FELICITY LAURENCE, Hastings Community of Sanctuary, reflects on the recent tragedies.

On Thursday 25 November, 250 people gathered in sorrow on the Stade. In candlelit silence, we remembered those people – a pregnant woman, a mother and her children, young men with so much to live for – who had drowned the day before in the freezing waters of the Channel, not so very far from where we stood. We could so easily have been welcoming them on the beach nearby, as some of us had been doing recently, instead of mourning them now. 

The ugly Government rhetoric against those who seek sanctuary with us has been ramping up as the new Nationality and Borders Bill has gathered pace in Parliament (See HIP June 25 2021: Hastings Community of Sanctuary joins new national coalition to build a fairer asylum system). But after the dinghy sank and the people died, that rhetoric has become a deafening clamour. At all costs, they say, we must stop the ‘vile smugglers’, and prevent the ‘dangerous crossings’, by ever more draconian means and by whatever force is necessary.

At the Vigil
CREDIT: Hastings Community of Sanctuary

The language is frightening, dehumanising. It forgets that we are talking about people, fellow human beings… 

Hastings resident Dr Elizabeth Allen describes the chilling inhumanity of this language in her story, Liminal

“On the shore, the sand ruffles in shallow waves making it hard to tell where land ends and sea begins: where borders are erased. But today authority has declared the sea a border which it will be a crime to breach by the ‘illegals’ landing on our shores to seek asylum. 

“Until they can be ‘processed’, they will be ‘contained’ in ‘off-shore facilities’. The nature of these facilities is ‘under discussion’ …  In this ‘national crisis’, no idea can be ruled out, ‘every possible solution’ must ‘remain on the table’. I imagine this table in a bland conference room, scattered with half-empty coffee cups and bundles of paper, the gleam of a screen displaying power-point slides.

“But the people around the table, able to conceive and write: ‘One possibility for a centre is Rwanda’ –  them I cannot imagine.” 

Adapted from ‘Liminal’, Elizabeth Allen, prize winner in Hastings Literary Festival, first published in Hastings Literary Festival’s anthology – Dateline Hastings: 23-09-21

Under the new legislation, people will indeed be sent ‘offshore’ – if a willing country can be found – to never-ending detention, out of reach of legal or humanitarian help; or they will be held in mass camps here, or sent to prison for years simply for entering in an unapproved way. Children will be separated from their parents, and if the kind Hastings people currently going down to the beach should help people ashore, they would be liable to long prison sentences. 

And hardly a whisper about the single most obvious action that would have the best chance of stopping another tragedy, and putting the smugglers out of business: allowing people to register their asylum claim at the UK border in Calais and granting a humanitarian visa for safe passage on the ferry, to wait here in safety. 

In all this, the real message is clear;  above all, we must keep ‘them’ out at all costs, because we don’t want them here. 

But in Hastings, there is another message. Hundreds of people have been giving clothes and money to support those who are going down to the beach to welcome with food, clothes and simple kindness the people arriving on the tiny dinghies. Countless Hastings citizens are desperate to help. The voices and actions of solidarity and empathy hugely outnumber those which endorse the Government narrative and are now reverberating around the world as this story reaches both the national and international press. Hastings has become a beacon of empathy.

A few months ago, Rachel Lowden, a member of Hastings Supports Refugees, was on a nearby beach when a boat drifted in, crammed with children, women and men. She watched uncomprehending as it was left by order of Border Force to drift on the water for over three hours. 

But once the boat had been brought into shore, this became a story of a frantic race to help, of a moving and poignant encounter, of people helping people, and ultimately of an initiative which now sees Hastings as the only place along the southeast coast where the most basic elements of comfort from the cold sea are provided. 

Here is a fragment of Rachel’s story of that day. She had felt she must take home some of the discarded belongings of the people after they had finally been taken off in the buses.

“I came across a very small pair of trainers. They stank, they were filthy, and they’d obviously come off maybe a 3 or 4-year-old. So I put them outside on top of our bin while I washed the rest of the things.

And then, that night I couldn’t sleep. And I got up, going downstairs, took them off the bin, put them in the washing machine, washed them. 

Because I wanted to look after those trainers. They were all that child had.

You know, I think there was something very poignant about the fact that a child had put those trainers on at 6 o’clock probably that morning – with a view to putting their lives completely at risk – they may not make it – in order to be safe. Some mother had done up those trainers for that child, in that knowledge. So they are a powerful symbol.

I’m never going to know that child.

There is no conclusion to this story. And it was just an immediate, human-to-human response.” *

December 10 is International Human Rights Day; it also concludes the national Week of Action called by the #Together with Refugees campaign to which we belong with over 300 NGOs and grassroots groups. On Saturday 11 December is the Hastings Rally for Refugees at 2pm on the Stade. Please join us.

*You can read all of Rachel’s compelling story on the Hastings Community of Sanctuary website: https://hastings.cityofsanctuary.org/2021/12/04/welcoming-people-from-the-tiny-dinghies-a-story-of-simple-human-to-human-response

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.