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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 10:55 GMT
Any port in a storm

Asylum-seekers - often well educated - must live on charity and handouts
Home Office figures reveal more than 70,000 asylum seekers took refuge in the UK in 1999 - the highest ever annual figure. The port town of Dover is a favourite destination, but this has led to tensions with local people.

BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley spent a day in the Kent coastal town.

"Right at the Upper Crust snack bar," I repeat as I dash past the shiny counters and crisp uniforms of Dover's Eastern Docks travel centre on my way to the Migrant Helpline.

Inside, the office's carpet tiles show little evidence of the 5,000 asylum-seekers who shuffled across them last year.

Signs - in typed English shadowed by a spidery Czech biro - attest to the main users of the weekly advice clinic; but today, no nationality dominates the waiting room.

A caseworker hands her phone to a young Iraqi Kurd. His brow lifts as he listens to the translator at the other end.

The start of another tough journey for asylum-seekers
The receiver passes over the desk four more times before he heads off to catch his bus to a B&B, clutching a rumpled 5 note like an Olympic torch.

The Migrant Helpline primarily aids asylum-seekers in the first hours after they reach the port, its director Annie Ledger tells me.

Those fleeing persecution in their home countries may have travelled thousands of miles to reach the UK - but once in Dover a matter of inches can count.

Apply for asylum beyond the port's immigration control - even by a matter of steps - and you are classed as "clandestine". Declare your intentions before and you are a "port of entry" applicant.

These titles dictate your economic fate until your asylum case is decided.

Ms Ledger says understanding the confusion of vouchers, benefits, dispersal and temporary accommodation - managed by local councils and the government - is just the first hurdle for newcomers.
Migrant Helpline's 1999 Top 10 countries by caseload
1 - Iraq
2 - Afghanistan
3 - Yugoslavia
4 - Albania
5 - Sri Lanka
6 - Czech Republic
7 - Zaire
8 - Turkey
9 - Iran
10 - Somalia
With few knowing anyone in the UK or having only the barest grasp of English, isolation and depression can soon dog empty days.

Language teacher Brenda waits in her windowless classroom for another batch of "Early Beginners" - supposedly complementary English lessons at a local college have thrown her timetable into confusion.

"When asylum-seekers first arrive they think they're safe and they start lessons very optimistically. When they're here two, three, four months they feel they're getting no nearer to living a decent life," she says with some exasperation.

Prolonged uncertainty and the vagaries of B&B accommodation exacerbate both the after effects of torture and the regular ailments we all suffer.

"If you're given to headaches, you'll have the greatest migraines of your life," Brenda assures me.

Some arrive unprepared for a British winter
Her class - a family from Zaire - arrives. An inquisitive little girl, dressed for arctic conditions, acts as their tottering advance guard.

Brenda launches into her enthusiastic French. The replies are more muted.

In addition to their not being able to cook in their hotel - a real morale-crusher - the heating is not working for a second January day.

Asylum-seekers are easily cowed and not the sort to relish "upsetting the applecart", I'm told.

"But Africans do like it hot," says Brenda, musing on the jump in her gas bill when she had Zairean lodgers.

We're wasting a whole lot of talent, ability and qualifications - and that's a fact

Brenda, English teacher
As the class splutters into life, I ponder the future of its pupils. Brenda carries on undaunted by the prospect they may join her alumni of engineers, dentists and professors in unskilled, casual jobs.

"We are wasting a whole lot of talent, ability and qualifications - and that's a fact," she says.

Emerging into the dazzling afternoon sun, I pick my way across the car park, harried by speeding juggernauts, police vans and coaches.

The only other pedestrian I pass is the Iraqi Kurd, studying his Migrant Helpline map of Dover even more intently than I.

When I finally turn my back on the thundering dual carriageway, it is into a deserted arcade of shops.

Amid the peeling paintwork, handwritten signs promise "Half price Christmas cards" and "Childrens (sic) portions".

Cultures meet at a church hall 'drop-in'
On the way to Marks and Spencer, I spot a solitary curry house and a kebab shop. The only dark faces I see are familiar from earlier in the day.

"If you were planning to put asylum-seekers somewhere in the UK, you wouldn't pick Dover," Annie Ledger had told me.

With little in the way of an ethnic community and economic problems of its own, the Kent town has not taken to the newcomers well.

Before recent dispersal plans moved them swiftly on, local people had expressed concern at the numbers of refugees being housed in the town.

As simmering discontent turned to verbal and physical abuse, police even read the riot act to the local press for inflaming emotions.

I meet nothing more menacing than jug-eared schoolboys and a shadow-boxing town drunk.

A huge number of people in Dover are still prejudiced

Pamela Taylor
A water trough has pride of place in the square. "Blessed are the merciful - for they shall obtain mercy," it reads. A frost seems to have finished the bulbs planted within.

At the impressive United Reform Church, I'm greeted by that church hall smell of polished floors, coffee mornings and bazaar cake stalls, even before I cross the worn stone step.

Inside is something to warm the heart of every traditionalist. Old men in tweed play snooker with teenagers; friendly chatter competes with the ping pong of table tennis; neatly dressed schoolchildren knit their brows over colouring books.

Church service

Of course many of those at this drop-in are asylum-seekers. Most are the Roma people - "gypsies" in common parlance - whose residence in Dover has sparked special controversy.

"It's getting better," says Pamela Taylor, a feisty South African volunteer. "But a huge number of people in Dover are still prejudiced."

Horrified by continued attacks on the Roma, she has again taken to wearing a badge she picked up in apartheid South Africa 30 years ago. It shows clasped hands - black and white.

Can prejudice and suspicion be swept away?
Ms Taylor and Malcolm Bowler from the local council talk frankly about the progress in soothing local fears, but the asylum-seekers themselves are more reticent.

My introduction to one man is interrupted before the second "B" of BBC. Without malice, and certainly without any impoliteness, he explains at length why he does not wish to talk to the press.

His wife smiles warmly in apology, repeating "BBC". Being the subject of journalistic interest is no more appealing to them than being figures of racial hatred, it seems.

Oliver, a young Australian helper, says their stories, as well as a glimpse of their scars and identity tattoos, are not shared with strangers.

Asylum Alley

Folkstone Road, notorious as "Asylum Alley", is a disappointment. There are no whiffs of hashish or gangs of swarthy hoodlums menacing passers-by.

The tall Victorian facades appear unlikely to hide squalid tenements teeming with "abusers" of UK asylum laws.

Indeed, its healthy smattering of "For sale" and "Sold" signs and the neatly clipped lawns of prim guesthouses suggest anything but a troubled neighbourhood.

In the distance, two young girls from the church pass through a crowd of local children.

The group splits around the pair, watching their progress with a critical eye. Words pass out of my earshot; but the girls march on, noses in the air, pigtails bouncing.

"Disgraceful!" I think. I fix what I hope is a glare on my face and prepare to stride through the young teens myself.

Perhaps unimpressed by my "Aryan" looks - or my less than steely expression - I too receive a half-hearted jeering.

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