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Asylum seekers, Brexit, lorry queues and other Dover issues viewed by resident and reporter Sam Lennon

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No, Dover is not swamped with freshly-landed asylum seekers milling around the town centre.

There may be a misconception of this by outsiders because the port has been regularly featured on the news for years on this issue.

Sam Lennon watching the changes in Dover. The redevelopment of the Western Docks, 2016
Sam Lennon watching the changes in Dover. The redevelopment of the Western Docks, 2016

With the constant sight of Border Force vessels bringing people in, it is a very visible issue but in practical day-to-day terms it barely touches the lives of Dovorians.

Asylum seekers are brought into the Western Docks, usually by the Border Force, after being rescued at sea.

They are taken in for initial interviewing and processing but are soon afterwards driven out of the town in coaches.

Dovorians in the town centre know nothing about arrivals unless they hear about it in the news or social media.

They knew even less when the preferred method of asylum seekers was to hide in the backs of lorries sailing in from Calais.

A Border Force cutter returns to Dover. Picture: Sam Lennon
A Border Force cutter returns to Dover. Picture: Sam Lennon

The drivers would unwittingly spirit them out of the town and they would be discovered several miles inland.

Dover did have a community of asylum seekers living in bed and breakfast accommodation in Folkestone Road in the late 1990s. It was therefore nicknamed ‘Asylum Alley’ by sections of the national media.

These people have since moved but in autumn 1999 there were an estimated 750 in the town, still only making up 0.4% of its population.

These were mainly from the former Yugoslavia, Kurds (mainly from Iraq), Afghans, and Roma from eastern Europe.

There were racial tensions then, firstly with some locals dismissively labelling all these groups as Slovaks, but there was also violence.

Folkestone Road, once called Asylum Alley
Folkestone Road, once called Asylum Alley

The worst case was of a full-blown gang battle at a fairground in Pencester Gardens in the summer of 1999 when at least one man was severely slashed on the body.

An article from that year, published on the Institute of Race Relations website, reports that asylum seekers on Folkestone Road were pushed in front of moving cars and battered with iron bars.

A Roma woman on that road was beaten up following rumours that she was a prostitute. It was against the background of a myth that there were Roma brothels there.

Again like in the rest of this country, opinion on this issue in Dover is divided and continues to be so as the dinghies keep arriving from Calais. More than 11,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year.

One Dover woman sympathetic to asylum seekers, told me: “If I was fleeing war or persecution I’d want to be rescued.”

Dover Western Docks, where asylum seekers are brought in. Picture: Sam Lennon
Dover Western Docks, where asylum seekers are brought in. Picture: Sam Lennon

However there are also a number of Dovorians who see them as nothing but illegal immigrants. They also believe many are not genuine refugees, but economic migrants.

One Dover man told me: “They’re streetwise and they’re playing the system.”

Another said: “Most of these are young men who should be rebuilding their own countries.”

Issues that are regularly associated with Dover don’t actually dominate Dovorian’s lives.

The classic example is Brexit, with the focus on the town because it is the UK’s second closest point to the EU after the land border at Northern Ireland.

Symbol of Brexit, the Banksy mural, 2017
Symbol of Brexit, the Banksy mural, 2017

The artist Banksy had seized on this when he put up his Brexit mural on the A20 Townwall Street in 2017, instantly visible to drivers heading for the ferry port and France.

An Observer journalist came to speak to me, as a local reporter, on Dover’s viewpoint on the issue.

The district in the 2016 referendum had voted 62.2% to leave against 37.8% to remain. Nationally it was 51.89% to leave against 48.11%.

He kept asking me: “What’s the mindset of Dover?”

This was in 2019 when the UK was still in the process of leaving and by then I’d say the mindset was the same as in Birmingham or Liverpool.

‘Life went on after Brexit. Calais never vanished..!’

People were fed up with politicians squabbling over the issue, negotiations stalling and the poison of people being trolled on the subject.

The referendum result was a fait accompli and they wanted politicians and officials to “just get on with it.”

There was no special opinion in this area, despite it being just 21 miles from the Continent.

Life has gone on.

Months after the Brexit transition period ended, last New Year’s Eve, you can still see Calais from the White Cliffs at Langdon – it never vanished!

One occupational hazard of living in this key seaport is at times being held up in port-bound traffic, which can happen for several reasons.

One of Dover's neighbourhoods, Elms Vale
One of Dover’s neighbourhoods, Elms Vale

Traffic is snarled up because ferries movement is held up by violent storms or French workers going on strike in Calais.

In the summer of 2015 vehicles were delayed through Operation Stack over 32 days because of asylum seekers getting into the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone and French port workers going on strike.

In July 2016 port-bound traffic was held up for up to 12 hours because of too few staff at Dover-based French border controls.

It happened again in the week up to last Christmas when the French closed their borders to keep out a new strain of coronavirus.

Even a couple of days before that, on December 19, a long snake of lorries queued on the A20 next to Aycliffe.

One of the regular queues of lorries heading for Dover, December 2019. Picture: Sam Lennon
One of the regular queues of lorries heading for Dover, December 2019. Picture: Sam Lennon

Businesses stockpiling in case of a no-deal Brexit (though it was sealed five days later), the rush of supplies for Christmas and supply chains disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic had caused that.

The disruption can be so immense that drivers desperate to reach the Eastern Docks clog up arterial routes within the town such as Folkestone Road and Maison Dieu Road.

As this problem is so regular Dovorians have long learned to adapt.

They sit it out at home or walk rather than drive.

Or, as they know the roads of east Kent so well, they find alternative routes not familiar to passing outsiders.

The A20 Townwall Street on the Eastern Docks-bound side. It was clogged up after the French border closure, Christmas Eve 2020. Picture: Sam Lennon
The A20 Townwall Street on the Eastern Docks-bound side. It was clogged up after the French border closure, Christmas Eve 2020. Picture: Sam Lennon

During the 2015 hold-ups I worked in Ashford and got home to Dover by taking the A2070 to Romney Marsh and the slow A259 via Folkestone and Hythe. What was meant to be a 23-mile drive went up to 38.

It doubled my journey time from half-an-hour to an hour but I was able to keep moving and was saved from the maddening feeling of being stuck fast.

I can’t be the only Dover resident who has tried something like that.

Actually, you can cope in this town without a car. Particularly because there are two train routes to London and, aided by this, trains also going directly to many main Kent towns.

I was able to manage for three years without a car when I first came here before I learned to drive.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle

I first moved to Dover in March 1987, just a few weeks after the Herald of Free Enterprise sank.

As I began reporting in the town I could see, in response to its greatest tragedy, what a strong and close community this was.

This was in contrast to having come from sprawling London, where you can disappear into anonymity.

Every week, as a cub reporter, I was covering fundraising events and cheque presentations for the victims’ families and survivors.

That spirit showed itself again only recently, when the town rallied for a massive fundraising campaign for Kelly Turner, the Dover teenager struck with a rare cancer.

Kelly Turner in 2016. Picture: Tony Flashman
Kelly Turner in 2016. Picture: Tony Flashman

She died from the illness in November 2017. But while there was, hope, during her last 18 months, people in Dover and neighbouring areas raised more than half the £1 million needed for specialist treatment in New York.

The place has changed immensely since I first came here.

In ethnic terms almost all I saw and heard in the town were white faces and English voices.

The composition began to change in the late 1990s with the arrival of Slovaks and Roma people into the town.

This was followed by an influx of groups such as Poles and Czechs after several former Communist Bloc countries joined the EU in 2004.

The Elms Vale neighbourhood as seen from Whinless Down. Picture: Sam Lennon
The Elms Vale neighbourhood as seen from Whinless Down. Picture: Sam Lennon

There are in addition close Nepalese communities in areas too, such as in Burgoyne Heights, stemming from the Gurkhas.

They are also the remnants of a 1,000-year military presence in Dover until the nearby Connaught Barracks closed in March 2006.

There was a more localised migration into the Dover area in the early 20th century with the opening of the Kent Coalfield. Geordies, Scots, Scousers, Welshmen and Yorkshiremen poured in for the work.

I was there during the last days of the mines, helping cover the closure of Snowdown Colliery in October 1987 and the last pit, Betteshanger, in August 1989.

Similar groups of people moved in to work on the building of the Channel Tunnel at the turn of the 80s and 90s.

Dover's docks and town centre valley as seen from the Whinless Down hill. Picture: Sam Lennon
Dover’s docks and town centre valley as seen from the Whinless Down hill. Picture: Sam Lennon

The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 was the biggest change to the very being of Dover as a passenger port as it completely bypassed the area.

Dover District Council, anticipating it would flatten whole sections of the ferry industry, tried to find alternative jobs by investing more in tourism.

In 1991 it opened the White Cliffs Experience heritage centre in Market Square, now occupied by Dover Discovery Centre.

But that turned out to be a lossmaker, was nicknamed the White Elephant Experience and closed in 1999.

Alternative employment was found, such as through the opening of the present Cruise Terminal in 1996.

Dover harbour with the Eastern Docks in the foreground and Shakespeare Cliff in the distance
Dover harbour with the Eastern Docks in the foreground and Shakespeare Cliff in the distance

The Channel Tunnel did have a gradual and inevitable effect on Dover’s cross-Channel industry and one casualty was the hovercraft, which came to an end in 2000.

Seacat catamaran services that kept going in the following years also fizzled out.

With the hovercraft you could get to Calais in just an hour from arriving at the Hoverport at the Western Docks, including being there half-an-hour before the flight to check in.

Even before the pandemic, a foot passenger took two-and-a-half hours from arriving at the Eastern Docks before landing at Calais on a ferry.

With more security checks they had to arrive an hour early and take on a 90-minute crossing.

The St James' development in its first year, 2018
The St James’ development in its first year, 2018

How ironic that Dovorians are the geographically closest in Britain to France but can no longer make the short, simple hop there.

Today there is no trace of the Hoverport and the area is being rapidly redeveloped through the Dover Western Docks Revival.

More investment in the town has happened recently with the opening in 2018 of the £53 million St James’ Leisure and Retail Park, which began with the opening of Cineworld on March 9.

I was amazed when I first moved to Dover that there was no cinema at all.

St James’ has thankfully taken over land once occupied by the high rise Burlington House, called Dover’s ugliest building.

Burlington House in 2015, the year before its demolition. Picture: Tony Flashman
Burlington House in 2015, the year before its demolition. Picture: Tony Flashman

Living here, the gift that always keeps on giving is the countryside.

Not just the most obvious places like the White Cliffs at Langdon and the Western Heights but also the valleys further inland that Dover’s communities are built inside.

The resulting steep hills provide ample opportunity to keep fit by walking.

Whinless Down, between St Radigund’s and Tower Hamlets, was where I regularly marched during lockdown. The walk to Dover Castle, the town’s highest point, will also shed the pounds.

The castle is the most obvious sign of the area’s rich heritage and history but places like the Aycliffe area also have an interesting background. That was a setting for Shakespeare’s King Lear.

The top of the White Cliffs footpath named after Dame Vera Lynn. Picture: Sam Lennon
The top of the White Cliffs footpath named after Dame Vera Lynn. Picture: Sam Lennon

Dover’s wartime past was this summer acknowledged by the naming of the footpath to the Langdon cliffs after Dame Vera Lynn.

Dover District Leisure Centre, opened in 2019 as part of the vast expansion of Whitfield through the White Cliffs Business Park which has been there since the 1980s. One of the first companies to move there was Tesco in 1988.

Dover’s nightlife is beginning to perk up again after the pandemic lockdowns.

There was a lively karaoke night at the Elephant and Hind in Market Square last Saturday and a couple of new bars have popped up in the precinct, one replacing a gents’ tailors.

When I arrived in Dover it had the Images nightclub in Castle Street, nicknamed Damages because of punch-ups there.

The former Nu Age nightclub in Adrian Street. Picture: Sam Lennon
The former Nu Age nightclub in Adrian Street. Picture: Sam Lennon

The town centre has had its share of drunken brawls, sometimes leading to the nastiest assaults, but that can happen in any town.

Later came Nu Age in Adrian Street, mischievously dubbed Under Age by locals who had bypassed ID checks – although the nightclub had sections suiting generations up to 40 onwards.

As someone who grew up in London, Dover has had a strange pull for me. When I first arrived I expected to be here for just a few years before moving to a big city provincial newspaper.

That didn’t happen, even when I rented digs in the Medway Towns from 1998 to 2006, to work in that area and Dartford and Bexley. I never sold my house in Dover and returned permanently.

My family emigrated from France in 1970 when I was six to live in north London.

The first part of England I landed in for that new life… was of course, Dover.

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Read more: All the latest news from Dover

Business News Deal Dover Kent Sandwich Sam Lennon



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