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Monday, 15 July, 2002, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Village of the damned

For opposing the building of an asylum seeker centre on their doorsteps, the people of Newton in Nottinghamshire have been damned as nimbys, xenophobes and racists. Fair?
The rural calm the residents of Newton prize so highly is shattered by shouts and the whack of projectiles hitting police shields.

Tired of weathering the hail of abuse, the phalanx of riot police sets about clearing the streets.

Proposed asylum centres
Locals oppose all three rural asylum centres
Has local resentment at plans to house 750 asylum seekers on Ministry of Defence land beside the tiny Nottinghamshire village exploded into violence?

As it happens, no - the disused RAF base earmarked for the refugee centre just happens to be perfect for police public disorder training - but some people are willing to think the worst of the people of Newton.

Since Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that Newton - along with Throckmorton, Worcestershire and Bicester, Oxfordshire - would host the first of a new breed of rural asylum centres, angry residents have been parrying accusations that their opposition is racially motivated.

'I'm no racist'

"It doesn't hurt me. I know I'm not a racist," says Halina Geary, chair of the Newton Action Group, "but it has made me think about other people's small-mindedness."

Halina Geary
Halina Geary: "We wouldn't want 750 men from Leeds"
The proposed unit at RAF Newton will not be a prison, rather it will be an open accommodation centre where residents must return at night so as to qualify for government support.

Despite the promised on-site sporting facilities, Mrs Geary fears the asylum seekers will find little to distract them inside RAF Newton.

"They'll not want to stay playing table tennis all day, they'll want to be out and about. Hand on heart, it's not about race. I wouldn't want 750 men from Leeds or 750 men from Uganda here with nothing to do. Newton's just not appropriate."


Unless you're a diehard fan of Robot Wars - the BBC series is filmed in a hangar at RAF Newton - this settlement of perhaps 100 homes boasts few obvious entertainments.

There is a small post box and an almost empty notice board, but no pub or shop.

Though neat, Newton's modern brick houses are hardly attention grabbing. The only points of colour are the sporadic St George flags - banners now far less suggestive of bigotry than they were before the World Cup.

RAF Newton's vandalised housing
The base's houses are deserted
Mrs Geary says Newton is not a racist community - it's a mix of people, linked only by a common desire "to live in a small community".

RAF Newton is eerily reminiscent of a sci-fi movie set. Abandoned houses, decaying tennis courts and a forlorn children's playground are deserted save for rabbits, birds and one of Newton's black residents out for a jog.

"I don't think people are protesting to the centre because of racism, they just think it's the wrong place for it," says the man, who asked not to be named.

'Disgusted by BNP'

Outsiders have seen opposition to the centre as fertile ground for racist politics, with the British National Party (BNP) twice leafleting the area.

"Most people here were quite disgusted by those leaflets," says the jogger. But will attitudes change if the plan goes ahead? "I don't think the centre will have as big an impact as people in Newton think," the man replies.

RAF Newton's steel-doored hangars
Will asylum seekers steal anything not locked away?
The businesses which have premises on the base are certainly planning for the worst. One is looking to lock away its inventory in a steel-doored hangar.

"We're not saying all these guys are going to be crooks," says Eric Sharp, mayor of nearby Bingham, "but we only known what we have seen on the TV from camp at Sangatte."

'Fear not prejudice'

Mr Sharp denies there is widespread prejudice towards asylum seekers, but rather a "fear of the unknown".

"It's the not knowing. We already have a rapport with nearby Whatton prison. People have told me that given the choice they'd rather accept the recent plan to house an extra 500 sex offenders there, rather than have the asylum seekers."

Patrick Hart
Patrick Hart: "There's no property boom in Newton"
So what would happen to asylum seekers if they wandered into Bingham? Mr Sharp remembers that when RAF personnel left the base "the fights with the locals were terrific".

Newton resident - and formerly of RAF Newton - Patrick Hart says locals will lose peace of mind if the asylum seekers come. "They've had a bad press. Now we can leave our doors open and let the kids play out. Will we be able to go on doing that?"

Mr Hart has a more pressing problem. Alongside the St George flags, Newton boasts many For Sale signs - but none saying Sold.

'Still a camp'

"Everywhere the house market is booming, but now no one want to know about properties here. I've dropped my asking price, but there's still no interest."

While he may not agree with some of the sentiments expressed in Newton, Fem Azad of the Notts Refugee Forum has worked with locals to protest against the centre.

Barded wire at RAF Newton
Fame Azad: "It reminds me of The Maze prison"
"RAF Newton reminds me of The Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

"Put people who have run away for persecution into a camp - even one with sports facilities - and you perpetuate their anxiety.

"In Newton, asylum seekers would be stigmatised and the subject of resentment," says Mr Azad. "Rehabilitated in urban communities they can fulfil their desire to get sorted, get their refugee status and get on with their lives."

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12 Jul 02 | England
19 May 02 | England
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