Refugees flee 'anti-slavery capital' after attacks

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The Independent Online

Hull has made considerable capital out of its history of altruism. But to two Kurdish refugees, who were back on the road and seeking an alternative city to bed down in last night, its respectability is dangerously deceptive.

Hull has made considerable capital out of its history of altruism. But to two Kurdish refugees, who were back on the road and seeking an alternative city to bed down in last night, its respectability is dangerously deceptive.

Hull, birthplace to William Wilberforce and a safe haven for refugees of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, is currently seeking to become Britain's "anti-slavery capital". However Mohammed Ewal and Fardin Farqu didn't experience it at its munificent best.

The Afghan men, who are in their 20s, were approaching a telephone box in the city centre's De Gray Street at 12.30am on a Sunday morning 10 days ago when three men engaged them in conversation. A knife was flashed, along with what Humberside police believe may have been a knuckleduster, and one of the men was thrown to the floor. When ambulance crews found him, he had a 2in cut to his ribs, an injured jaw and bruises.

The men were supposed to have met detectives the following Monday, but they never showed up - police admit that refugees' mistrust of uniform is a problem. Last night they were among seven Afghan Kurds who fled Hull fearing further reprisals.

They went back to Kent, where they entered the UK. Six are now in Sheffield; a seventh is in Wolverhampton, the Home Office disclosed last night.

Hull's apparent intolerance of asylum seekers like the Afghans led 120 asylum seekers to stage a rally in Pearson Park in the city on Saturday - a day which served several reminders of the city's questionable recent race record.

The rally was supported by the family of Christopher Alder, a 37-year-old black ex-paratrooper who died in police custody in Hull two years ago and over whose death five officers face criminal charges. It also coincided with an unrelated incident, on Saturday night, in which 20 youths approached the home of a local Asian shopkeeper with a bottle of petrol. A male member of the family was attacked by six youths when he emerged from the house and police later extinguished a small blaze.

Detectives are also investigating an attack on 26-year-old Kosovan Mohammed Ali on Princes Avenue, who lost the sight in his left eye after he answered a knock at the door and was hit by a stone.

The city's Asylum Seeker Support Group, which was set up by the city's indigenous population, also reports that a teenage Kurd opened the door to a man who stabbed him in the chest, within 24 hours of his arrival in the city - one of 35 serious racist incidents Humberside Police dealt with from April to July of this year.

Few of the asylum seekers have a strong enough command of English to describe their experiences, but Mohammed Sali, a 41-year-old Iraqi, said: "We get a lot of harassment from children which we don't mind. It's the adults that causes us a problem. I've been into the centre of Hull twice to avoid trouble." Another 30-year-old, who would only give the false name "Jim", said he violence between different ethic groups was also a problem.

Hull - an historically monocultural city whose 300-strong Chinese community is its largest ethnic group - is beginning to question itself. "There's only really the Chinese community, no diversity. When it comes to racial awareness, we're stuck," said one observer yesterday who was reluctant to be named.

"The lack of ethnicity is probably why these asylum seekers stand out," admitted Humberside Police's Inspector Mike Dixon yesterday. "They stand out because they are different."

Racism towards some of the city's 300 asylum seekers has emerged, improbably, in the city's most bohemian area - the Avenues district, which houses the city's students and was home to one of Hull's most famous sons, Philip Larkin.

Another of the Avenues' past residents was rather less fêted. Simon Sheppard was jailed earlier this year for inciting racial hatred. Behind a respectable veneer, he was distributing leaflets throughout the Avenues district which parodied the death of Jews in the Holocaust. He told Hull Crown Court the leaflets were written so that people may take them with "a pinch of salt", but they referred to a foreign invasion and to people of mixed ethnicity being a "mongrel race".

Yesterday, Guy Cheverton of the Asylum Seekers Support Group, said: "Some kind of community facility is needed," he said. "Landlords are raking in £200 a week rent for each immigrant, but so many are packed into houses that we've had an instance of someone sleeping in the central-heating cupboard."

This kind of destiny may be awaiting up to 300 more asylum seekers who, the Hull Daily Mail recently reported, will be heading for empty council houses in the city and who do not appear to be anticipated with any relish.

"I appreciate these people have to go somewhere, but putting them on a housing estate which already has problems does not make sense," one councillor told the paper. "If we cannot look after out tenants properly, why should we be opening our doors? I am not a racist. I am a realist."

Councillor Daren Hale defended Hull. "Refugees have been given free use of community centres and free leisure passes and the council paid the costs of policing Saturday's demonstration."

The chairman of the National Union of Refugee Councils, Mike Rahmen, said that asylum seekers had become extremely anxious about their treatment.

"This has raised racial tension, because how do you make a distinction between someone who is a refugee in a large population of black and ethnic minority people up and down this country?" he said. "It's not only an attack on the people who are seeking political asylum here but an attack on the black and ethnic minority people living in this country."