Tensions run high in Hastings over small boat arrivals

·5 min read

Ten days ago, people stood on the beach in Hastings and tried to prevent a lifeboat crew from going into the sea to rescue a group of refugees in a flimsy dinghy. According to a witness, they were shouting at the RNLI: “Don’t bring any more of those, we’re full up, that’s why we stopped our donations.”

Meanwhile, a group from the same town calling itself Hastings Supports Refugees has set up what is thought to be the first emergency response team run by volunteers to welcome the bedraggled, traumatised newcomers and provide them with hot food and drinks, dry clothes and a warm welcome as soon as they come ashore.

The two approaches underline tensions at the heart of one East Sussex coastal town affected by the rise in small boat arrivals which culminated in 27 people drowning as they attempted to cross the Channel last Wednesday. The Guardian visited this week.

Related: On the Kent coast, locals fear they will see more deaths as migrants keep crossing

Hastings, population around 100,000, is on the frontline of the small boat arrivals. Refugees have been landing on its beach since 2019 but in line with the overall tripling of numbers this year there has been a huge increase, particularly in the last month.

Dinghies not picked up by Border Force vessels when they are heading for Dover often drift towards Hastings or other towns on the south coast such as Dungeness, depending on weather and tides.

The angry backlash happened on Saturday 20 November, and emerged after a woman called Zoe called James O’Brien’s LBC radio show last week. It was reported in the Hastings Observer on Tuesday.

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Zoe said she was on the beach with her boyfriend when the “lifeboat crew pulled the boat out and were going to go into the water” before a group “stood directly in the line of the boat so the boat couldn’t be put in the water”.

An RNLI spokesperson confirmed to the Guardian that the incident had been reported to police, that the lifeboat had been able to launch and the Hastings lifeboat station remained in service. It isn’t the first time RNLI has faced criticism. In July Nigel Farage accused it of facilitating illegal migration, a claim strongly rebutted by RNLI. Donations to the charity subsequently surged.

Previously, far-right supporters have turned up at the beach to hear from figures such as Nigel Marcham, known as Little Veteran, whipping up hostility towards people arriving in small boats.

These moments have left some residents horrified. Many have responded generously to appeals from Hastings Supports Refugees to buy £5 Primark joggers, tops and underwear for people to change into on arrival so they can get out of clothes sodden with sea water. Restaurants and cafes have cooked trays of piping hot chips along with hot drinks and rushed them down to the beach.

The beach response team has a box of emergency supplies at the ready and as soon as the phone pings to say there are new arrivals coming ashore, volunteers hurry down to the beach.

Jane Grimshaw, one of the coordinators of the beach response team and co-chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary, said: “From Dover to Hastings is the frontline of this. We do feel in the eye of this particular storm. It’s easy to disconnect from what’s going on with the refugees unless you see their suffering yourself.”

The group says it does witness people standing on the beach shouting: “Go home”. But this is not the norm.

Grimshaw, Rachael Roser and Rachel Lowden, who are also involved with the emergency response team, provided heartrending examples of things they have witnessed in the moments after people arrive on the beach. In extreme cases, the refugees are believed to have been at sea for more than 24 hours.

The women were not sure if one refugee who arrived recently was dead or alive and had to gently coax food into his mouth to try to revive him. Some are children, and one produced a crumpled piece of corrugated cardboard he had tried to keep dry inside his clothing. He explained it was the phone number for his uncle in London. The boy called him on one of the volunteers’ phones and whoops of joy that he had survived and was safely in the UK could be heard down the line.

Another boy who was offered a phone to call relatives shook his head and said he had been travelling for so long he was no longer in touch with any family members.

One Syrian boy was clutching a piece of plastic which he refused to let go of. Police wanted to check what he had in his hand and it transpired it was his only photo of his mother, who had died in the conflict in his home country. He had kept the photo safe throughout his long and difficult journey and was not prepared to part with it now he had finally reached the UK.

BJ Griffiths, a boatman and a longtime Hastings resident, told the Guardian he had reservations about the refugees, however. “I saw about 30 of them arriving in a boat only meant for 10 people. There are people who live in this country who are homeless. Where is the money coming from to provide accommodation for these new arrivals?” he told the Guardian.

One man, who declined to give his name but said he was a boatman commodore, said: “I don’t mind migrants and if I was in their situation I would want to do what they’re doing. But there’s an awful lot of bad feeling about them coming in our boatyard.”

Meanwhile a local coffee shop has made its thoughts clear, posting a notice in the window which reads: “This cafe is a hostile environment for the home secretary.”

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