Refugees and the residents trapped in a stormy port

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ON THE promenade above Dover's pebble beach a plaque commemorates those who served in the Second World War protecting "Frontline Britain". Half a century on many locals would have you believe nothing has changed and that the town famous for its white cliffs and ferry terminals deserves the same description. This time they are defending the frontline not against Hitler, but asylum-seekers pouring in from the Continent.

Tensions have been high in south-east Kent for several years and only two weeks ago the chairman of the County Council, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart (CRRCT), warned the Government that the atmosphere was like a tinderbox. That tinderbox sparked last weekend when 11 people suffered knife-wounds in a series of incidents involving locals and refugees.

The Government has offered to meet council leaders to discuss a situation it yesterday described as "intolerable". "We have to try and make sure we don't end up with the problem that we've been confronted with over the last few months which we accept is intolerable," Home Office minister Lord Bassam said yesterday.

There are few in Dover on either side of the argument who would disagree with Lord Bassam's comments. On one hand many local people, including it seems the Conservative ruling group on Kent County Council, would be delighted if the town's 700 refugees just disappeared. They believe the 5,000 refugees living in Kent's coastal town's are a drain on resources, even though the pounds 11m spent annually on the asylum-seekers is refunded by the Government.

Meanwhile the refugees that find themselves holed up in the shabby guest houses and peeling hotels that line the town's Folkestone Road would equally love to disappear. The trouble is they have nowhere to go.

"In a way I can understand why the local people get angry," said Mohammed Bahaman, 27, an asylum-seeker from Sulaimaniya in north-eastern Iraq, where his work as a journalist made him fear for his life. "This is a small town and there are too many refugees for a place this size. We would rather go to London but we are not allowed. As it is we stay here and we are frightened.

"I am too frightened to go out now at night on my own. Over the last few days the atmosphere has got much worse."

Mr Bahaman is one of around 100 Iraqi asylum-seekers living in Dover, along with sizeable populations of Kurds and Iranians and a smaller number of Kosovars and Albanians. Contrary to many reports of recent days the majority of asylum-seekers are not from the Balkans.

Likewise, despite the hard-to-miss graffiti in the town that berates the "Slovaki Scum", there are only a small number of refugees from Eastern Europe. The manager of the hotel where Mr Bahaman has been living for the last 10 weeks, is disgusted by the way the town has turned on the refugees. "I am horrified by what I see," said the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. "The refugees here try and keep their heads down and not to cause trouble. They would love to try and just fit in, but they are not given the chance.

"People complain that they go around in gangs. They are not in gangs, they are just sticking together because they have no-one else. What really horrified me was that even at the height of the Kosovo conflict when it was on the news every night, the Kosovar refugees that we have here were still getting assaulted verbally and physically. People could see what was happening to them in their own country but they were still behaving like this."

Annie Ledger, case manager of the Migrant Helpline which offers assistance to refugee-seekers arriving at Dover, believes feeling has been deliberately stirred up. "There is a great deal of ignorance," said Ms Ledger. "Even when people are being racist, they do not think they are being racist."

One of those institutions accused of fomenting misinformation is weekly paper, the Dover Express, which last October printed a now notorious leader column under the headline: "We want to wash dross down drain". It went on "Illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, bootleggers... and scum of the earth drug smugglers have targeted our beloved coastline.

"We are left with the backdraft of a nation's human sewage and no cash no wash it down the drain."

The outspoken editor Nick Hudson was yesterday refusing to comment on the latest developments, with a spokeswoman for his paper claiming: "he's got nothing to say".

But while one might imagine that people in the town are shamed by such headlines, Mr Hudson's supporters are not hard to find. A little way from the hotel where Mr Bahaman and his friends while away their time - existing on the pounds 30 worth of vouchers they receive each week to spend at the local Co-op - regulars in The Engineer pub claim the refugees had long been causing trouble.

"Women who come in here are afraid to walk home and have to get a taxi," said the landlord Roy Bennett. "You get gangs of them just sitting on the pavement. The police are now stopping and searching them for knives.

"People have long thought that the police have not been enough on our side, and it is an us and them situation."

The woman serving behind the bar said she would never walk home alone though she was unable to cite an incident in which any refugees had threatened her. "I just feel unsafe," she said. As she spoke, police, patrolling Folkestone Road as part of the new "robust approach", adopted since the weekend were stopping and searching teenagers and young men.

The vast majority of the youths being stopped and asked to empty their carrier-bags were refugees. Police said yesterday there had been no arrests made as a result of the initiative. The Government believes that measures contained within the controversial Asylum and Immigration Bill, currently going through Parliament, will help ease the situation by allowing groups of asylum seekers to be moved to different parts of the country.

But with new asylum-seekers arriving on the south coast every day and with reports of several hundred refugees currently in Calais waiting to travel to Dover, the situation is likely to remain tense for some time. In the meantime, Dover's refugees are united with many locals, wishing they were somewhere else.

Refugee Destinations

MANY OF the towns housing asylum seekers are based on the south coast, including Margate, Hastings and Southsea.

Other authorities, such as London's Westminster, have arrangements with east coast resorts. Few authorities send people to major provincial cities, as the Refugee Council would like, although Westminster also sends asylum seekers to Liverpool. Other London authoritiessend refugees to Stoke-on-Trent and Hull.

The Refugee Arrivals Project at Heathrow airport sends refugees to Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Newcastle, Gloucester, Bedford and Nottingham. But many drift back to London where they are more likely to have family or cultural ties.

Andrew Hogg of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said: "We are deeply concerned that under the proposed bill increasing numbers of refugees will be dispersed around the country to areas where there is not adequate provision of support."

Ian Burrell

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