On 21st August 2021, Rachel Lowden, a member of Hastings Supports Refugees, was on a beach near Hastings when a tiny dinghy 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 Rachel’s incredibly powerful and moving story, just as she told it in her spoken account.
Welcoming people from the tiny dinghies: a story of simple human-to-human response
I’m Rachel and I joined Hastings Supports Refugees when it started in 2016 and at that time it was about collecting items for Care4Calais, and I recall being in the Observer Building trying to organise mountains of clothes. But I was pretty ignorant about the refugee crisis – and I’m a person who keeps up with the news, listens to Radio 4 a lot, who’s fed primarily information via those channels. But I didn’t know the details – I felt pretty ignorant.
And essentially what happened to me was that my daughter Ella and I went to Pett Level on a Saturday lunchtime at the end of August, to have a barbecue on the beach. It’s a happy place, where we go swimming – a lot. And through lockdown we were there almost every day walking.
So as Ella and I were having the barbecue we noticed a lot of activity around us. There were helicopters, the lifeboat suddenly appeared, and then went round towards Dungeness. And the thought was in the back of my head – I wonder I wonder if it’s refugees? sometimes they do stray this far down – but not that often because, as I subsequently found out, refugee boats come up along our stretch of coastline between Rye and Cooden Beach when things have gone wrong – the wind and the tide have taken them away from the direct route to Dover, which means that they would have been in the boat a lot longer, and could easily be having serious difficulties at sea.
So, there was a guy on the beach with binoculars who was looking out and I noticed that there was sort of a group of people in high-vis around the end of Pett Beach, and Ella and I thought there was something definitely going on here. The bloke with binoculars came over and he said “I can see a raft out there and it’s full of refugees. Do you want to have a look?” and I must admit my first reaction was – no I don’t want to have a look. I’m frightened – I was frightened.
It was an instant of ‘I don’t want to see’. And then the instant of yes – I do want to see. That was my first kind of response which in retrospect I felt bad about, but actually I think that that is kind of quite an important part of this – that actually as people living our everyday lives with the culture and privilege that western life gives us, looking at other’s people’s pain and looking at other people’s suffering is very difficult, especially if we feel we can’t do anything about it.
But I did look through his binoculars and I did see a boat crammed full of people. It just looked like it was a flat vessel: a flat, orange vessel with what looked like 50 people standing on it. Actually we found out later it was 54 people.
The lifeboat came alongside this dinghy, and then so did another boat – the offshore boat from Pett Level as well. So there were there were two boats surrounding it. But they weren’t connecting with it – they were obviously talking across it, but they weren’t reaching out.
At this point my daughter and I were sitting on the beach kind of in silence. And then Ella asked “What can we do Mum, what can we do?” And I said: “I don’t know -I feel I just want to go out there and grab these people and hold them and bring them in now! And just hold them because they must be terrified.”
And this was about one o’clock.
The situation continued – by quarter to three it was still the same and the boat was drifting towards Dungeness. But the lifeboat was still there, and it was just very strange.
My daughter had work, so I got in my car, took her back to Hastings and then messaged Jane Grimshaw and asked “What’s the protocol? – what do we do if refugees come to the shore – how can we help?” And I was quite surprised because she said “Look nobody’s really done this. It hasn’t really happened – they come ashore – you just give them water and give them sustenance. High calorific stuff – that’s what you need to do.”
So I was surprised that this hadn’t happened before and also my other question was: Will services give these people aid? -will they give them warm clothes? will they give them hot drinks? And nobody seemed to know…not just Jane – I put it out on a couple of my Whatsapp groups.
Does anybody know what happens to these people? And obviously this was displaying how little we do know about what happens. Also the other apprehension was around – well, will I be allowed? Surely the authorities will be in control and access to these people will not be allowed.
But Jane said water and food, so I jumped in the car, and filled the car with water from the local Co-op , and drove as fast as I could back to Pett Level.
And when I got back, there were two ambulances and then someone who looked like a marshal with high-vis and the whole of the opening to Pett Level beach where the boat house is was cordoned off. So I jumped out of the car, and said “I’m a member of Hastings Supports Refugees. What can we do to help?”
And he said “I can’t tell you that because I’m a lifeboat crew and I can’t share information with you but you can ask the police.” So I did, and it was clear that food was needed. So I jumped back in the car, drove to Winchelsea, to be greeted with a massive queue outside the Co-op. It was holiday season, the holiday parks were all full. And it wasn’t lost on me this juxtaposition of all these people on holiday, at the chippie, in the Co-op buying food, at the pub.
And these people just arrived, who knows in what condition, but possibly they’d been in the water for a long time, fleeing from war-torn countries and traumatised.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it, but it did stay with me..
So I went into the chippie because it seemed there were fewer people – there were about three people in front of me. I stood there jumping from foot to foot for a while, and then I just reached over the counter and said “Please could I have a word with you?”- this was to the guy, who later told me he was Turkish, and runs the chippie. And I explained to him that we needed food immediately. I didn’t know how long I had -what was the quickest thing to cook? And he said “Chips.” And he also said “Right OK don’t worry I’m going to put your order in first for 20 bags of chips.”
I was very grateful for that, though it seemed like an age I waited for these chips worrying that actually when I got back to Pett Level the people wouldn’t be there. But the chips were soon ready and I got back in the car, drove back to Pett Level. And the same marshal was there and I handed him these bags of chips. And his response was:
“Well this isn’t even going to touch the surface. We’ve got 54 people here. We’ve got children whose blood sugar is so low because they’ve been in a boat for up to 11 hours.
Have you not got back-up? Have you not got people who are coming to help you?”
I responded with: “Yes I have. How long have we got? Have I got half an hour?”
And he said “I imagine you’ve got half an hour.”
And this was just as a coach was arriving.
I contacted Jane and she put a callout on Facebook page for Hastings Supports Refugees for anybody who could to come and attend with hot tea and dry clothes. At this point I didn’t know what these people needed but I did know that they needed to get food and warmth.
I drove home again and raided every cupboard, drawer – piling anything I could find that was warm into bags and then went back to Co-op and just cleared the shelves of sandwiches, biscuits, sugary drinks – anything I could find. But all the time worrying, worrying I’m not going to get there, not going to get there in time.
I drove back with these bags. The paramedics were there at this point. It was calm. It wasn’t chaotic -I think that’s actually really important to say. It was very calm. And I got there with these bags, and Police said: “Well you can give these to people.”
And I was surprised because I didn’t think that would be possible. At this point to the right of me there were children – a few women, and a couple of children, and the children were coming towards the bag, looking in the bag – they wanted to know what I had! and that moment of looking at these kids and just thinking that whatever they’ve been through, they’re just children, and they just wanted to know what the biscuits were and they wanted them NOW!
And then I came up against a little bit of difficulty because – I think it was the key policeman – said: “No, no. you can’t give those to the children – we’re putting them on the bus.”
So I said: “OK , because I …” -and then I thought NO that’s not OK.
So I looked at the policewoman and she said “It’s fine you can give it to the children. You can.”
And then he came in again and he said: “No you can’t.”
So I said: “OK I’ll just put these things here and the rest of them can be on the bus.”
I gave them to the policewoman and she ensured that the drinks and the biscuits and everything else would be on the bus. And then she came back and said “You really need children’s clothes.”
Now I don’t have small children any more. I spoke to Jane – all I had was some adult sweaters. So I pulled them out and said “These can be used.” Because these children were wet. They’re wet probably through soiling as well as seawater. It was a warmish day but they’d been in those wet clothes for so long – we found out that they’d been between nine hours and eleven hours – at sea. You’re not going to be staying dry, are you.
So I was really anxious about that – that these children had no warm clothes.
Anyway within seconds – this was all very quick – the women and the children to the right of me were herded onto the bus. And I made a request to the bus driver to put the heating on. And this bus driver was actually all right. The second bus driver wasn’t – he wasn’t very generous in his thinking. But this bus driver did do that.
And then the policeman said: “It’s OK there is provision in the bus. There’s provision in the bus. You can go into the boathouse now and give the rest of the food out.”
Now there was a circling of Police, lifeboat crew, Pett level crew. And then in the boathouse, men; at first it just looked like lots and lots of men – men who were excited, and that was extraordinary, because I didn’t think that that was what I’d be greeted with. But they were excited, and there was an excitability at the front. And so I started to give out sandwiches, and then Jane arrived and I’m in the boathouse. And I’m holding people’s hands and I’m saying hello and I’m overwhelmed. All the people – lots of people at the front, and at the back there were some individuals on chairs and to the side. One guy had no trousers: lots of people had no shoes. Their feet were swollen and then at the back there were more women, and quickly we realised that we should be starting to give things to the people at the back because they were the people who didn’t have the strength to come forward. And Jane was very good at being quite firm about that. Because at that point I was still trying to gauge the situation and understand what was appropriate and what was right. But I did know that holding people’s hands and touching them was important . Even in the light of what we’re experiencing at the moment with Covid it was relevant at that moment
Maybe that was foolhardy, maybe that was stupid, but it was essential.
And then it was clear that the men’s clothes were so wet that they needed pants and socks and that was the main thing that was needed.
So I contacted my husband Nick, and we live in Hastings. I said “Please could you just bring all your pants and all your socks.” So he did. (And clean I hasten to add!). But at that point the road had been cordoned off. So he said – “I’ll be there as quick as I can” -, and meanwhile Jane and I were giving out crisps and nuts – the local pub I think had donated all their crisps and nuts.
And everyone I must say was just thanking us – and they were making comments like “we’re gonna have a hot shower soon”.
Some people’s English was very good: “When we get to the hotel we’re going to have a hot shower”, which was very difficult to hear because we just responded that we don’t know where they would be going. I didn’t know what would be happening for them.
And then there was a woman whose trainers were so wet and she was a size 5. And she was saying “I need some shoes.” So, while I was waiting for Nick to bring the pants and the socks, I started knocking on doors. And if you know Pett Level – it’s the super-rich live there – I’m sure that there are a few people who have lived there all their lives, but essentially it’s the super-rich, and a few who have retained their homes since childhood.
The first house was a resident – probably lived there a long time.
I said: “Hello – ah –”
And she said: “Oh are you with this group?”
And I said: “Well I’m Just trying to help some of these refugees who’ve just arrived here and many of them don’t have shoes and there’s a lady who just needs a size 5 shoe because her trainers are so wet. Do you have any size 5 shoes? Anything?”
And she stopped for a minute and I thought: ‘Oh no what’s she going to say?’
But she just said: “I’m sorry I’m not a size 5”.
I responded: ‘Thank you no problem.’ And I said “What are your neighbours like? Are they friendly?” And she went “I don’t know who the neighbours are- they’re all holiday homes. The people who live further down- you don’t see them because it’s all gated isn’t it.”
I knocked on two other doors. One response was hostile – “I don’t want to get involved”. And I just thanked him and walked away.
And then I phoned someone I knew in Pett Level – an acquaintance at work, who I know would have helped if she could but again no size 5.
In retrospect probably a size 6 would have been all right but I think that in the moment people get caught up in the detail. And we didn’t get shoes for that young woman. We didn’t get any shoes for her. But we did get some socks.
Jane’s in the boathouse. She was with a chap who – who seemed to… we were worried he was dead. He was the guy with no trousers and his eyes had rolled back into the back of his head and she was jolting him awake. She was putting food into his mouth. Because of course these people were exhausted, exhausted and she did that a couple of times and she was being very firm with him about taking this food and I was so grateful that she ‘d been able to get there because I think together -we- it worked much better together, because it was very overwhelming as an individual.
The next thing; Nick’s stuck in a traffic queue half a mile away, so I start running – running literally out of Pett to retrieve these pants and socks from him.
And the traffic queue – all these people in the traffic queue saying “What’s going on – what’s going on?”
So I’m just running, and I get this bag from Nick in his car, and as I’m coming back, this guy gets out of his car – he was talking to someone else. “Oh there’s some economic migrants – some economic migrants have just arrived.”
So I said: “No they’re not, they’re refugees.”
And he went – ‘Oh sorry – yeah, refugees.’
And afterwards I thought – that’s how quickly a narrative can be changed.
Those were his immediate go-to words for whatever’s been said to him and whatever his framework of understanding of what this was, but within seconds – me just …jokingly… in a way… shouting out “No they’re refugees actually!” – he says: “Oh what? OK! sorry – they’re refugees!”
It just shows the levels of ignorance of all of us actually and how we are so willing to accept what we’re told all the time without finding out more about it.
And I got back just in time because the second bus had arrived. And it was very peculiar because the bus driver got out and he opened the luggage compartment! And the police said: “Well, they haven’t got any luggage. They’re coming on a dinghy – they haven’t got any stuff.” And the bus driver was like: “Oh OK.”
And then he went: “They don’t know where they’re going, do they. They all look quite happy. Hah! They’re in for a surprise.” And I asked him to put the heating on and he wasn’t very happy about that. And he didn’t.
Then I returned and everyone was grabbing the socks I had. And I was determined to meet with this man – the first person to ask me for them – he had no shoes and no socks, and I gave him these thick warm socks first, and then we gave to other people.
And I have to say that everybody was so respectful and so grateful. When I say grabbing, what I mean is that in a way the fittest and the most able to ask for things after this experience were able to take what we had, and the people who were not able for whatever reason, and women particularly, the males were looking after the females whether they were their families or their friends. They were in control of that. There were just two or three women left at this point because the other women had got on the bus: the women that had children had got on the bus.
I still don’t know whether families were separated… Jane said later that she saw men on the bus but I didn’t. And I thought they were really clear that it was just women and children and then the women left in the boathouse were the women who didn’t have children.
Anyway within minutes, that was it! The police were like: “Right that’s enough – You’re getting on the bus now.”
And at this point Jane and I had gone into the small St Nicholas’s church and we were boiling kettles because we were trying to make tea, but it was too late – we hadn’t thought before – it just struck us that there was a kettle in there.
And then each and every person as they walked by – and we stood waving them goodbye, saying “good luck…” – every person was just so grateful, and so respectful, even after everything they had been through. That was so astonishing really, that their integrity was intact, and their sense of self, and the fact that they thought that genuinely they were safe now.
And of course they were safe: they were safe from the sea, they were safe from that immediate threat of death, and losing their children and losing their friends in the shipping channel: and I don’t think anybody – any of us here in the UK could understand what it must be like to put your family at that kind of risk.
And I don’t think you could really think about it until you’ve met with these people because then you can begin to connect with that; because I know that in my lifetime that’s not going to happen to me. I’m not going to be asked to put my 3-year-old in a dinghy to travel 20+ miles across the world’s busiest shipping lane, because I’ve fled from war and conflict and goodness knows what.
And that it’s safer to do that than stay where you are. It’s an unbearable decision to make.
So at this point the buses were full; they were there for a while; and Jane was waving them off. I was doing something else I’ll tell you about in a second, but she was waving them off and they were all at the window waving at her, smiling. All in all 54 people.
And at this point the boathouse was being disinfected and cleaned and any belongings that were left were put in rubbish bags and put by the bins at Pett Level.
And I had a real sense that I wanted to protect some of the things going into those bins because they were the only personal belongings those people had. And probably slightly irrationally I just took two of these huge binbags – and I put them in my car.
And then I walked up to the beach and there were couple of police officers looking at the boat. And I’ve since found out these boats are one-offs; that the smugglers buy them, and what I understand sometimes happens is that the smugglers fit the boat with an outboard; just beyond the French border, they take the outboard off, and they go back, and so they’ve got no motor, no paddles, nothing. They are just at the mercy of the wind and the tide. So how big shipping vessels don’t just run people over…and I’m sure they do, and I’m sure we don’t know about it.
I can’t even imagine it. There’s no power: you’re just at the mercy of the weather and the tide that day.
So this very flimsy vessel – it just looked like a deflated, oversized dinghy, really. And what I thought were life jackets but they’re not, they are buoyancy aids, but they’re not proper life jackets.
And the police officer that I was standing with – I said to him “Are you OK?” and he said: “No I’m not OK.”
I said: “What happened?”
And he just said: “Well I was called over, because Border Control told us – informed that we were to let this vessel drift . We were to just let this dinghy drift. And we came over for backup because we didn’t know what was going to happen. And Border control has been inundated today, there’s been over 1000 people coming in today. And so we came over to support.”
And he said: “It’s – ah – I never want to do one of these again. I think it’s one of the most traumatic these I’ve had to do, and I’ve been a police officer for 10 years.”
And I said : “Well what happened then? Were you told to let them drift?”
And he said: “Well, as the police, we thought it was inhumane and we took the decision to bring them ashore.”
And that was why there was a big gap between seeing them and then them not coming ashore. Which added another few hours on to their journey. Of nine to eleven hours – we don’t know exactly.
And a young policewoman equally mirrored his sort of view that it was just the most difficult and horrific thing to manage and deal with.
And then I got back into the car and I had all these bags – these two bags full crammed of stuff and I was like – why have I done that? Immediately my human instinct went – why am I – what am I doing with these bags – I should just get rid of them. And maybe that was a bit like the initial instinct in – ‘I don’t want to look in the binoculars. I don’t want to look at the bags …’
These people had no toileting facilities – there was bound to be some pretty grim stuff in there.
And then I had this overwhelming sense that it was my responsibility to look after these things. And whether that was a response about witnessing people who are so distressed – I don’t know.
I got home and I put everything in the washing machine. I was startled – and I shouldn’t have been startled really – because there was a baby’s hat, blanket, a cardigan: and then I came across the trainers. And these 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, and 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 or the morning before – we don’t know – 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, but also they are somebody’s trainers…
There is no follow up to this story, apart from the fact that since then we’ve actually mobilised a team, a response team, to meet with refugees who come up on our beaches and we’ve met with many more people since. We know far more about what to do.
But those trainers… I ‘m never going to know that child. I don’t know any of those people’s names…
And I forgot to say what my name was. So the second boat that we greeted last week, I was very clear about saying that my name was Rachel.
But I don’t know what will happen to those people.
There is no conclusion to this story.
I don’t know what will happen to those people.
And it was just – an immediate, human-to-human response.