An explosive mix of prejudices, often verging on paranoia, is fuelling local campaigns against immigration.
While the government’s plans to house asylum seekers outside major cities are being challenged by a wave of mass protests in Kent, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Dorset and Lincolnshire, elsewhere, asylum seekers are being made the scapegoats for an NHS in crisis. And this mood of anger is being encouraged by national newspapers, which are linking immigration to fears over terrorism, disease and crime. With the Conservative Party and British National Party (BNP) positioning themselves to capitalise on this burgeoning resentment, immigration issues look set, this year, to dominate British politics, on a scale not seen since dockers marched in support of Enoch Powell in 1968.
About a hundred protestors – mostly middle-aged and elderly women – are standing outside the Coniston Hotel in Sittingbourne. They are holding banners declaring ‘No to over-population’, ‘NHS cuts will get worse’ and ‘London-Manchester-Sittingbourne?’ (a reference to recent arrests of asylum seekers under anti-terrorist laws). Until recently, they would have only visited the hotel for the weekly bridge club or for a wedding reception. But now, they are holding a three-hour vigil outside the hotel as part of an ongoing campaign to prevent it from being turned into an induction centre for 111 asylum seekers.
Earlier, on 24 January 2003, a public meeting was held at Sittingbourne’s Wyvern Hall to discuss the proposal. The hall was packed to capacity with 500 people inside and an estimated one thousand gathered outside. John Owen, a local resident, told the meeting: ‘We have had enough. We want an end to mass immigration to this country. If our views are ignored there will be hell to pay.’ According to another local, David Turner, who saw the crowds of people gathered outside the hall, ‘virtually every one of them was bitterly hostile, not just to the induction centre proposal, but to asylum seekers in general – and to people who stand up for them.’ Estate agents have reportedly advised residents that local house prices will fall by 25 per cent, should the proposed centre go ahead.
The campaigners, who are supported by local Labour MP Derek Wyatt, accuse the government of not consulting the people of Sittingbourne while planning the centre. In response, the Home Office has now announced that plans will be put on hold while local consultation takes place. David Blunkett admitted on 20 January 2003 that the way the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) relates to local communities needed to change.
The day after the Wyvern Hall meeting, a 40-strong National Front (NF) group gave out fliers and staged a protest against the hostel in Sittingbourne and, more recently, the BNP has announced that, due to ‘massive interest’, they will be standing three candidates in the Medway area at the May council elections.
In the early hours of 31 January 2003, a car was used as a battering ram to smash the rear service doors of the Coniston. A 20-year-old Sittingbourne man has been arrested.
Accommodata, the private firm which is set to turn the Coniston into an asylum hostel, already runs asylum accommodation in Manchester, Bolton, Derby and Leicester. Its Leicester property, the International Hotel, which has been used to accommodate about 400 asylum seekers, was strongly criticised two years ago when an Iranian asylum seeker, Ramin Khaleghi, committed suicide. Residents had been complaining then of hygiene problems, inadequate heating and poor food.
The Hardy Accommodation Blocks are part of a former Naval base on the island of Portland, Dorset, which is only accessible by a single road. The island is already home to 2,000 prisoners but now the government is considering the site for an accommodation block for 750 asylum seekers. On 27 January 2003, 500 protestors came to a public meeting to oppose the plans. Shortly after the meeting ended, fire crews were called to the Hardy Block to put out a fire that had started on the first floor. The main doors had been smashed open and the first floor suffered extensive damage. The police are treating the fire as arson but have not, as yet, made any arrests.
Earlier in the same week, protestors broke into another block on the site and hung a banner declaring ‘No asylum here’. The local campaign is supported by Labour MP for South Dorset Jim Knight as well as the South Dorset Conservative Party.
More than 250 people braved the rain, this week, in Saltdean, Sussex, to fight plans to house 60 asylum seekers in a nearby hotel. As in Sittingbourne, the protests have focused on lack of consultation. In November 2002, the Home Office denied rumours that the Grand Ocean hotel was being converted into emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. But later, in January, it admitted that there was such a plan. The lack of openness was blamed on a ‘clerical error’. A strong campaign organised by the Saltdean Residents’ Association has now managed to persuade the government to put the project on hold.
The hotel owners have, however, accused their critics of scaremongering. The hotel, they say, will use between six and twenty rooms and two meeting rooms for asylum seekers staying for between three and seven days, subject to availability. Like many other hotels in the Gatwick area, the Grand Ocean has, for many years, provided accommodation rooms for asylum seekers.
Villagers at Caythorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, are protesting at plans to convert a former agricultural college into accommodation for asylum seekers. A public meeting attracted 200 locals from the rural town which has a population of 1,500. Local Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, Douglas Hogg, is supporting the campaign and has written to the private firm developing the site asking it to look elsewhere for ‘a more appropriate site’. The BNP has also been active in the village, producing a local-focus newsletter. However the Caythorpe Action Group has sought to distance itself from the extreme-Right party.
A planning inquiry to consider a proposed asylum accommodation centre four miles outside of Bicester has been adjourned until February. In Spring 2002, the Home Office announced plans to build a ‘reception centre’ for 750 asylum seekers with all facilities and support provided in-house. The site is adjacent to a military base and a prison. A group of villagers living close to the proposed site formed the Bicester Action Group and put up posters in Bicester warning the town of increased crime and a drop in house prices if the centre went ahead. The BNP and NF began campaigning locally. A rival group, Bicester Refugee Support, is also opposing the centre but from a standpoint of supporting asylum rights. Their objections are that the centre’s location and proposed living conditions will be inappropriate.
A successful local campaign against plans to build an accomodation centre near Pershore, Worcestershire, won support last year from local resident and fashion designer, Stella McCartney, as well as her father, Paul. Stella has a £1.3 million farmhouse in the village. The pressure group Protest at the Asylum Centre was also supported by local Tory MP, Peter Luff, and Songs of Praise presenter Toyah Wilcox, who grew up in the area but now lives in Chiswick, London.
Up to 600 people demonstrated at the proposed site in July 2002 attaching ribbons to the fence of the disused RAF airfield at Throckmorton. The Home Office had planned to house 750 asylum seekers at the site which has also been used as the largest landfill waste site in Worcestershire and the biggest foot and mouth burial pit in the Midlands.
Asylum seekers blamed for NHS failures
Two years ago, the Institute of Race Relations reported in The Dispersal of Xenophobia how, in Ireland and the Netherlands, asylum seekers were being systematically blamed for social problems in areas to which they were being dispersed. Lack of consultation and insufficient resources in these areas were leading to feelings of anxiety. The report also drew attention to the trend of viewing immigrants as carriers of infectious diseases. Now, there are signs in Britain that ill-informed health scares are becoming central to public fears about immigration.
Two weeks ago, shadow health secretary Liam Fox wrote to all Primary Care Trusts and Hospital Trusts suggesting that UK citizens were being denied access to treatment on the NHS because of ‘preferential access’ given to asylum seekers. He also claimed that the NHS was becoming a ‘health tourism destination’.
In Stoke, newspapers drew attention to the case of an 88-year-old woman who was taken off her GP’s books, it was claimed, because of the burden of asylum seekers. Lydia Perry was told by her GP that he no longer had a place for her at his practice. Dr Paul Golik, secretary of the North Staffordshire local medical committee, claimed GPs in the area were being forced to accommodate up to 200 asylum seekers each month, causing a major shortage of doctors. The story appeared on the front page of the Mail on Sunday on 19 January 2003.
Earlier, in Derby, a medical practice had been closed because of a shortage of doctors. At about the same time, the Central Derby Primary Care Trust announced the opening of a practice specifically for asylum seekers. Patients had previously been told that the new practice would be used for general practice as well as asylum seekers’ needs. This proved not to be the case, provoking anger and protests from the 1,900 patients forced to move to different surgeries around the city. In the debate that followed, Dr Peter Moss, a senior practitioner in the area, told the Derby Evening Telegraph (17 January 2003) that ‘in essence I am almost practising veterinary medicine when dealing with asylum seekers’. He believes that it takes him three to five times longer to deal with asylum seekers than other patients because of communication problems, lack of information about a patient’s medical history and unfamiliarity with tropical diseases. The surgery at which Dr Peter Moss works has 15,000 patients, of which around one per cent are asylum seekers.
Newspapers stir disease fears
Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun newspaper, wrote on 27 January 2003 that immigrants had brought ‘alarming levels of infectious TB, Hepatitis B [and] incurable Aids’ to Britain. The Sun newspaper is currently running a petition calling on Tony Blair to ‘stop Britain becoming a soft touch for illegal asylum seekers’. With over 300,000 signatories, it is claimed to be the biggest newspaper petition in history.
And the Mail on Sunday of 26 January announced that disease is ‘the new asylum peril that we cannot ignore’. Under a heading speaking of ‘imported plagues’, Anthony Browne wrote: ‘We live in fear of foreigners bringing death to our land… It is not by allowing in terrorists that the Government’s policy of mass immigration, especially from the Third World, will claim most lives. It is through letting in too many germs.’