The wedding DJ who wants to stop migrant boats

By Sue Mitchell
BBC News

Image caption,
Jeremy Davis at the port of Dover with his Union flags

The migrants who drowned off the French coast this week were among thousands who have set off across the Channel in small boats this year - 8,000 had arrived in the UK by the end of September. A growing band of campaigners say they want to shine a light on the scale of the traffic, and to push the government into taking decisive action to stop it.

When Covid lockdowns put an end to his work as a wedding DJ, Jeremy Davis was free to launch himself into his other major preoccupation - trying to stop migrant boats heading from France to the shores of the UK.

He'd followed the news and been incensed at reports about the increasing number of boat crossings, with 1,880 migrants arriving in September alone - compared with 1,800 for the whole of 2019.

"I've been watching it every day and I've been fuming. I just got fed up with it. People were saying to me, 'Well, instead of screaming at the television, do something!'"

So he launched a new group, Littleboats2020, inspired by the "little ships of Dunkirk" - 850 vessels that went to rescue 336,000 British soldiers stranded in northern France in May 1940.

Davis has joined a growing band of activists who patrol Kent's beaches and the port of Dover watching for those arriving. They say that the Covid pandemic reduced the chances of hiding in lorries or cars and that smugglers have exploited a reduced police presence, charging around £2,000 per person to cross by boat.

Image caption,
A small child is taken off a Border Force boat in Dover

He says he can understand the people making this dangerous journey.

"Of course, if I was in their position, I'd say, 'Let's go get a nice hotel, get food and a future,'" he says.

"The people who are cheating this country are the government, by not stopping this illegal trade. We used to defend the shores, we don't any more."

There is some controversy around that term "illegal". While the smugglers who organise the cross-Channel boat crossings are breaking the law and the Home Office describes the crossings themselves as "illegal", most of the migrants claim asylum on arrival and some are granted refugee status. Migrants' rights activists argue that the migrants are acting within the law as long as they report to the authorities and claim asylum on arrival.

And while some migrants are housed in hotels, most are placed in spartan hostel accommodation.

Jeremy Davis says he isn't against immigration per se, just this form of it.

"Over nine million people from all over the world have made Britain their home, and they're fantastic. They get on and it's brilliant. They have brought a lot to this country. But what we are saying is we don't want people coming in when we don't know anything about them."

His Twitter accounts, however, make clear that he believes that "uncontrolled immigration" is doing "irreversible damage to the fabric of Britain". He also rails against Islam.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Human rights monitoring group Channel Rescue was formed in response to coastal patrols by activists opposed to the boat crossings

Before Covid, Davis spent some nights blasting out ABBA tracks on a crowded dance floor. Now he's on patrol, searching for migrants and possibly even the smugglers. A week or two ago, out on a beach patrol, he says he spotted four men waiting in two cars. He thinks they were waiting to pick up migrants who'd made the crossing, but they drove off before he could confront them.

"I happened upon them, the weather wasn't too bad and there were two brand new cars. I've seen them there before and think they're waiting for people to come off the boats. The authorities should be there to get these people, it shouldn't be down to people like me," he says.

In August it was reported that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was planning to approach French officials for co-operation in using Royal Navy and Border Force boats to block the path of refugees and migrants coming by boat.

This is exactly the sort of action Littleboats2020 wants.

Davis spent two nights at sea with other members of his group, attempting to get close to the inflatable migrant boats to prove a point to the authorities.

"We want to show the government, 'Look, if we can get to these boats, so can you,'" he says.

"And we were clear - if for some reason we came across a boat where it's in trouble, we agreed we'd bring them in ourselves to the UK. Ideally we'd love them to turn around, but that would be dangerous. These are lives and we would help if we had to."

But in September the Times reported that the Littleboats2020 website was claiming patrols were being sent into the Channel "to engage and attempt to safely ward off illegal migrants". These words no longer appear on the site.

The Times added that the Home Office had condemned the patrols and quoted a spokesman as saying there was "no excuse in any circumstances for harassing those arriving in the UK".

Jeremy Davis wasn't the first campaigner to devote his attention to migrant traffic in the Channel.

One of the earliest was Alan Leggett, who calls himself Active Patriot on social media. He wears a Union Jack face mask and is a constant presence at the port in Dover, frequently live-streaming his confrontations with police and Border Force officials.

He has been described by Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League, as "our man on the front line", but it's not clear whether he is a member of the organisation. He was arrested in August, accused of breaching the peace while filming migrants boarding a coach. He denies the charge.

Image caption,
Alan Leggett capturing images at the port of Dover

Leggett says he started campaigning after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing when an Islamist suicide bomber killed 22 people and himself at an Ariana Grande concert. The deaths heightened his fears about terrorism and he's convinced that the UK's relaxed borders are inviting another tragedy. So he's taken it upon himself to film every migrant he sees arriving.

"I'm basically doing this day and night, gaining intelligence and posting it on my accounts for people to see for themselves. This is really happening," he says.

But the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was actually born in the UK. In the last two years, the Home Office reports, more than 70% of people arrested for terrorist-related activity have described themselves as having British or British dual nationality.

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Another activist, Chris Johnson, dressed all in black, says he tries to pick up possible stray crossings that officials may not have spotted.

"If I do my job - what I call my job - like the Home Guard, if I can stop the migrants when they get off the boat then I can hold them there until the Border Force arrive," he says. "I don't want them getting off the boats and just disappearing, so I offer them water, cigarettes, anything to keep them there. And I'll pick the dodgy ones out and say to the Coast Guard or whoever, 'There's this one that you should be careful of.' But it's really the person that drives the boat that they want."

It's hard to predict when the migrant boats will cross. Those trying to spot them increase their odds by tuning into the coastguard on their scanners, so when Border Force search and rescue boats are sent out, they all know about it.

Jeremy Davis's campaign has also been backed by another activist, Steve Laws, a local father of three who was working as a painter and decorator before Covid struck. Now he's at the dock in Dover night and day, tracking crossings and posting everything on Twitter.

"I've even seen a baby come over, no older than two months. And that for me was when I was like, 'This needs to stop.' And that was after doing this for about two weeks. The baby was hidden in a gym bag. It was so concerning. I've got three daughters and I couldn't believe anyone would risk their child on that Channel crossing."

But he says it was a throwaway comment about migrants being given hotel rooms that spurred him into action, to begin with. He wanted to show a friend what was really happening, and started collecting video footage of migrants being loaded on to coaches after their sea crossings. He admits he quickly became obsessed.

Image caption,
Steve Laws admits he became obsessed

"You feel like you need to get the message out there. And every day something else sort of happens and that's what people don't seem to be aware of, so obviously you keep going and going and then it's got to the point where I'm at now, where I'll just naturally wake up at four or five in the morning, and I'll come and check on the boats."

In September he had a run-in with the authorities. He was arrested for allegedly joyriding with two other people in a boat that he says had been abandoned by migrants. He denies a charge of taking a conveyance without consent.

Like Jeremy Davis, Steve Laws rejects the label "far right". But while he introduced me to an immigrant friend of his - who he said had migrated to the country in a "proper" way - he also tweets about the harm that he believes "mass immigration" is doing to the UK. He says "Islamic fanatics" and illegal immigration go hand in hand, and recently called for a massive anti-Islam protest.

The actions of these campaigners have alarmed migrants' rights activists who think that the government should be doing more to provide migrants with safe passage to the UK. They formed Channel Rescue, described as a human rights monitoring project to watch over people who are making the treacherous crossing.

"We have become increasingly worried about the hostile narrative being created by both the government and some in the media, that have sought to demonise those migrating across the English Channel," the group says on its website.

While Jeremy Davis would like to see the UK, as he puts it, defending its shores, Channel Rescue says it is concerned that increased Royal Navy activity, RAF flyovers and patrols by activists opposed to the cross-Channel migrants could "act as a lethal deterrent that may force migrants into taking greater risks".

"We will not sit back and allow the English Channel to become a mass graveyard, like the waters of the Mediterranean," the group says.

"We have genuine concern that the people crossing over are looking for safety."

Image caption,
New arrivals wait to be registered after being brought into Dover by the Border Force

A recent report from the chief inspector of prisons says the migrants mostly come from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Eritrea - countries with a poor human rights record, and, in the case of Syria, a country where a civil war has been raging for nine years.

But like Alan Leggett, Jeremy Davis and Steve Laws fear that there could be dangerous people among them.

"People are making money from these boat crossings and that's worrying. But the main problem is, we don't know who they are," Davis says. "And I don't care what anybody says, somebody is going to die. They're going to kill somebody. It could be you, it could be me, it could be my children. We just don't know who these people are."

When he told me this, we had both just been watching a group of migrants being brought in to Dover on a Border Force boat, and I asked him if that was what he was thinking when he was looking at the people in that boat.

"I am thinking that I want them to be safe, first of all. I want them out of this situation. But I am thinking one of those is going to kill my children," he said. "A certain element of those will be a criminal element."

I put it to him that this was a judgement he was making - he didn't actually know it.

"No, I don't know that," he replied. Then he said that crime rates go up in areas where migrants were settled, but was unable to produce any evidence.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Anti-immigration protesters gathered in Dover on 5 September
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Meanwhile, a counter-demonstration was held by people expressing solidarity with migrants

Davis says that a childhood in the care system, in which he suffered terrible abuse, means that he always looks at migrants as people and he doesn't want them to suffer.

"But on the other hand, I look at my own family and friends and country and I think, by the same token, I've got to be able to defend them. I've got to do my bit… I can see what's going on in the world and in our country and I want to do what I can to make people safe."

He carries around Union Jack flags and positions them at the harbour entrance as migrant boats arrive.

"I think we're trying not to be too jingoistic. But on the other hand, nobody will listen to us unless we are a bit controversial at points," he says.

And even though what he is doing has not been well received by some of his friends, he says he's in this for the long haul.

"We're not going to change anything overnight, but I think people have got to think outside the box. There's got to be a way of bringing this to the public attention," he says. "For me personally, this won't be over until the conditions that are in place to make people come here are gone."

Clarification and update 9 November 2020: This piece has been re-edited; including adding more context in several places and further information about the activists involved.

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