Race relations `damaged by outcry over asylum seekers'

PUBLIC HYSTERIA over a perceived threat to Britain from the recent influx of asylum seekers could cause lasting damage to race relations, charities said last night.

The warnings came as a hotel where a group of asylum seekers was housed confirmed yesterday it had been besieged with complaints from guests and the public.

The public hostility followed a front-page story in The Sun, headlined "Inn-sane", which condemned the decision to allow 21 Romanian women and child refugees to spend a night in the hotel.

The refugees stayed at the pounds 65-a-night Inn on the Lake, near Gravesend in Kent, after they were discovered among a group of 103 people packed into a goods lorry at the container terminal at Dartford.

The hotel, concerned by the effects of the bad publicity, is planning legal action against Kent County Council, which has moved the asylum seekers under police guard to a secret location. The male Romanians are being held in a detention centre.

Charities working with refugees said last night that animosity towards refugees had reached levels not witnessed in several years.

They blamed tabloid newspapers and immigration service officials for colluding in an anti-immigrant campaign.

Sherman Carroll, of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said: "There's no doubt that the general climate of fear and hatred they are trying to create against asylum seekers is having a negative effect on the rehabilitation of torture survivors."

The number of refugees heading for Britain appears to be on the increase.

The Immigration Service Union predicted yesterday that more asylum seekers than the previous annual record of 45,000 in 1995 would reach Britain this year.

With the Government's Immigration and Asylum Bill - promising a crackdown on immigration - only weeks away, a propaganda war is being waged between hard-pressed immigration officers concerned by the influx of economic migrants and groups that believe more sympathy should be shown to refugees.

Seizing on the debate, tabloid newspapers have run a series of articles complaining that "gypsies" and refugees have been allowed hospital treatment and "luxury" accommodation. The Daily Mail last week ran a front-page expose of criminal activities undertaken by refugees under the headline "Brutal crimes of the asylum seekers".

Part of the difficulty for refugee charities is that many recent immigrants have arrived not from war-zones, but fleeing racial persecution.

The public sympathy that existed for the victims of conflict in Rwanda and Bosnia has not been so forthcoming for the gypsy immigrants from Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Refugees from Eastern European are still outnumbered by those from Africa and the Middle East, but they have been painted as "economic migrants", casting doubts on the veracity of all asylum seekers.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "The reason we have an obligation to these people is that in the Thirties, when the gypsies fled the Nazis, they were turned back at the borders and ended up in concentration camps. The international community said that it should never happen again."

Privately, refugee groups admit their cause is not helped by the increasingly common sight of gypsy immigrants begging on the streets of London.

Alasdair Mackenzie, the co-ordinator of Asylum Aid, predicted that public antipathy towards asylum seekers would grow as the Government pursued its policy of dispersing them to towns and cities around the country.

He said: "Local authorities are having to bear the costs, which leads to local papers writing nasty pieces."

But John Tincey, of the Immigration Service Union, said yesterday that his colleagues were being overwhelmed.

He called for new reception centres to be created to give shelter to asylum seekers and said potential economic migrants could be dissuaded by preventing them from earning money in this country.

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