On a clear day you can see … the beach. And it is mobbed. I’m writing this on a glorious day in Kent and families, big gangs of teenagers and surfers are all making the best of it. The gulls are monitoring the chip situation and the girls in bikinis are proving that the underboob trend is actually real. Why shouldn’t these people have fun? There is no school, no work; for many of the teenagers, their exam grades will be “made up”. Can they not have their irresponsible youth for a summer? Isn’t that a rite of passage and, despite everything, aren’t they lucky to have it?
This morning, before all the sunseekers flocked to the beach, another group of people will have arrived here: people who belong nowhere. Along this coast, cheap dinghies are arriving, carrying refugees. One day last week, 200 migrants arrived from Calais. Often they can’t swim; the luckier ones have paddles.
The stories I read here in the local papers make the situation more real, closer. This weekend, 20 people, including a small baby, arrived in one boat. A heavily pregnant woman arrived in Dungeness. She told Border Force officials she was eight months pregnant. Another person made it ashore, despite being in a wheelchair. Some brave soul rescued three migrants from their sinking kayak on the return leg of his charity Channel swim.
But is there any point tugging at heartstrings when hearts are hardened; when this crisis continues without end; when the cycle repeats and we learn nothing?
It is five years since that picture of Alan Kurdi flashed around the world. A Syrian child of Kurdish descent, his body was washed up on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey. For a moment he was not seen as part of a demonic horde trying to invade “us”. He was “us” – a sleeping child whose death need not have happened.
Since then, all the issues that have made people cross continents and dangerous waters to leave everything they have ever known have intensified. Syria and the Kurdish people have been forsaken. War and persecution continue in many African countries. Libya is a failed state. Sudan is in crisis. The global movement of people continues; some seek asylum, some seek simply to make a living.
Still England holds itself up as tolerant, decent, an easy touch taken over by marauders. Nigel Farage has been urgently reporting the invasion near “the white cliffs of Dover”. His tone does not reflect the truth: traumatised people in leaky inflatables. He has been throwing in his concern about them bringing the virus to the country – suddenly our leading voice for health and safety.
You have to hand it to the home secretary, Priti Patel, whose post appears to involve summoning contempt for migrants; to be fair, unlike Farage, she has been elected to do so. She always seems to be itching for something vaguely militaristic. To tackle this issue a new post has been created with what sounds like a made-up job title: Dan O’Mahoney is now the “clandestine Channel threat commander”. Calls continue for the navy to be brought in. Once a vessel is 12 miles off the coast, it is in British waters. What are the navy expected to do? Shoot? Or just turn the refugees back, as the Australians do with phenomenal cruelty?
It is hard to gauge sometimes who is the most hated when it comes to this particular situation: the migrants themselves, or the French. The French should stop these people gathering in Calais, goes the argument, and stop the people smugglers; the migrants should apply for asylum in France.
Actually, they do. The great majority of those seeking sanctuary in Europe don’t get to Calais. Germany gets a quarter of all applications, France is next, then Italy and Greece. If someone has made it all the way to Calais, they have usually risked life and limb to do so and have some connection to the UK (often family or language).
This is not new. The Sangatte refugee camp was shut in 1992. The “Jungle” encampment has been bulldozed. But still Calais is full of people sleeping in the woods.
I have never seen people living in such terrible conditions as I did at a camp near Dunkirk. And I have been to refugee camps in war zones. There was no water, no electricity, just mud and women trying to make hot food for their kids inside flammable tents. The men showed me their torture scars, their shoulders now dislocated, too, from trying to get over the wire fence. Some had bruises from French police who had first smashed their phones in front of them: their only connection to their past life and to the one they were desperately seeking. Some showed me films of sea crossings they had made and of those who had drowned and I understood why they would hang beneath a lorry, because they had been so near death so many times already.
More than 70 million people are displaced worldwide and now we have Covid-19. One response is to shut down all borders, but the virus is already global. Social distancing has meant the setting up of strange, new, unintuitive borders. But desperate people will cross those borders because their lives are already at risk.
This island sees itself as overcrowded and overgenerous, but it is neither of those things. We can be better. We do not have to board up our imagination. We do not have to put up a “no entry” sign to those who want a future.
It’s not such a leap for me to see the boys playing football on a Kent beach, showing off to the girls, and to look just across the water and remember the young men and women I saw there, huddled in ditches, dreaming of a better life.
Year after year, politicians pretend they can turn those dreams back, that we are not connected to the rest of the world except in the exact ways we choose. Surely we don’t need to see more dead toddlers to know that that is a lie?
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist