Are we not human beings?

Refugees: A nasty dose of xenophobia last week made an exile's life in Britain even tougher, writes Robert Winder
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The Independent Online
IT WAS an inhospitable week for refugees. In Dover last weekend they found out the meaning of British hospitality - punch-ups with local youths. The trouble came to a head when the local press complained about the "influx" of asylum seekers, claiming that Dover couldn't possibly cope.

Last week, 400 councils around the country were asked to find at least 40,000 beds to ease the "intolerable pressure" that Dover and other towns in Kent were facing from the arrival of the refugees.

The Local Government Association warned that up to 200 asylum seekers a week could arrive at the southern ports and police said that reinforcements were being sent to Dover. Now many of the Dover asylum seekers are to be sent north, to Leeds and to Merseyside, where they can only hope they will receive a better welcome.

Leeds, certainly, has a long history as a haven for immigrants. In Victorian times its textile mills offered jobs to Lithuanian and Polish Jews. In recent years the city has played host to refugee populations from Ukraine, Iran, Sudan, Chile, Vietnam, Montserrat and Bosnia. It was the first British city to welcome refugees from Kosovo, and the first to announce that it would accommodate some of the 800 or so asylum seekers who have been the subject of tension in Dover.

Since most refugees and asylum seekers arrive in the south-east, this is where the problems are most acute. So it is to Leeds's credit that it has been swift to offer help. This has little to do with bien-pensant liberalism.

"Actually," said Kirsti Staindale of Refugee Action, "I think it has something to with plain old-fashioned courtesy. People at the bus stops here still talk to each other, ask how they are."

The temporary housing of the Kosovars made headlines, and drew people's attention to the issue. "The response was amazing," said Barry Meason, at the Council of Refugees in West Yorkshire. "We were inundated with practical offers. At one reception centre the landlady of the local pub came and asked what she could do to help. There was a genuine desire to help."

"The details have yet to be ironed out," said Paul Clark, head of the housing department of Leeds City Council. "We don't know how many people we're talking about, nor how it will be paid for. As it stands, we don't have the resources to handle a substantial number of extra asylum seekers. There is going to be a Home Office funding package announced at some point. But we want to do this properly. There's no point just moving the crisis around the country."

Leeds city centre shows plenty of evidence of prosperity, but this is not where refugees are housed. Evacuees from the volcanic eruption on Montserrat were lodged at a dilapidated and slightly druggy block in Beeston, south of Leeds. The Kosovars were put in disused old peoples' homes on the edge of town. Last year, Refugee Action commissioned a survey of the city's newest immigrants from Ruth Wilson, and the impressions she recorded give the lie to any idea that the newcomers live on easy street. Asked to give advice to new arrivals, one said: "Learn to use the heaters, but don't have them on high all the time." Another suggested: "Find out about the charity shops."

In recent weeks, nearly 1,000 of the 1,600 Kosovars in Leeds have gone home. Further flights are imminent. This, too, is one in the eye for those (such as Jack Straw, it seems) who wish to depict "asylum seekers" as spongers looking for easy pickings. "It isn't as if they wanted to be here," said Kirsti Staindale. "They are leaving at the very first opportunity. They want to be re-united with their families."

There are about 1,500 refugees in Leeds, not counting the Kosovars, some of whom will probably remain. They have many problems - linguistic, financial and personal. Their status is often uncertain: the processing of refugees is slow, and a successful application can take two years or more.

Jack Straw's new Asylum Bill, though it aims to streamline and speed up that process, also proposes to deter new applicants by making the life of the existing refugees harder than it already is. The Home Office wants to target "cluster areas", mini-communities of a single nationality, and under the new legislation refugees will be unable to choose where they live. To those who work with the refugees, it all seems unnecessarily harsh.

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