They came here seeking asylum, but a rape has made convenient scapegoats of them all

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The Independent Online

Warrior Square in St Leonards is - or was - an elegant place. Huge, five-storey Regency houses with fancy wrought iron balconies look out on to the grassy square. St Leonards, on the outskirts of Hastings, was created in the 1830s as an upmarket resort for those who wanted to improve their health in salubrious surroundings at the seaside. Warrior Square retains a whiff of the exclusivity that St Leonards once liked to boast of.

Warrior Square in St Leonards is - or was - an elegant place. Huge, five-storey Regency houses with fancy wrought iron balconies look out on to the grassy square. St Leonards, on the outskirts of Hastings, was created in the 1830s as an upmarket resort for those who wanted to improve their health in salubrious surroundings at the seaside. Warrior Square retains a whiff of the exclusivity that St Leonards once liked to boast of.

Now, though, it is suddenly the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons. In a horrific incident at the weekend, three men seized and raped a 20-year-old care worker as she walked home across the square after spending the evening with her boyfriend at the Admiral Benbow pub, a few minutes walk away.

Hastings, in East Sussex, has had its share of violence in recent years. Assaults and rapes are what one local calls "frighteningly common". In other circumstances this attack might have been one amongst a disturbing number of serious crimes in this seemingly quiet town. There was, however, something that immediately set this case apart and parachuted it into the national newspapers. The woman identified her brutal assailant as being "of east European appearance" and speaking a foreign language. The immediate assumption was that the criminals were themselves asylum seekers. Many asylum seekers live in and near the square.

Thanks to an informal pact between the Home Secretary, Jack Straw and Ann Widdecombe, his Tory shadow, "asylum seeker" has become synonymous with "criminal". In these circumstances, the suggestion that three asylum seekers could have committed such a horrific crime was manna from heaven for tabloid headline writers.

There are currently around 700 asylum seekers in Hastings and St Leonards. The Adelphi Hotel on Warrior Square, a once grand building that has seen better days, is full of young Albanians, mostly from Kosovo, and a few Kurds.

The lobby area is filled with notices in both and English and Albanian, including stern invocations about everything from the use of the bathrooms to the rules about playing (and not playing) football. Football, it turns out, is one issue which has caused considerable local grief. A new path is being built across the middle of the now battered green turf of Warrior Square, so that the asylum seekers can no longer kick a ball about there so easily.

The refugees themselves are under strict instructions not to talk to reporters and a uniformed security man quickly intervenes if they seem too willing to talk. Several Albanians start to chat on the street outside, but are then hustled away with apologetic shrugs. A little further away from the hotel, a Kurd who lives in the Adelphi, said: "I'm not supposed to speak to you. But I don't care. I spent five years in jail. But this is like a jail, too. I wish I could just live in England, like an ordinary person."

Hastings has not yet seen the anti-foreign violence that exploded elsewhere in the South-east last year, most notably in Dover. There is, however, much rumbling resentment, not least because of a feeling that the asylum seekers, who usually remain in their own groups, give little sign of wanting to integrate.

Hilary, a local shopkeeper, said: "Many have been here for some time. But they still don't say 'please', 'hello' or 'thank you'. If they did, people would feel more comfortable. When we talk to them they just stare."

Most of all, however, people complain about the crimewave, and the police's slowness to respond. Many of them go on to say, in the next breath, that most crime is committed by locals. Drug abuse is a serious problem in the area - "Wipe our streets clean of these drug dealers" is one of the main headlines in the local paper, the Evening Argus. Car theft has reached epidemic proportions. But now the general problem of burgeoning local crime is bundled in with the quite separate question of the number of foreigners in the area.

Pam Brown, a Liberal Democrat councillor, believes that the social exclusion of the asylum seekers helps to turn locals against them. "They are seen by others not working, wandering around in groups and some of them begging - it creates a negative perception."

Twenty-five year old Malgosia, who arrived from Poland five years ago and who is now settled here with a 13 month old daughter suggests that the foreigners' "lack of understanding of cultural differences" breeds hostility. "Here in England, everybody says 'thank you' in the shops all the time. On the Continent, if you said 'thank you' all the time they would think you are crazy. There's lots of animosity. But these people are left completely to their own devices. That's very difficult."

Malgosia complains, like others, of being harassed by groups of men. But she points out that the problem of violence against women is by no means confined to foreigners. Hastings and St Leonards have many language colleges for foreign students - there are three on Warrior Square alone. "Every year foreign students are assaulted and even murdered. People have been beaten up and raped by locals. That's the other truth."

Hastings Borough Council is eager to support a proposed regional consortium which is being set up to take the pressure off individual authorities and to help solve the question of how best to place asylum seekers. This would co-ordinate a range of support services including primary health care, education, and employment opportunities. At the moment, asylum seekers are in a permanent catch-22. They receive vouchers for use in local supermarkets - to the considerable irritation of locals, especially when they buy cigarettes. "What about our old age pensioners who've got nothing?" one local said. But, under the existing rules, refugees are not allowed to work to earn an income which would allow them to buy their own food and cigarettes. Most of the men hanging aimlessly about the Adelphi have already been here for several months.

Hastings Council issued a statement yesterday "totally condemning" the attack, while emphasising that it was "inappropriate" to make any assumptions about the "race or status" of the attackers.

Hastings police make it clear that they, too, are deeply wary of the media "embroidering" the rape story in order to emphasise the alleged connections between the Warrior Square rape and the asylum seekers. But fear and xenophobia are easily connected.

When huge numbers of Kosovo Albanians lost their families and homes, people were shocked by the tragedy now, when they turn up on our doorsteps, it is easy to portray them as a threat.

Not everybody in the town has been caught up with the desire to blame foreigners for all of St Leonards' woes.

Martin, a van driver, believes that the asylum seekers get an undeserved bad name. "You can't just blame them. Unfortunately, bad things happen everywhere."

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