By Isabel Ringrose
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Solidarity by the sea in Sussex

As refugees arrive on the shores of southern England, the Tories and the right wing press tell stories of hatred and hostility. But in Hastings Isabel Ringrose found a network of activists to help arrivals on the beach—and a sense of sympathy among the people who live there
Issue 2784
A woman sits reading on a bench in front of a mural that reads "Our differences don't have to divide us"

Messages of support and solidarity on Hastings seafront (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Pushed off course by winds and tides, boats of refugees now regularly arrive on the beaches of Hastings. And many of the people who live there have sprung into action with solidarity and support.

Volunteers with Hastings Supports Refugees set up a beach response team who are on standby for when boats or lifeboats arrive.

In November one dinghy was rescued carrying 53 refugees, including five children. Another rescued dinghy had been lost in the water for about 20 hours.

Pubs and cafes have provided food, tea and hot chocolate to hand out, as well as clothing.

For those arriving, crossing the Channel between northern France and the English south coast is the last leg of an arduous journey.

With routes in the back of lorries or through the tunnel tightened up, some 26,000 refugees have taken to the freezing and busy water in dinghies this year.

Too often these boats don’t last the journey. Just two weeks ago 27 refugees drowned while British and French authorities cynically squabbled over whose responsibility they were.

Rachel Roser is a volunteer for Hastings Supports Refugees and part of the beach first response team. She told Socialist Worker that when volunteers receive alerts of an incoming boat, “you don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

“But then you get to the beach and see ordinary people in need, and swing into action. You feel like you’ve done something useful and worthwhile.”

Rachel explained that when leaving northern France, refugees head to Dover. “When they come to Hasting something has gone wrong,” she said. “They’ve been pushed off course, it’s windy, or they don’t have enough petrol. Then the lifeboats bring them here.”

“The vast majority of people in Hastings are lovely and want to help,” Rachel added. Activists and volunteers formed a network to ensure they’re always on hand when a boat arrives.

The RNLI is called out to sea to rescue boats, receiving calls from boats themselves or others who know of boats in distress. Rescuers can alert volunteers, and tracking apps also help people to keep an eye on the movement of different boats in the Channel.

Residents on the sea front also watch out and alert each other if a boat is coming in, or being rescued.

Since the deaths, Hasting Supports Refugees has smashed a target of £5,000 in donations and instead hit £20,000, showing that people across the country are also looking to help.

All over, people have seen and are asking what they can do to help

So while the Tories and the state try to keep refugees out, ordinary people have stepped in to fill the gap.

Rachel thinks people have responded like this because the reality of refugees’ plight has revealed itself on the beach on their very doorsteps.

“You can’t turn a blind eye,” she said. “All over, people have seen and are asking what they can do to help.

“We’ve been overwhelmed. People are donating shoes and jogging bottoms because those who come in from being rescued are wet—the local Primark has been selling out.”

“We will continue to be there to help people. Our cars are stuffed full of donations—there’s been so much support locally.”

On the social media pages of Hastings’ local newspapers, Rachel says that most people are supportive and want to help—and challenge negative comments.

She explained that some people in Hastings are hostile. “But it feels like a minority,” she said. “A lot of people think things in theory, but when there’s a real person who’s come over in front of them, they don’t say anything.

“People shouldn’t believe what’s in the papers. I explain to people that we have half the amount of refugees coming to Britain than there were 20 years ago, so the numbers have been decreasing.”

The blood of each person who has died on the channel is on the hands of Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and all those who champion border controls.

 “It feels really sad that 27 people drowned, especially because it could’ve gone differently,” Rachel said. “If they were rescued, it could’ve been me giving them some tea or dry socks.”

“I’m angry because I know it could’ve been stopped. There should be a way to safely claim asylum before they get to England. Some suggest a consulate in Calais, but what about a website to claim online before they make the journey?

“The government could take action to stop this overnight if it wants to. But doing the opposite plays into the Tories’ racist agenda—they feed people the myth that there’s an invasion.

“They want to keep that myth alive.”

A mural depicts refugees arriving on a dinghy, greeted by others on the shore holding a banner that reads "You are safe here." The words "Welcome those who seek refuge" are written across the top of the mural

People in Hastings have welcomed refugees (Picture: Guy Smallman)

‘These people are human—we all need to care for each other’—voices from the sea front

Not everyone in Hastings feels so strongly that they become involved with support for the incoming refugees. But many people there feel more welcoming to refugees than the Tories and the media would have us believe.

Matthew lives and works in Hastings. “These people coming are human—we should remember that,” he told Socialist Worker. “We all need to care for each other and help one another.”

Caroline, another Hastings resident, added that it’s “shocking” how refugees would rather risk their lives crossing the Channel than stay in the conditions they’re fleeing from. 

“It shows the level of desperation people reach,” she said. “These people probably don’t earn much money at home, and they use their life savings on a potentially disastrous trip trying to reach a better life and get away from where they are.

“The places they’re leaving are war torn countries, or countries with suffering. Or they’re trying to reach loved ones here.”

Caroline also wants refugees who arrive to be accommodated properly. “There should be a system in place to help them to be safe somewhere—it doesn’t matter where—so long as they have security, warmth and the basics,” she added.

Another woman told Socialist Worker she agreed that “there needs to be a process so that they don’t have to cross water”.

“But I think it would be better if they could stay where they are, with their families. They should be able to ask to come here only if their country is in a bad state,” she said.

She also believes that refugees are coming to Britain because it’s seen as a “soft touch” and “the government isn’t able to sort the situation out”.

Lucy, a college student in Hastings, disagrees. She thinks the majority of refugees can’t simply stay put and should be welcomed, but that the Tories are making this impossible.

Britain isn’t the main destination for migrants—it takes a handful of refugees every year in comparison to other European countries.

 “These crossings are so risky, but they’re clearly leaving terrible conditions,” Lucy explained. “No one would put their lives at risk unless it was too dangerous for them to stay where they are.”

“They’re not getting any help. Why not?” she asked. “Kids are dying needlessly and no one seems to be helping. How can that be allowed to happen?”

“Refugees are not coming to do damage and steal jobs like we’re told, but to be safe.

“I can’t work out how people believe otherwise. Or believe that there’s nothing that can be done here. Keeping people safe shouldn’t be so difficult.”

 “Unfortunately for them, refugees come from areas that aren’t as well off as Britain,” Lucy added. “I can go on holiday while it’s being made illegal for them to travel.

“People here need to be educated more as to why they’re coming over. And we need a government that’s going to help.”

The front of an RNLI lifeboat station

The RNLI lifeboat station on the beach in Hastings (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The truth about the fishers and the blocked lifeboat

News stories circulated last week of fishers in Hastings “blocking” an RNLI lifeboat on the beach as it headed out to rescue migrants.

But Jenny Sutton, an activist with Hastings Stand Up To Racism, says this paints an inaccurate picture of what happened.

“Accusations of fishers blocking the lifeboat have been rejected in a statement by the fisherman’s association saying that wasn’t true,” she explained.

Hastings has an open beach, where both fishers and the RNLI launch their boats. There was an argument when the RNLI shouted at a fisher, who was on the beach, to get out of the way.

A lorry driver, unconnected to the fishers, then threw abuse at RNLI volunteers for rescuing migrants.

Jenny said activists have “been keen to play down any false polarisation” between the fishers and volunteers, as it feeds the divides the Tories rely on.

While campaigning Jenny said there has been some hostility, but it’s often from people “who have been shafted themselves,” said Jenny.

“They can’t get a house, or a job, and they use the ‘too many foreigners’ classic line we’re fed.

“There’s a lot of poverty in Hastings, yet we’ve also had people come up to us with not much money but who are donating baked beans and clothes.”

“Once locals meet people off the boats, they see the desperate state they’re in. It hits home and after engaging directly and getting their stories it’s clear they’re just ordinary people.”

Jenny slammed Priti Patel’s policies for “promoting drowning as the ultimate deterrent” and said the Home Office knew a deadly incident was going to happen.

“They dehumanise refugees and once they do, refugees are no longer seen as people—but illegal immigrants.”

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