Folkestone: If we are to connect communities, we need to look beyond any migrant/citizen divide

Folkestone, a Kentish town in the South East of England was our 34th visit, as the National Conversation continues its journey across the country. An area with a long and complex history of international migration and a seaside town drawing in people from across the UK, the conversations we had in Folkestone reflected that integration is not just an issue of new arrivals, but an issue that affects everybody.

Stakeholders and the citizens’ panel spoke of Folkestone as a divided town, where different groups of people, and not only migrants, tend not to mix:

“we talk about being multicultural but sometimes with certain people they will stick, because they feel safer in that community, whether it’s from people in Folkestone or it’s from people who’ve moved to Folkestone. You’re talking about a very, very provincial town, and basically, even Folkestone itself you’ve got the, you go down to the old fisherman’s places down on the harbour and yet again you’ve got a different type of community altogether. I think it’s down to the individuals” Citizens’ panel participant

Folkestone has seen tension arising from its changing population. As an important harbour and shipping port in close proximity to mainland Europe, the town has long hosted refugees- from Belgians fleeing invasion in 1914 to the arrival of Czech and Kosovar Roma in the 1990s, later joined by refugees fleeing Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the recent refugee arrivals had spent time in the Calais camp commonly referred to as ‘the Jungle’, just across the channel from Folkestone linked by the Eurotunnel. Refugee arrivals in Folkestone have continued, including a number of unaccompanied minors. The towns has also seen increasing EU immigration from 2004, many of whom are working in Kent’s agricultural economy. Internal migration including the rehoming of poor families in East London added to these layers of diversity, which the citizens’ panel drew upon:

“I think that what they’re doing in pushing immigrants out here is what they did twenty odd years ago, when they put a lot of poor people out here in counties and towns like Hastings actually just took in loads of poor people from London boroughs, and it’s just another bunch of poor people, they just happen to have a different colour skin”

Investment through projects such as the Folkestone Triennial public art initiative has drawn another set of migrants to the town, and led to the establishment of artist communities.

Stakeholders we met with felt that small pockets of hostility remained, but that immigration was much less of a public issue than it had been a few years ago as rates of immigration had steadied and populations had better integrated. However, others felt that integration was working well for newcomers who were finding it easier to fit in alongside settled migrant communities, but that a sense of community in Folkestone was fragmented.

Our conversation with the citizens’ panel in Folkestone revealed these different sides of the town, through one of our most heated discussions so far. While the group felt that schools and faith communities were doing well to help new arrivals integrate and settle in, several members of the citizens’ panel felt that broader efforts needed to be made to improve community relations. There was disagreement within the group on this topic: one person described Folkestone as a “very, very provincial town” where people kept to themselves and another said it was a racist town; yet one of the participant  who works with migrants felt that “people get on”.  The presence of Gurkhas in the town was felt to be a source of pride:

“I think the Gurkhas are a bit of a treasure of Folkestone.”

Though projects like the triennial, efforts are being made to engage with local communities and bring people together, it was clear that more needed to be done to bridge its social divisions. Folkestone appears to be a segregated town where the sense of community is fragmented. Integration is an everybody issue, and if we are to connect communities, we need to look at broader social divisions that extend beyond any migrant/citizen divides.

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