In pictures: Calais migrant crisis sparks rival protests at UK port town
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Rival protests on the Calais migrant crisis were held on Saturday in the sleepy British port town of Folkestone, with some people welcoming the migrants while others demonstrated against their arrival.
The cranking up of the loudspeakers was the cue they had been waiting for. With their Union Jack flags flapping in the breeze and their sound systems blaring out an instrumental version of “God Save the Queen,” a handful of anti-immigrant protesters charged a group of pro-migrant demonstrators who were gathering on the other side of a road leading to the Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal.
The anti-immigrant activists, made up of members of the far-right Britain First group and English Defence League (EDL), had gathered in this sleepy English seaside town to stage a rival protest over the growing numbers of migrants attempting to cross from France to Britain through the Channel Tunnel.
But when the small group of Britain First members attempted to charge the rival demonstration across the road, they were promptly blocked by police officers and the two protests continued peacefully.
While there were only around 50 people at both demonstrations, the rival groups were addressing an issue that is dominating the front pages in the UK.
And in this remote corner of Kent, both groups were keen to present their respective versions of the Calais migrant crisis.
“Migrants are being dehumanised. [British Prime Minister David] Cameron recently referred to them as a ‘swarm’ - that’s a word you would use for ants or bees, not for humans. A columnist for The Sun Kathy Hopkins, even compared migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to cockroaches,” Bridget Chapman, head of the Folkestone United group that organised the pro-migrant protest, told FRANCE 24.
“The media also spreads lies when they suggest that a big group of 2000 migrants tried to storm the tunnel in one go. It’s irresponsible to give this impression," added the activist.
‘Milking the UK benefits’
On the other side of the Eurotunnel service road, far-right militants insist on portraying migrants as people looking for generous benefits after reaching the safety of Europe.
“If they were French people fleeing tyranny, we would give them temporary shelter. But they’re migrants who’ve come halfway across the world to milk our benefits,” Paul Golding, the leader of Britain First, told FRANCE 24.
An EDL militant, who gave his name as John, turned up with a local Kent county flag to “oppose the Far Left and tell the whole world that they don’t represent the people of Kent”.
“You don’t see women, children and older people. They’re what I call fighting-age men. Why are these people coming to our country? Yes, I think there could be Islamic State fighters among them," said the 40-year-old senior manager from behind his mask.
Despite their competing narratives, protesters from both groups have one thing in common: they rarely see the Calais migrants they are demonstrating about. Asylum seekers who succeed in reaching England don’t stop in Folkestone. They usually head to London or some other big cities, where they hope to find a job through their family or acquaintances.
Migrant crisis disrupting local traffic
Folkestone has none of the large Calais “jungle” camps. There is a sharp contrast between the laidback atmosphere in this seaside town and the migrant shanty towns that have grown up around the French city. In its heyday as an upmarket resort, Folkestone was famous throughout the country for its Leas Promenade with magnificent Victorian mansions and panoramic views of the coastline.
This is where Chris, a local bank worker, took a friend from Australia on a stroll. The French coast, some 35 kilometres away across the glittering sea, is barely visible from here. Chris believes the Calais migrant crisis is having a strong impact on the residents of Folkestone.
“I haven’t got any problem with immigrants; I got a problem with chaos. The Eurotunnel disruptions have forced authorities to close the motorway to turn it into a lorry park and locals can’t go anywhere,” said the 40-year-old supporter of the Conservative Party.
His comments are echoed by the reception manager at “The Grand”, an imposing Victorian-era hotel flying the Union Jack, where King Edward VII used to stay when he was visiting Folkestone.
“I had to cancel quite a few trips to Ashford [a large town nearby] because of the traffic problems – I even missed a marriage because of that. In town it’s fine, but if you want to travel, it can be an absolute nightmare,” James Spinks told FRANCE 24.
The 23-year-old reception manager adds that business at “The Grand” has been affected, with guests cancelling their booking because of the current disruptions.
Coastal towns identity trouble
Back at the Eurotunnel service road, the pro-migrant group has started to march towards a bridge overlooking a motorway leading to the tunnel entrance. Traffic is flowing below but Chapman acknowledges the recent transport disturbances.
“It’s a tiny inconvenience compared to what many of the migrants went through,” says the activist.
Another pro-migrant protester, Belinda Walker, explains that coastal towns like Folkestone are less likely to tolerate such disruptions as they already struggle to reinvent themselves.
“People used to come here for two weeks, now they come only for a day trip. A lot of coastal towns feel like they’ve been left behind, that they lost something," Walker, a NHS worker, told FRANCE 24.
“As they try to redefine their identity, they can be seduced by groups like UKIP, which plays on the idea that this country could be great if it was not for the immigrants."
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