Let Dover stew in its disgusting narrow-mindedness and prejudice

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The Independent Culture
THE WORD "influx" is defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary as meaning a "flowing in of persons or things". And it is the watery word that the BBC is currently using - unapostrophised - to describe the entry to Britain of asylum-seekers. Reporters for the corporation evidently observe a land into which a constant stream of foreigners runs; gentle but irresistible.

For The Daily Telegraph, however, this image of the stream is insufficiently dramatic. That newspaper instead witnesses a "flood". Again, my dictionary on consultation gives me: "Flood. Irruption of water over land, inundation. Overflow in, or cover with a flood". So does the editor, Charles Moore, see his country being "covered" over with Somalis and Kurds? Does he turn every corner fearing, once again, to find them there, chewing the narcotic wali-wali nut and eyeing him with hostility? Do they frighten his horse with muttered oaths as he canters the Royal Mile?

The view is even bleaker from Kensington. There, in his eyrie overlooking the park that Diana loved so much, Brian Sewell - art critic and political commentator - wrote in yesterday's London Evening Standard that, "we are besieged and invaded by would-be immigrants from former Yugoslavia", adding that, "Kent alone has given shelter to some 5,000 of them." "Besieged" means being the targets of a siege, and that in turn is defined as: "Operations of attacking force to take or compel surrender of fortified place; persistent attack or attempt to persuade". To invade is to "make hostile inroad into; swarm into; assail; encroach". Things are obviously bad over there. The white stucco is festooned with scaling ladders, as baying Slavs attempt to break into Mr Sewell's loggia and pillage his collection of miniatures.

But Mr Sewell cannot be exaggerating. The same thing he was talking about was described on Monday by the Home Office minister Lord Bassam of Brighton as being "intolerable". The OED gives this as meaning something "that cannot be endured". Cannot be endured, not "something one would rather not go through". So, for instance, prolonged, agonising torture would be described as "intolerable".

Indeed, so difficult have things become in the Garden of England that the chair of Kent social services, Brenda Trench, said, "we are appealing to local people to keep calm." The same advice was simultaneously being given to the people of north-west Turkey by the Turkish Prime Minister, in the wake of earthquakes that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people. When someone tells you to keep calm, it means you have a great deal to be worried about.

The immediate reason for all this talk of floods, invasions and the need for calm, was the weekend disturbances in Dover. Following an assault on a refugee on Friday night, other asylum-seekers went to a local fair armed with knives. Various "local" youths (for "local", read "English"), who in other circumstances might themselves have been candidates for epithetical target practice, were "victims" of stabbings. The whole thing was awful enough to rate a visitation from Ann Widdecombe, there to pour magnesium on troubled waters.

Why has all this happened? By coincidence a letter to Jack Straw from the Tory leader of Kent County Council, Sandy Bruce Lockhart, was leaked a few days ago. Sandy was scared about the impact of asylum-seekers on Dover. "The area," he told Mr Straw, "has virtually no prior history of multicultural diversity; local people feel increasingly `swamped' and resentful - and this is leading to increased confrontation and incidents, some of which are violent and probably racially motivated...

"It is no exaggeration to say that in parts of Dover it is a tinder- box atmosphere and we are increasingly fearful that it could culminate in a fatal confrontation or arson attack."

House prices are down. Children are scared to go on to the street. Old ladies are assailed by grinning piccaninnies. Oops. Ann Widdecombe blames the Government for making Britain, "a soft touch". Presumably she would like to see much tougher action taken to stop asylum-seekers coming to the country, and then problems like Dover's would go away. There is some disagreement about how many asylum-seekers are in Dover. The refugee agencies seem to believe that there are about 750, in a town of 32,000 people. And whoever may be invading Sewellvania, most of the asylum-seekers in Kent are Afghans and Kurds.

Now, if 750 people turned up for a Third Division soccer match between Useless United and Pathetic Albion, the crowd would be described as pitiful. But when 750 asylum-seekers live in a medium-sized town, it is an event of almost biblical dimensions. Net total migration in 1995 was plus 54,000, and the flow has been a minus figure in many years since the war. In 1993, for instance, 2,500 more people went to live abroad than came in. There were, as I recall, no headlines.

What I'm saying is that I'm utterly disgusted and fed up with asylum- seekers being described as being the problem. They are not, and never have been. We are the problem. When the appearance in your midst of a number of people who speak a different language to you, and who eat different food, arouses your alarm and hostility, how can that be due to some deficiency in them?

But what is even worse is the way that this intolerance is pandered to. Thus the spokesperson of the Local Government Association said this week that: "It is not difficult to see how resentment can build up. People think money spent on asylum-seekers could go on health care or schools. It is not just racism."

Of course it is. Bruce Lockhart's letter is the giveaway. The people of Dover "feel" resentful because they have "virtually no history of multicultural diversity". And this in one of England's most historic ports! A translation of this passage becomes, "they do not like foreigners". Which is why the editor of the local rag has talked about human sewage, why apocryphal tales of prostitution and criminality do the rounds of the pubs, why the ultra-right has targeted Dover, and why asylum-seekers have been beaten up and threatened.

No wonder Dover is in an economic hole. A compassionate Government would move the asylum-seekers for their own good, on the basis that Dover is obviously no place where anyone should be forced to live if they can help it. Let it stew in its narrow-mindedness and prejudice.

Those who should be forced to live in Dover include Miss Widdecombe, the Christian who loves foxes, but ain't so keen on her fellow human beings, especially in their time of necessity; the spineless local Labour MP Gwyn Prosser, who "understands" the feelings of locals (don't we all?); and the egregious Lord Bassam. For when he talks about the situation being "intolerable", what he is doing is excusing intolerance. The truly tolerant do not find many things intolerable.