Murder of Qatari student exposes the race hatred rife in Hastings

To a young, ambitious and well-educated boy from a wealthy Middle Eastern family, the historic English seaside town of Hastings would seem an ideal place to spend six weeks learning English and about Britain.

Hastings, 16-year-old Mohammed al-Majed knew, was where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II in 1066. What better place to soak up British culture than where the seeds of the country's history were sown?

The high number of foreign language schools in the area would undoubtedly have been another factor in Mohammed's decision to come to Hastings. With around 35,000 overseas students arriving there every year, he was almost certain to form some lasting friendships, and unlikely to be lonely or bored.

Yet five weeks after his arrival in the UK, and a week before he was due to fly home to rejoin his family in Qatar, Mohammed al-Majed lay bleeding to death on a street corner, the victim of a racially motivated assault by a gang of white youths. He died in hospital the following day, alone, without a member of his family at his bedside.

What Mohammed and his family did not realise when he set off for the UK is that every year an inordinately high number of race-related attacks are reported in Hastings, and that relations between the foreign language students and the locals are far from cordial.

In the space of just three years, almost 100 foreign students have been attacked in the town, including physical assault and robbery, during April and August, when the language schools are busiest. Since many minor incidents are likely to go unreported, and the figures do not account for those who stay in Hastings at other times of the year, the real story could in fact be much worse.

The leader of Hastings council's suggestion that the town was "basically a safe and welcoming place" for foreigners was yesterday met with derision by a group of Saudi Arabian students having lunch at a cafe just a few yards from the street corner where Mohammed al-Majed was murdered.

Pandaris al-Ghandi, 32, arrived to study English at EF International Language School – the same school attended by Mohammed – six weeks ago, and returns to Saudi Arabia tomorrow. He says that after a few weeks in Hastings, he and his two brothers became too frightened to walk home at night in case they were attacked.

"Every time we walked past they would shout things," he says. "Now I just take a taxi home with my brothers – they are both younger than me – because if we do not do that then we know that we will be hit or insulted. The problem is that there are groups of drunk young people and when they see that you are a foreigner or a stranger they start shouting bad words."

He says that one of his brothers, who is the same age as Mohammed, was with him during the attack. He managed to escape by running away, but not before seeing him being kicked in the head by a group of seven white youths.

A sudden drop in the number of overseas students arriving would be disastrous for the town's economy, so it was no surprise when community leaders declared that Hastings was still safe for foreign visitors. Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Rye and Hastings, admitted he was "ashamed" that the town might now be perceived as racist.

"Although Hastings is essentially a safe town with crime falling, the fact remains that this has happened on this occasion," he said. "We need to recognise there are racist feelings among some members of our community, and they are unacceptable."

Yesterday, police on patrol walked past the two bouquets of flowers and the book of condolence which lay on one of the picnic tables outside the kebab shop where Mohammed was murdered. Inside was page after page of tributes from his fellow students.

One read: "We miss you already. We cannot explain how we feel, but God knows."

A quick walk around the centre of Hastings is enough to establish that it is a far cry from the picturesque English seaside town that many foreign students might expect it to be. The once glamorous seafront, with its pebble beach and dilapidated pier, seems to have faded away into nothing, and the centre of town has become a pedestrianised wilderness with the usual smattering of familiar high street shops.

The council has been keen for Hastings to shed its image as a downtrodden resort, and has ploughed millions of pounds into various rejuvenation projects. But these sparkling new building developments stare across at dingy and ageing tenements, giving a sense of a town with one foot in the future, but another firmly in the past.

David Dyer, who works in a bar close to where Mohammed al-Majed was killed, has only lived in Hastings for three months, but has already witnessed a number of fights. He says that although he has seen worse tensions in his native Glasgow, the influx of foreign students definitely causes problems, to the extent that they will often leave the pubs early to avoid the locals.

"There is some animosity," he says. "Usually between about eight and ten at night the students and the foreigners tend to leave, and then the English come in after them. They never really mix much.

"There's always one or two fights out by the kebab shop, where they all congregate. I'm a friend of the owner's, but if I wanted to I could guarantee getting into a fight just by going up there. Before I'd even set one foot inside the door I'd get in a fight."

Although there is undoubtedly a racial split within the town, many of the locals feel that the international students bring a richness and diversity to Hastings, as well as an important boost to the local economy.

Joe Cruttenden, 28, has lived in the town all his life and said that it would be a "stupid" decision to chase the students out of the town, while another woman, who did not want to be named, said she had been renting rooms to foreign students for decades.

"Most of the local residents that I know like having them here," she says. "They bring a lot of money to the area, and a lot of life. We do have a lot of foreign language schools, but as far as I'm concerned it's an advantage for the town and I have no problem with it."