty shops between the identikit chains and charity shops. And it holds the quiet sadness of many a town left behind. People and goods go through Dover at an astonishing rate but they tend not to hang around. There is money in Dover, but not where most people are.

Outside the Sunny Days mobility scooter shop a small group are happy, after the inevitable pause, to discuss the situation. One man says, “People are annoyed. There are a lot of angry people, because a lot of people work for their money. Our NHS, and everything else is broke. If the government are going to help all these people, why can’t you help your own first?”

But the woman next to him is less ¬convinced. “If you look around, above the shops, how many empty places there are—who owns them?” she says. “The council said years ago they were going to force landlords to free them up, that they would be bought by the council and turned into flats for people. Look at that one, empty, that one empty, empty. We’ve got enough land. Build a few more bloody houses. And these people won’t care if they’re five families to one flat. It’s not a lot to ask is it?”

People tell you they are dubious about the building of the deserted plush £250 million marina next to where migrants are held on arrival. The processing centre was attacked by a racist throwing petrol bombs last year. One man walking his dog near that Western Dock says, “They put themselves in danger. How bad do you have to be to put your wife and kids in one of those boats? You can’t have everyone coming in. But we’d do the same, wouldn’t we?”

A security guard outside the centre is a “past retirement age” man. He said he works there “to make sure these people were being treated well. You want to see they’re all right. Because they must be desperate, mustn’t they?” His employer, Mitie Care & Custody, is the bit of the Mitie outsourcing giant that does migrant detention for the government. 

In its last annual report it noted that it works “very closely with the Home Office to ensure a flexible approach to help deal with the challenges in immigration services, including the ramp up of services to deal with the increasing volume of small boat arrivals on the south coast.” It also noted the revenue of Mitie Care & Custody was £373 million—41 ¬percent higher than the year before. Profit was up 37 percent to £33 million.

Dover was built to be a defensive place. The castle up on the cliffs, which has on occasion been a holding jail for migrants, dominates the town. The Folkstone Road is lined with some old Victorian buildings that were once quite posh. But it is poor. One shop worker said they have lived along the road for nearly 60 years and described how “it’s not like it used to be”.

They spoke of a lack of local pride and said, “If you lived in Folkestone Road you used to have money. But now, it’s just full of guesthouses and small rented flats. The town definitely needs help. Not just Folkestone Road, our town. It’s disgusting. They’ve put rates and rents up so shops have just closed down. If you walk through the town it’s just not nice.” Another says, “It was a dump years ago and it’s still a dump despite the people moving in from London.”

This is a theme across the Kent coast. It is a deeply resented migration of people who used the property boom and the pandemic to cash in their London homes and flee to the seaside. Three different people mention “fucking DFLs”— own From London—pushing property prices up and leaving the bad housing for the locals.

The poorest ward is St Radigunds, up the hill on the edge of town, and the view of the Kent countryside doesn’t really help.

One woman said, “This area has always been like it is. I remember when I was young, my mum said to me, ‘If you get a house, just make sure it’s anywhere but St Radigunds’. But it isn’t that bad. And to be honest, I’ve never had any trouble from the foreigners.” One man said, “You can understand maybe why they’re coming. But at the same time, your thoughts are where are these people going to live. What are they going to do? There is nothing round here for them. With that comes a suspicion and fear.”

And the suspicion and fear is being pushed. Between the two areas is a school that has seen pupil protests over sexual violence and harassment (see below). But the voices of pupils are being drowned out as the far right are desperate to exploit the case. And many myths float around—adult refugees pretending to be children is a disturbingly common one. There are no shortage of right wing video “journalists” hanging around Dover looking to stir up hate on the internet.

From “migrant hunters” videoing at hotels and the racist conspiracists hanging around the school students, to the mainstream media echoing the Tories and their anti-immigrant MP, there is a constant, dangerous noise.

There are more anti-racists than racists. There are many in Dover helping migrants. There are many who are appalled at the whipping up of racism and are worried about where it might lead. But the drip feed of poison won’t stop on its own. It needs to be faced down, and fast.

We need numbers to beat racists

Campaigners are working hard in Dover to counter the racist threat—challenging the lies, and confronting the far right. Often, they find themselves at the forefront of a battle of ideas.

School and college students in Dover have held a series of protests in recent weeks over sexual violence, and authorities’ refusal to listen to them. It comes after a student at one Dover school accused four Afghan boys who had recently arrived in Britain of raping her. Far right and Nazi groups such as Patriotic Alternative have taken a keen interest.

Beccy Sawbridge, a lifelong anti-racist, Green Party councillor and supporter of Stand Up To Racism has been talking to school students and parents involved in the protests. She told Socialist Worker that the protests are mostly about demanding that schools and the police deal with complaints properly.

“School and college students in the area have banded together. This latest case has become a catalyst, but they’ve been complaining for a long time and nothing has been done. When I went to the demo the students—girls and boys—were saying the school needs to treat us properly.

“They’re chanting things like ‘it’s a dress, not an invitation’ and painting hand prints on their legs and arms in the same way we did in the 80s and 90s when we were combating lad culture.”

But, Beccy added, the potential of racists and the far right to influence the protests is a real threat. “The difficulty is that the protesters will be split on this,” she said. “Some of them are already talking about joining the fascist protest. People in the area know me as someone in their community, but they’re also saying things like, these immigrants need to learn to live like us British people.”

Beccy said racism has become a threat in Dover “because of the way the political terrain has changed in recent years. Tory home secretary Suella Braverman has been calling refugees invaders.”

That’s why anti-racists’ job in Dover is twofold. First, they have to counter the racist lies. “We stand on the side of winning hearts and minds and countering some of the atrocious bile that is spewed out,” said Beccy. Second, they have to confront and counter the Nazis when they march.

Steve Wilkins, another supporter of Dover Stand Up To Racism, said activists are planning a counter-protest on the day the Nazis march. “We’ve had a good Zoom meeting of anti-racists in Kent. We’re going to rally in the town centre, and some of us want to go and confront the fascists. People from London and Southampton are coming to support us too. We need numbers.”

Nick Clark

Join the anti-fascist protest against Patriotic Alternative: Saturday 4 March, Market Square, Dover, 12pm. More info here
London coach to anti-fascist protest in Dover. Stand Up to Racism and South East Region TUC are running a coach from London to support the anti-fascists in Dover. Book your ticket

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