Seeking asylum from the press

For the director of Kent's social services dealing with the Romanian gipsy refugees, this has been a very long week.
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Jan Askew

It's been a tough time for Kent social services director , made all the tougher when screaming headlines and public complaints about scrounging gypsies have drowned out reason and compassion.

Tracked by baying tabloids, scores of Romanian women and children, recently discovered in a truck at Dartford, are being secretly moved around Kent like criminals for their own protection. After the public backlash over their stay at a local hotel, the authorities refused yesterday to reveal their latest location.

As Kent struggles with an unprecedented rise in illegal immigrants, Ms Askew and her staff are finding their statutory duty to aid asylum seekers an increasingly lonely task. A veteran of civil disasters, Ms Askew says the public are usually sympathetic during human emergencies. But many locals seems increasingly hostile to immigrants - particularly large groups - who turn up in Kent hidden in lorries, asking for sanctuary from persecution at home.

If the public are hostile, certain sections of the media are near hysterical. Ms Askew is too diplomatic to use the word "harassment", but there is no doubt that "intense press interest" has made a hard job even harder.

When the 103 Romanians, including babies as young as two months, were discovered at Dartford, the numbers took west Kent's breath away. Ms Askew was drafted in because of her experience at Dover, where most of Kent's immigrants arrive. She has worked pretty much "24 hours a day" on the crisis ever since it began.

The immigration flood began in October 1997, when 200 Czechs and Slovaks arrived at Dover. Kosovo Albanians are the latest to arrive in large numbers, fleeing from the continuing conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Ms Askew says Kent is also seeing a worrying rise in the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in its ports, often from the old Yugoslavia. The majority are 14-16 years old, although the youngest was just eight.

"They turn up knowing no English, severely traumatised by war," she says "Often they don't know what has happened to their parents. We treat them as we would a British child."

The moving of the Romanians to a hotel, in the midst of already raging controversy, was surely a political mistake. But the truth is that Kent is running out of places to put "illegals" while their amnesty applications are considered. Over 2,000 have turned up this year, an increase of 60 per cent on the year before. "Kent is saturated," says Ms Askew. "All the B&Bs are full up."

And while the county council is refusing to use its annual budget to fund the immigration crisis - it declares the cost, at least pounds 4m this year, as a direct overspend - the numbers are putting immense strain on its social workers. "I have been a social worker for 25 years," says Ms Askew. "And this is absolutely unprecedented. "

Ms Askew says that, beyond her legal obligations, it is hard not to feel compassion for the people who pitch up. The Romanians currently being hounded arrived in Britain with no belongings, claiming they had sold everything they owned to pay for illegal passage and their escape from the "violent" Romanian police.

On arrival, women and children were separated from the men, who were yesterday still at a detention camp. Separation from the traditional heads of family has greatly upset the women and children.

Even those who sympathise with the plight of immigrants say the current asylum application procedure takes too long - up to a year in some cases - particularly when so few are finally granted leave to stay. Ms Askew says providing housing, education and benefits during the wait is stretching Kent to its limits. In its new White Paper on immigration, she says, the Government acknowledges the problem. "The system just cannot cope with these volumes," she says.