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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
How Portishead divided over asylum
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Signs on the dual carriageway near Portishead
Anxiety about asylum seekers is present nationwide - but as one public meeting showed, it is also dividing neighbours over whether or not they should be welcomed or resisted.

Approximately 120 square metres of office space - that's how much of a building the Immigration Service propose to convert into a screening centre for asylum seekers.

It is also the reason why the town of Portishead is deeply divided.

If the Home Office wins its argument, the Bristol satellite town will become the regional centre issuing asylum identity cards and conducting associated interviews.

I'm concerned about asylum seekers being demonised - and I'm concerned for good community relations in Portishead
Bishop Roger Sainsbury
The only problem is the proposed centre is in a housing estate.

Just five years old, The Vale estate is neat and bright, the location of many a dream home.

But as you snake through its traffic-calmed roads and cul-de-sacs, you glimpse a modest office block on its fringe.

That is where the Immigration Service wants to bring asylum seekers.

The asylum seekers won't be staying in the area. They will be coming into Portishead for a few hours and then going back to their temporary homes elsewhere in the South West.

But many local people are furious, fearing what the arrival of 50 strangers a week will mean.

This is not the first time the Home Office has faced such anger over asylum - and critics say it is too slow to respond to community concerns.

Tuesday's public meeting was meant to deal with those anxieties.

Fear of unknown

The Immigration Service's presence in Portishead is not new. But the arrival of asylum seekers is certainly new, something unknown, says the retired Bishop of Barking Roger Sainsbury.

People just don't trust the government because all this is done in secret
Kay Southwood, resident
Long experienced in asylum matters from his work in London's East End, he was asked to chair the meeting.

"I became aware of the plans when an elderly resident expressed concern about strained community relations," he said.

"I'm concerned about asylum seekers being demonised - and I'm concerned for good community relations in Portishead because I don't want this to become like a town in the North West."

For the Home Office, a distinctly uncomfortable-looking Paul Howcroft and John Brooks "tried their level best" (Mr Howcroft's words) to explain to the 300 people present the facts about the centre, in measured and precise language.

No, people would not be allowed to just arrive without appointment, he said. Yes, they would have to find their own way there. And, in the round, it represents a saving to the tax payer because it's cheaper than sending someone to London to do paperwork.

'Message sent'

But local councillor David Pasley said the hundreds present had already sent a message.

"It's wholly inappropriate in this location," he said.

Asylum centre
Up to 50 arrivals a week
Some for interviews
Others for identity cards
Not used for detention
Asylum seekers make their own travel arrangements
"I realise that the subject of asylum is emotive and I personally abhor bigotry. But if visitors to this centre are allowed to walk through the estate, that is just not on," he said to loud applause.

Not all agree with Councillor Pasley.

Earlier in the day, one woman whose home is opposite the proposed centre told the BBC she was not in the least bit worried. At the meeting, resident John Vickers appealed - in the face of some jeers - to his neighbours to share the blessings they had received in life.

Blunt words

Nick Brown, an independent councillor, was somewhat blunter.

"Let's cut to the chase," he told the audience. "If this was a law firm arriving, would there be the same outcry? That's rubbish isn't it.

Addressing the meeting
Anger and concern: Answers demanded
"I think this [anger] is because we are talking about asylum seekers."

Another woman agreed. What was the difference between an asylum seeker and another stranger walking through the estate, she asked.

They convinced few of the doubters.

"A lot of people will be trying to sell their homes," said one woman.

"I'm not against them coming here as such. But they should not be permitted to wander around the country without some kind of regulation. We don't even know if they are genuine asylum seekers."

'No consultation'

Time and time again people raised two concerns: a strong sense of the unknown and anger that nobody had asked them.

One resident said she bore no ill will to any newcomer and would hate to be thought of as racist - but she simply could not help feeling uncomfortable.

One father said he was "neither bigoted nor racist but concerned" whether his children could play outside anymore.

Kay Southwood and her husband Tony had been among the first to move to the Vale and she received the loudest cheers of all as she detailed the efforts she had gone to speak to officials on the phone.

"People just don't trust the government because all this is done in secret," she complained.

"There has been no consultation. People just feel they are being kept in the dark and that's why they are so angry."

Update: On 22 April, North Somerset council rejected the Home Office's plan. It now goes to an appeal stage.

Asylum centre 'not accessible'
20 Apr 04 |  Bristol/Somerset

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