More than 200 people gathered outside a former military barracks housing asylum seekers near Folkestone, to counter rising far-right activity against migrants.
Far-right protesters clashed with the police around noon on Saturday as they encircled the refugee supporters with vans. After the welcome event, around 50 protesters brandishing St George’s and the British flags marched while chanting racist messages.
“The vast majority of people are supportive of migrants, but we don’t always hear their voice, we hear the voice of a very vocal, significant minority,” said Bridget Chapman from the Kent Refugee Action Network.
The area has seen a rise in violent incidents recently and a small number of residents is said to meet by the site every weekend to harass asylum seekers. “There are groups of far-right vigilantes who are claiming to send back migrant boats,” said Richard, a volunteer with Channel Rescue who preferred not to give his surname.
Dozens of asylum seekers have been placed in quarantine in one of the redbrick blocks after one person tested positive for coronavirus. It comes after repeated warnings were given over the cramped and unsanitary conditions at the site.
The Guardian understands the man who tested positive, an Iranian asylum seeker, is no longer on site and has been taken to hospital.
Kay Marsh, who works for the migrant charity Samphire, believes the deteriorating economy is fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment. “The government has managed to convince populations that there is a foreign enemy: you’ve got no money, no job, that’s because of foreigners. And people believe it because they need someone to blame,” she said. “It’s scary to think that your own government has got it out for you.”
Inside the barracks, a group of men waved back at the crowd, clapping and shouting: “Thank you!” On one of the building’s doorsteps, a young man was seen holding up a sign reading “we love you”.
Among those supporting asylum seekers was Ross Emans, 43, who came with his son. “This is the first time I’ve been involved with a demonstration to support migrants,” he said, holding a sign that read: “Welcome.” “I used Google to translate “welcome” to Arabic. Hopefully, it’s correct!”
“The migrants have been demonised and dehumanised on the internet by far-right groups. They are treated as if they are just one. Some people refer to them like they are animals when they are human beings and each of them has their own story. It really concerns me and I can understand why they are leaving their countries.”
He added that he was getting a DBS check to be able to volunteer with charity Care for Calais.
The charity, based in northern France, tweeted out praise for the supporters. “We are so grateful to everyone who attended the welcome event at Folkestone today to lift the spirits of refugees in the barracks and show them that Britain cares,” they said.
“Together we made sure the hundreds of people there know that they ARE welcome in this country.”
We are so grateful to everyone who attended the welcome event at Folkestone today to lift the spirits of refugees in the barracks and show them that Britain cares.
Amani Arab, a 26-year-old woman who came to the UK as a refugee from Syria, was also at the event. “The Folkestone community is very friendly and welcoming. When I came here I felt that everyone wanted you to be part of this community.”
So far only one charity, Migrant Help, has been able to enter the site but other organisations are in talks with the authorities to provide services.