Dover counts the cost

Emotions are running high in the port where 58 illegal immigrants were found dead in a lorry last week

Not for the first time, the ancient town of Dover finds itself in a condition approaching disequilibrium.

Not for the first time, the ancient town of Dover finds itself in a condition approaching disequilibrium.

Following last Sunday's discovery of 58 dead Chinese in a Dutch lorry that had arrived on one of the cross-Channel ferries, its people are touchy, avoiding wherever possible the scrutiny of outsiders, and desperate for distraction from their unique woes. Two events catch my eye.

The first is the unusual entertainment Dovorians (as they insist on spelling it) allowed them- selves yesterday. They celebrated midsummer by having Father Christmas hand out Easter eggs from a pink Cadillac Eldorado of 1959 manufacture, while a man called Jack Hewitt MBE, sang a revolting song about eating worms.

The second is a confrontation with one of the port's sorely beleaguered customs officers five days after his colleagues were traumatised by the Dutch truck's grisly contents.

On seeing a photographer colleague, he approaches from the customs shed on the eastern docks, his eyes bloodshot with fatigue, and says: "You cannot begin to know what it's like here or the amount of crap we take.

"I have been followed home and I have been assaulted [by racketeers bootlegging cheap tobacco and alcohol from Calais]. My colleagues have been assaulted. Our families have been identified and assaulted, or threatened with assault.

"We cannot afford to be photographed. If our faces appear on television or in the press, we're marked men. Even if we avert our faces to let you photograph us at work, that means a reduction in our concentration, so we're not doing our job properly.

"Accordingly, if you try to take a picture of customs officials at work, I'll have to ask the police to escort you away from here."

Animus jostles with angst. In the office of Mike Webb, Dover's town-centre manager, he and his Folkestone opposite number, Ian Parker, discuss last Tuesday's church service for the Chinese dead.

Mr Parker: "Hardly anyone went to it."

Mr Webb: "Because it wasn't advertised."

Mr Parker: "And because people have become hardened."

A hard-pressed immigration officer on his way home engages my arm in a grip of steel on Cannon Street.

"There's too much sensationalism about Dover," he says, "but I won't deny it can be a bit daunting. Here we see law-breaking hooligans exiting for the Continent and Euro 2000, and illegal immigrants coming in by the coachload; often the same ferry taking the first bunch out and bringing the second bunch in. Meanwhile we're worked off our feet, with hardly time to draw breath."

He relaxes his grasp and pats my elbow apologetically. "We have two major problems here," he says. "One, the local reaction to the refugees, who seem on the whole to be good, decent people who've got a rotten deal from life; two, the Government doesn't have the will to tackle the thing properly."

All around this, the busiest passenger port in the world, whose soaring white cliffs are an enduring symbol of island Britain, are powerful reminders of two millennia of incomers: a lighthouse bequeathed by the Romans; the Saxon Church of St Mary-in-Castro; the 13th-century Maison Dieu founded by Hubert de Burgh as a hospice for pilgrims from all lands; an air-raid warning bell from Antwerp presented to Dover by the Belgians.

On a High Street corner, two newly arrived African men with baggage address passers-by: "Excuse me, where is the London Road?" About 20 local shoppers bustle past, ignoring them. When I give them directions, they regard me suspiciously.

On Old Folkestone Road, streams of refugees from eastern Europe, north Africa and beyond make their way to Dover's hostels and dingy bed-and-breakfasts, lugging blue plastic bags of groceries.

A young Dovorian who runs Hall's newsagents observes them and says approvingly: "They help me make a living, though I don't take vouchers - more trouble than they're worth."

Inside the shop, copies of the Dover Express lament the presence of incoming chroniclers, declares itself "fed up" with people thinking the town is a "black hole" for "illegal immigrants, bootleg booze and fags, cheap B&Bs and dispersal programmes".

It complains about the fact that the 58 Chinese who suffocated in an unrefrigerated truck are now being "stored in refrigerators set aside for meat shipments" at the dockside.

But it is impossible to stroll here without reminders of Dover's hospitality to past writers. In 1852, at 10 Camden Crescent, Dickens read Bleak House to Wilkie Collins and Augustus Egg. In 1884 Henry James lodged on Marine Parade where he wrote the first part of The Bostonians. Waiting here for a favourable wind to remove him from his creditors, Byron remained for two days, his last in England.

It may take some time before we shall again appreciate on Dover Beach, as Matthew Arnold did from the window of his honeymoon lodgings, "the sweet night air". Without doubt, however, "the eternal note of sadness" he detected rings specially in our ears today.

Some locals, such as a cobbler on High Street, decline to discuss Dover's problems. Others do so informatively, if anonymously. "Many people here feel the Government isn't doing enough," says a person with immigration and legal connections. "There's a desperate shortage of immigration and customs officers on the ground. They need 50 per cent more to cope."

It seems that when coaches carrying refugees come off the ferries every available officer is so "overwhelmed" by asylum claimants that they often "just nod some people through". Customs officers are being hampered in their job of catching drug-dealers.

A Dover bookseller who comes from Cliftonville (currently nicknamed "Kosoville") up the coast says one of his favourite customers is a Sierra Leonean refugee.

"But he is upset because most of the 20 other people in his accommodation are not genuine asylum claimants like him." And on High Street, Pamela Christie, knitting on a sofa outside her furniture shop, complains: "The town has gone down. You have all sorts of nationalities here taking over the shops.

"If I had my way, I'd have left years ago. My husband and I were going to live in Spain because it's cheaper. But he died on me."

In the absence of any clear and urgent international direction on immigration, Dover's civic conscience seems, at times, fatally embarrassed. It doesn't take long chatting to some Kentish citizens before one begins to marvel at how many ardent patriots have a sudden desire to weed "the Garden of England".

Yet the true voice of Dover may be that of two elderly men, Lynn Sangster (67) and Alfred Willson (72), defending their birthplace on Market Square. "We are tolerant here," the former says.

"We welcome genuine refugees. Our hearts go out to people in need. Dover is no black hole." The latter adds: "The media want to turn us into a hard-hearted people. We're absolutely not."

Near by, the sun picks out words engraved on a granite trough. "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy."

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