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Migrants are rescued from the English Channel by UK Border Force in Dover, England on Sept. 12.

PETER NICHOLLS/Reuters

John Tart has spent most of his 71 years fishing and managing a lighthouse along a windswept beach on England’s south coast. This summer he’s seen something new on the water that has left him shaking his head: dinghies and rickety boats filled with people from war-ravaged countries making their way across the English Channel.

The crafts are barely seaworthy and are usually overloaded with men, women and children, soaking wet from their 11-hour journey. Last week Mr. Tart found 60 migrants huddled together along a seawall, waiting for Border Force officials to arrive. At other times he’s seen young men jump from the boats and scamper across the open fields, hoping to find sanctuary in the scattered houses that make up the village of Dungeness, only to be quickly rounded up by police.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” he said. “If the weather is good, you know you’re going to be busy. It’s ridiculous. They’ve just got to put a stop to this.”

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This stretch of coastline from Dungeness to Dover, about 40 kilometres long, has become a new focal point in the refugee crisis that has gripped Western Europe for almost a decade. More than 14,400 migrants have made the dangerous crossing from France so far this year, including 828 on a single day in August. That’s almost twice as many as in all of 2020, and the numbers keep rising.

The British government has been pressing France to do more to stop the flow of boats and even paid French border guards £54-million ($94-million) this summer to boost coastal patrols. Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel went further and authorized Border Force crews to turn back boats whenever possible. It’s not clear if Ms. Patel’s directive is legal or even practical, as Border Force commanders will still be compelled by international law to rescue migrants in distress.

French officials have reacted with horror and said they would play no part in what they deemed an inhumane and dangerous practice. Any attempt by Britain to turn boats around “would risk having a negative impact on our co-operation,” said French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

This isn’t the first time Britain and France have been at loggerheads over migrants. The port of Calais has long been a jumping-off point for asylum seekers hoping to get into the U.K., but the numbers began to swell in 2014 when refugees from Syria began streaming across European borders. French police have dismantled several “jungle camps” in Calais where thousands of migrants lived in squalid conditions, but many smaller settlements remain, and Britain has routinely questioned whether French officials are doing enough.

For years, migrants tried to stow away on trucks or trains heading through the Channel Tunnel to Dover. That’s become more difficult lately because of increased police surveillance and lower traffic volumes due to Brexit and the pandemic, so many migrants have decided to take their chances at sea.

It’s a perilous journey. On paper it’s not that far – just 30 kilometres from Calais to Dover. But the currents in the channel are notoriously unpredictable, and a sudden change in wind direction can quickly lead small vessels astray. The channel is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the wake from giant freighters can easily swamp a dinghy. In good weather it takes a dinghy about five hours to cross, but that can more than double if conditions turn rough.

One man died in August during a crossing after he jumped from a sinking boat to lighten the load.

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“It was dangerous and risky,” said Grmai Goitom, who made the journey this summer in a dinghy packed with 40 people. “It was very bad. There were lots of women and children.”

Mr. Goitom, 29, travelled alone and paid smugglers about €1,000 for a spot in the vessel. He’s now among roughly 400 migrants being held at a military base in Folkestone, near Dover, waiting for an immigration hearing that could be months away. He said he left Eritrea in 2018 and has been making his way across North Africa and Europe ever since. He wanted to come to the U.K. because he speaks some English and hopes to finish a degree in engineering. “I’m very happy to be here,” he said. “No more running.”

Mr. Goitom and the other migrants have been met with a mixed reception in Dover, an economically deprived community where the telltale signs of the surge in crossings are hard to miss. There’s a warehouse full of abandoned boats near the seafront, and a large tent has been set up in the dockyards to process migrants as they arrive.

It’s also not hard to find people who resent the constant stream of boats and blame migrants for putting pressure on social services. A group called Migrant Hunters has taken to shouting abuse at asylum seekers as they disembark from Border Force ships. “It is completely out of control,” one of the group’s ringleaders, Steve Laws, says in a video posted online. “People have had enough.”

Others have rallied around the new arrivals, and dozens of locals have formed a group called Channel Rescue, which monitors the seaway for migrant boats in distress.

A young migrant boy is carried by a Border Force official after arriving into Dover docks.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

On a sunny morning last weekend, four Channel Rescue volunteers stood on a cliff, peering out at the sea with high-powered binoculars. Next to them was a radio tuned to the marine emergency network, and down the hill they had a car filled with foil blankets, water bottles, towels and rescue ropes.

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At one point they watched a Border Force ship circle a dinghy and then stop to unload the occupants. Moments later the radio crackled with the voice of a commercial ship operator calling for someone to help a “migrant boat with 10-plus persons on board, all wearing orange life jackets.” By noon, a Border Force ship had picked up 29 migrants, all young men, and taken them to Dover.

Last week the group helped a dinghy that had landed on a beach in Kingsdown, outside Dover. As they offered water and snacks to the 31 men and women on board, a small crowd gathered on the beach and yelled at the migrants to go home. “I wanted to be part of the side offering a friendly face and blankets or water or food to show that we’re not all like that,” said Jane, a 66-year-old volunteer who didn’t want to give her full name because the volunteers had received so many death threats.

Further down the coast in Hastings, Jane Grimshaw, a co-founder of another refugee support group, fears the number of crossings will only increase in the coming months as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. “They are going to want to come here because they have ties to the U.K and they may have worked for U.K. military,” she said. “How do we manage this situation without stripping human beings of their dignity and hope – and the right to survival?”

She and other refugee advocates argue that the government’s hard-line approach won’t work and that the only solution is to make it easier for migrants to cross the channel so their refugee claims can be assessed. “We need to find a way to offer people safe passage, and it could be as simple as a humanitarian visa that people apply for in France and then they are given a ferry ticket,” said Bridget Chapman, who works with the Kent Refugee Action Network in Folkestone. “That would be much better for our border security because you would know exactly who was arriving and when they were arriving.”

Ms. Chapman added that Britain has managed far higher numbers of refugees in the past. During the First World War, thousands of Belgians fled across the channel in small boats after Germany invaded, including 16,000 who made it to Folkestone in a single day in August, 1914. “There’s a painting in the local museum of the refugees being greeted by a welcoming party which includes priests, the mayor and all the business people of the town,” she said.

But in nearby Hythe recently, many villagers were furious when the beachfront Stade Court Hotel was taken over by the Home Office this summer to house migrant families. It remains closed to the public, and last weekend two security guards could be seen patrolling the patio.

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“At first everyone was just outraged,” said Tom Clark, who lives in the village. “But it’s calmed down now. We hardly see anyone coming in or out of the hotel.”

His friend Tim Smith said the village has come to accept its role in the crisis. When asked if he favoured turning boats around, he shook his head. “It won’t work and it won’t stop them from coming. I don’t know what will.”

A damaged dinghy is seen on the beach in Wimereux, France on Sept. 12.

PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/Reuters

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