A UK Border Force perimeter at Dover Marina prevented closer contact with the few dozen men and women waiting late on Thursday morning on a red double decker bus marked “private” – yet exhaustion was clearly etched on each one’s face.
It was unclear if the latest arrivals, who were on boats picked up by a Border Force cutter and a lifeboat in the Channel at 5am had embarked from France knowing 27 people had drowned making the same crossing on Wednesday.
Small boat crossings typically take about 10 hours or more, so their departure may have come too late to have learned of the biggest loss of life in the Channel since records of such crossings began in 2014, though word typically spreads swiftly via WhatsApp.
A 30-minute drive around the coast from Dover, at least seven inflatable boats believed to have been used this week were being loaded by workmen on to the back of a lorry at the Dungeness RNLI station.
A photographer present when they had started to arrive along the shingled shore in front of the power station and the house of the film-maker Derek Jarman told of watching as a chaotic couple of hours of human misery had unfolded.
“We saw men, women, children, a disabled girl who looked around 10 or 12. Everyone was just so traumatised and cold that families were getting separated from each other,” he said.
“There was a women who appeared to have two teenage sons and was suffering from such bad hypothermia that she was blacking out. There was a little daughter who must have been two or younger and had no shoes. It was so chaotic that she was left sitting on the stones on her own at one point. I gave her my coat because there was little in the way of any sort of blankets or other emergency supplies for them.”
All the while, a group of about six men and women who were believed to be far-right activists milled around filming on their phones, he added. A barrel-chested man strutted through those sitting on the ground, photographing their faces.
But among the broader local community and visitors to this area of windswept natural beauty, a sense of pity was clear as news of the loss of life filtered through.
Casting a line out into the choppy waters of the Channel, the fisher Ian Fraser told how he had seen other groups coming ashore in the past.
“It’s one of the closest crossing points so it’s obviously going to happen. You do hear people sometimes saying nasty things about them, but I think you have to realise anyone crossing must be desperate,” he added.
“I feel sorry for the RNLI guys. They’re volunteers and are dealing with and seeing things that they shouldn’t have to.”
Like others, he was doubtful about whether the tragedy would change anything, a sentiment echoed by guests dining on local seafood at the nearby Britannia Inn pub and restaurant.
“There does seem to be a huge amount of money involved. You read of people paying thousands of pounds, so there’s obviously an economy behind the smuggling and that needs to be targeted,” said Martyn Styles, a retired teacher visiting from Deal.
“We also seem to be paying a lot to the French authorities and yet it continues,” he added.
Across the table, his wife, Diana, and their friend Jenny Catt said their horror was mixed with surprise that it had taken so long for such a tragedy to happen. In a reminder of the seeming long shadow cast over the area, the three told of being out with their local sailing club in Deal when a dinghy carrying people had come through.
Inland, the retiree Ray Biggs reflected a harder, hostile attitude as he waited for his wife to emerge from the butchers on the high Street in New Romney, shrugging his shoulders at the question of whether the deaths would generate sympathy.
“We’ve got enough people here on benefits without more coming over if you ask me. I’ve seen them myself … about 20 landing and then just sitting there and waiting for the police,” he added.
By contrast, the twentysomethings Bradley Johnson and Marc Walmsley appeared in a minority in hoping that the tragedy might yield positive change, whether in minds or actions. Stopping to speak after visiting the local skate part, both admitted not to having heard about the loss of life in the Channel, and grimaced at the mention of a child.
“Look, I work in a local pub here and it actually rarely comes up,” said Walmsley.
“People just want to get on with their lives, and I think they know that the people on the boats do as well.”