On patrol with Channel Rescue: the clifftop spotters watching out for migrants

Anger and compassion on England’s south coast as the UK’s immigration politics play out in the English Channel

Members of volunteer group Channel Rescue look for inflatable boats carrying migrants from northern Europe. Mark Chilvers for The National
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The spotters with their binoculars on the clifftops tracked the overcrowded boat with increasing nervousness as it appeared to be heading for disaster on the rocks off the south-eastern tip of England.

Their frantic waves appeared to work and the orange inflatable edged towards the safety of the shore as the spotters abandoned their post and ran to the stony beach. As they arrived, the 20 or so migrants started to jump into the sea, threatening to overturn the small boat with some of the most vulnerable passengers still inside.

The aftermath is captured on shaky mobile phone footage by a witness at Kingsdown Beach, just along the coast from Dover, the traditional main entry point to the UK. The migrants tossed their lifejackets aside and scattered, leaving just the two spotters by the boat and a hostile group of holidaymakers who suspected them of complicity in people smuggling.

“Who were those blokes who came down from over here to hold it [the boat]?” says one. “They have to be in with it, don’t they?”

The witness later challenges the two men. “You’re aiding and abetting aren’t you?” he says. “Don’t worry, the police are coming.”

Perceptions matter in the feverish atmosphere of Britain’s immigration debate. The two men had nothing to do with a people smuggling operation but are from a band of 50 volunteers, known as Channel Rescue, dedicated to assisting the thousands who have travelled in small boats to the UK in 2021.

But the footage rapidly went viral and was picked up by Nigel Farage, an anti-immigration politician turned broadcaster. It has been viewed more than 215,000 times on Twitter. “This is really shocking. A reception committee that guided one of the boats to shore today,” wrote the former head of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party on Twitter.

The abusive messages and the death threats followed. Channel Rescue, a tiny organisation reliant on public donations, had to bring in an extra person to clean up their social media of the venomous messages directed their way.

“It was a week of non-stop abuse,” said Steven, an epidemiologist, and one of the volunteers who went to the aid of the dinghy. “We got hundreds of death threats through social media. We were getting: ‘Watch your back now – we’re going to throw you over the cliff.’”

The organisation is not alone in being affected by anti-migrant sentiment. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution – one of the UK’s most respected charities – suffered a hit to its donations in an apparent backlash against it rescuing people from unseaworthy vessels bound for Britain.

But donations rocketed when the head of the RNLI mounted a vigorous defence of the organisation's humanitarian work. However, Channel Rescue took the decision to stand down its volunteers for a few days to ensure they could continue their work safely.

South coast patrol

The volunteers do not give their full names nor reveal where their operations hub is based in case it is targeted by far-right activists. They have become wary of messages from “supporters” wanting to fund their operations – but pointedly requesting an address to which they can send their cheques.

As they returned to work this week, The National joined the group on one of its patrols of a 40-kilometre stretch of coastline on the south-east tip of England that has become the likely destination for migrants arriving by boat from northern Europe.

Set up last year in response to concerns over the UK government’s hardening attitudes to migration, Channel Rescue includes locals and veterans of larger-scale humanitarian efforts in the Aegean Sea, on an earlier leg of the migrants’ journeys.

Steven, 37, had previously worked as a volunteer on the Greek island of Lesbos, working by day to build showers and toilets at the sprawling refugee camp of Moria. At night, he went to the coastline to watch for new arrivals to the island travelling by boat from Turkey.

Cross-Channel migration is of a much smaller scale. However, so far in 2021, more than 9,000 people have travelled by small boat to the UK from northern Europe – the largest number in a generation. Traffickers shifted to boat-based operations after tighter security at ferry and train terminals in France and Covid-19 related travel restrictions made it harder to smuggle people in the backs of lorries.

Despite overall asylum numbers falling, the UK government last week unveiled proposals for a new law to dissuade migrants from coming to the UK. This was the latest of a series of announcements intended to limit numbers attempting the dangerous boat crossings across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Home Secretary Priti Patel followed it up with a multi-million funding package to help France bolster security on its side of the Channel to stop people leaving its beaches in the first place.

The numbers have not slowed, but the increased number of border patrol vessels in the English Channel – which measures 33 kilometres across at its narrowest point – has dramatically cut the numbers of small boats reaching English shores under their own steam.

France has also intercepted three times the number of small boats this year compared with 2020, while most of those that make it into English waters are stopped mid-journey and brought to UK to start the long process of claiming asylum.

Tell-tale signs

The landing at Kingsdown Beach was therefore a relatively rare occurrence in 2021 and attributed to the patrol vessels being overwhelmed on a particularly busy day when warm weather and calm conditions encouraged the mass launch of boats.

For the most part, Channel Rescue volunteers scan the horizon at key spotting points along the coast with spectacular views over the sea. They are looking for the tell-tale signs of migrant boats: a black line lying low in the water moving erratically under the low power of a cheap outboard motor or the pre-dawn glow of a mobile phone using a mapping app as a navigational device. The closer they get, the easier it is to hear the shouting for help.

If Channel Rescue volunteers spot a boat, they contact emergency services so they can be rescued. If they see a boat intercepted by Border Force, a law enforcement command within the UK's Home Office, they mark the position and monitor the operation as best they can to ensure the rules of the sea for distressed sailors are correctly applied.

For Steven and Uri, his fellow volunteer, weather conditions are key to how busy they will be during the day. Most migrant boats set out at night and if the waves are too high – as on the day The National visited – they usually abandon their efforts.

For those who do set sail, the crossing takes about five hours. For the spotters, it means an early start – the prospect of a boat arriving after noon is minimal.

The increased security has changed the nature of the crossings. Pressure by French police around Calais and Dunkirk has pushed the beach launches further up the coast towards Belgium.

“We heard from people who ended up here that they were pointed towards the lights of Dover and told ‘aim for those’,” said Steven. “Now they are going further to the west. We thought at first it was the current but it’s happening with such regularity it seems it’s one of the places people aim for.”

Taking to the sea

The group is looking to expand its operations and has bought a boat after a £16,000 ($22,230) crowdfunding operation. It will be equipped to carry out its own rescues, if required, but will also allow closer monitoring of the government’s operations.

The new proposals unveiled by Ms Patel includes potential for returning migrant boats to French waters with the permission of Paris. The issue of “pushbacks” has been a source of controversy in the Mediterranean with rights groups accusing the Greek government with the connivance of the EU’s border force, Frontex, of the practice.

Steven said their monitoring efforts had not uncovered any examples of pushbacks – which many lawyers say are against international law – but said the group was concerned about the growing harsh language used by the government as it tries to tackle the problem.

Campaigners also contest the government’s depiction of migration as a crisis. Asylum applications hit a peak of 84,000 in 2002 but in 2019 were less than half that number. Middle East nationals represented the highest proportion of applicants last year, at 29 per cent.

Channel Rescue has urged the UK government to put more effort into reducing the large backlog of applications, making asylum easier to dissuade people from making the dangerous trip, and for providing better conditions for those who do arrive.

The government came under fire on Friday over the conditions in which people were held after they arrived for processing for asylum. MPs visiting a centre for new arrivals found 56 people, including women and babies, in a small room amid “shocking” conditions in Dover. Most people were found lying or sitting on thin mattresses in “totally inappropriate” conditions, said Yvette Cooper, the head of a parliamentary committee investigating Britain’s immigration system.

Channel Rescue says that the increasingly tough policies adopted by government – including promoting the idea of offshore centres to process asylum claims – have encouraged the rise of anti-migrant sentiment.

One anti-migrant group – which describes the migrants as “parasites” on its Twitter feed – has also bought its own fast boat with an outboard engine, raising the possibility of confrontations in the Channel.

It was not clear what the group plans to do with its boat and it did not respond to a request for comment from The National.

But Steven and Uri said they were aware of a dangerous minority of far-right or anti-immigration extremists seeking to take advantage of the publicity. Steven told The National that two cyclists who claimed to be patrolling the seafront near Dungeness on the watch for migrants sought to recruit him after he was spotted gazing out to sea with his binoculars.

Bridget Chapman, a spokeswoman for the Kent Refugee Action Network, which helps unaccompanied children who have arrived in Britain, said her organisation is regularly trolled online and receives threats online because of their work. She dismisses the threats as the work of a minority of “cranks” who don’t represent mainstream views.

But she says it is a disservice to the people on the south coast who have a proud history of welcoming migrants in distress through the years. On a single day in August 1914, the town of Folkestone welcomed 16,000 migrants from Belgium. They had fled across the Channel in a flotilla of boats after their country was overrun by a German advance into France, following the start of the First World War.

A painting in Folkestone Museum by Italian artist Fredo Franzoni – one of those who fled – was presented to the town in gratitude for the welcome they received.

“Folkestone has a proud history of welcoming people,” said the museum’s curator Darran Cowd. “A resolution was passed under our current mayor that Folkestone has been, and always will be, a welcoming place for anyone who needs to travel through it as a place of refuge.

“That’s enshrined in our workings as an organisation.”

The fears of Channel Rescue are of more deaths in the Channel from those attempting the perilous journey.

Four members of one Iranian-Kurdish family died when their dinghy capsized. The body of one 15-month-old Iranian boy was found washed ashore on Norway’s south-west coast when his boat capsized in January hundreds of miles away.

“There should be at least one common understanding, that bodies washing up on the beach is not a good thing,” said Steven.

Updated: August 01, 2021, 3:39 AM