Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2004

Asylum: Lessons from Dover

By Jenny Matthews
BBC News Online

Dover, a mid-size south coast town and England's major Channel port, has seen tens of thousands of migrants pass through its doors since the late 1990s.

Although only a few hundred asylum seekers and refugees now stay in the town at any one time, many people say that for a town of just 33,000 and barely any ethnic diversity, the numbers have been a lot to cope with.

Dover town centre
Dover, a town of 33,000, has hosted thousands of immigrants
And it has not been without its problems.

In 1999, Kent County Council leader Sandy Bruce-Lockhart warned the government that tensions were rising and there was a "tinder box" atmosphere.

Two weeks later, tensions came to a head in a day of violence at a funfair in which at least 11 people were injured and eight stabbed.

The leader of Dover District Council Paul Watkins said local people had felt overwhelmed by the "sheer numbers" of new arrivals.

They strained the infrastructure of the town which "caused a great deal of resentment", he said.

Dover residents talk about their town's experiences of asylum and immigration

"The schools coped very well, there was a policy to make sure the children were spread out," he said.

"But there was a notable reduction in healthcare facilities for locals to start with."

Annie Ledger of Migrant Helpline, which looks after asylum seekers in Dover, said their impact on the town's infrastructure were "more of a perception" than a reality.

But with the tabloids whipping up anti-immigration feeling on an almost daily basis, it was understandable that people thought otherwise, she said.


The biggest problem, said Mr Watkins, was that almost all the asylum seekers were housed in one small, central area - at one point, 1,200 asylum seekers were crowded into a ward of 3,600 people.

Most were in just one street, called Folkestone Road - a pleasant enough road of Victorian terraced houses and B&Bs whose character was turned upside down, according to locals, almost overnight.

Folkestone Road, Dover
I was frightened to go down the street, even in daylight
Folkestone Road resident
"I was frightened to go down the street, even in daylight," said one elderly resident who did not want to be named.

"Everyone was. They were just milling about in huge gangs. I counted 67 at one point. It was very intimidating."

Dover Police's community liaison officer Mick Cronin said the number of arrivals was an unprecedented problem for such a town, and policies had to be more or less made up on the hoof.

"It was just crisis management," he said. "So many people were arriving, about 90 a day, they had to be helped - they needed healthcare, housing, clothing - and the needs of the local people just got overlooked."

He said local people were initially never consulted or even told what was going on - something which led to increasing frustration which he tried to tackle with weekly workshops in the Folkestone Road.


It also did nothing to stop false rumours about asylum seekers flying around - and although this is something which the authorities are trying to tackle, misinformation undoubtedly still exists.

"Dover's a small town and almost entirely ethnically white," says Ms Ledger. "People can misinterpret what they see.

"A classic example is that one resident told a councillor that a group of asylum seekers were in Argos buying up a lot of expensive goods. The councillor went to investigate and found they were the crew of a cruise-ship docked in the port."

Nor was enough work done initially to explain cultural differences to both communities, Mr Cronin said.

One resident said a group of asylum seekers were in Argos buying up a lot of expensive goods - a councillor went to investigate and found they were they crew of a cruise-ship docked in the port
Annie Ledger, Migrant Helpline

He tried to explain to local people that most asylum seekers tended to hang around in large groups, for example, simply because that was the norm in the gregarious cultures and warm climates from which they hailed.

And in turn, induction sessions began with asylum-seekers to warn them that some behaviour - carrying knives, spitting, approaching women because of the way they were dressed, and even affectionately touching other people's children, could all be misinterpreted.


Another aspect which caused much resentment at the time and residual anger now, said Mr Watkins, was that central government seemed to be in denial that there were any problems in Dover at all, while local residents felt they were struggling.

1996: Asylum seekers stop getting mainstream benefits and are supported by local authority
This means fewer asylum seekers heading straight to London from Dover, and the community in Dover swelling
1999/2000: Responsibility for asylum seekers handed to national agency Nass
2000-2004: "Dispersal policy" means fewer asylum seekers staying in Dover; stricter checks in Calais also means fewer people claiming asylum in Dover
Source: Migrant Helpline

"Whenever people complained they were called racist, or the implication of racism was used," he said.

"Dover people are a generous community but they were completely overwhelmed, and to be attacked as uncaring has caused bitterness."

Since 1999, the problems have ebbed. Changes to government policies have meant more asylum seekers are being housed elsewhere; there are fewer arrivals; and more work has been done to help communities engage with each other.

Mr Cronin is now working with other towns to help them prepare for arriving asylum seekers. And what does he tell them?

"Engage with the local community, inform them, give them a person to go to, don't wait until trouble starts and don't just house [asylum seekers] on a rough estate which already has problems of its own," he said.

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