DUNGENESS, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – Mr Alan Purchase looked out of his living room window earlier this week to see about a dozen young men running from one of the shingle beaches in Dungeness on the Channel coast in southeast England.
As he watched, the new arrivals ran inland along an old narrow-gauge railway, discarding belongings in gardens along the way.
“I’ve never seen it like that before,” the 66-year-old retired antiques shop owner said.
“It was a bit intimidating, I must admit,” he said, adding he immediately called the emergency services and heard sirens minutes later.
The fleeing migrants were among around 750 believed to have reached Britain’s shores after crossing the Channel on Monday (Sept 6) alone.
The dramatic increase in migrants arriving from France has jolted the sleepy backwater of Dungeness, which juts into the Channel on the tip of the Kent coast.
According to Britain’s domestic Press Association news agency, at least 14,100 people have come over the busy shipping lane to the UK on small boats this year – some 6,000 more than for the whole of 2020.
Such is the scale of recent arrivals that Home Secretary Priti Patel has reportedly sanctioned “pushback” tactics to turn back the boats and threatened to withhold millions pledged to Paris to tackle the issue, a move fiercely condemned in France.
In Dungeness, around 40km southwest of the busy port of Dover, the sight of newly-arrived migrants running off into usually quiet residential neighbourhoods has become more common.
Meanwhile the lifeboat station in Dungeness, along with several others on the stretch of coastline, has brought ashore hundreds of migrants picked up crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Home to the low-lying ecological site Romney Marsh, several hamlets and a disused nuclear power station, the tranquil corner of Kent – a county nicknamed the garden of England – is now awash with police and border enforcement officers.
Other locals have similar stories of encountering arriving migrants, as a spell of fine weather is thought to have sparked the renewed surge in crossings.
But whereas arrivals on beaches nearer Dover have been more common in recent years, the number and size of the inflatable boats now coming ashore in Dungeness has surprised residents.
“It’s getting worse. I’ve seen it a few times recently: boats on the beach, people running,” said builder Matt Briffit, 27, as he worked on a local house.
“I think the government should do something – they’re not doing anything.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed on Wednesday to use every possible tactic to stop the “criminal masterminds” behind the crossings.
The situation has sparked considerable tension between France and Britain.
On Thursday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin pushed back against reports London could withhold funding and may resort to turning back migrant boats, after meeting Patel a day earlier.
Accusing London of “financial blackmail”, he said France would “not accept any practice that breaks maritime law”.
In Dungeness, where law enforcement officers scanning the Channel horizon from the beaches and patrolling coastal roads are now a common sight, locals were sceptical the French were doing enough to help.
“Of course they’re not helping – they can’t wait to get rid of them,” said one lifelong resident who charters fishing vessels, referring to the migrants.
“The French, I don’t think they’ve ever done Britain any favours, if you look at history,” added the 66-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous.
Mr Purchase, the local retiree, said he was “sympathetic” to some people needing to seek asylum in the UK but believed the country was “an easy touch” when it comes to immigration.
“Brexit was meant to mean tougher borders – that’s what most people voted for,” he added of Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, which Mr Johnson delivered on last year.