The Dover Express calls it ‘Shanty Town’ or ‘Asylum Alley’.
The busy main Folkestone Road is not one of Dover’s pretty affluent tourist streets. In this traditional working-class part of Dover, asylum-seekers are cramped in bed and breakfast hotels, the line of which is only broken by the presence of several high-rise housing estates. If you were to believe everything the press says, you’d think the Folkestone Road would be literally swamped by young male asylum-seekers, milling around threateningly on street corners. But nothing could be further from the truth. We arrive (mid-day) on the Folkestone Road. And it’s empty and quiet, far too quiet for such a sunny day.
‘Dover is like a prison. You cannot move,’ one asylum-seeker told us, crossing his arms to emphasise his words, as though they were being handcuffed. ‘You walk down the road and people are telling you to “fuck off”‘, said another, adding ‘I just say “Thanks”. What else can I do, I am just a refugee.’
When we set off on the pleasant suburban train-line from Charing Cross to Dover, our initial aim was to talk to the asylum-seekers, to find out how they felt about living in Dover in the aftermath of the fairground incident. But we soon learned that few asylum-seekers were willing to talk to us, and those who were would only do so if we promised not to reveal their identity. After the fairground incident, journalists swarmed onto the Folkestone Road to conduct interviews. But the asylum-seekers soon found that the journalists were just as ignorant of their plight as the local residents who were attacking them and were left disillusioned and suspicious. Most of the asylum-seekers that CARF did manage to speak to were young men, who all spoke of a common desire ‘to get out of Dover’. Those who had been to London to visit friends spoke of the relief at being able to walk down the streets without being harassed. When asked how they spent their time, they just shook their heads and commented gloomily that there was nothing to do. They were too frightened to go out, had no access to recreational facilities. So they spent most of the day in boredom, just sleeping and eating.
The manipulation of ignorance
‘They don’t want to know what kind of situation we are coming from. I have escaped war and fighting only to come to Dover to be fought again’, one refugee concluded bitterly.
And that ignorance of the reasons for refugee flight is, for many of those who talked to CARF, what lay at the heart of the situation that was allowed to develop in Dover. Prior to 1996, when the first refugees from the Czech Republic started to arrive, ethnic minorities in this predominantly white port town comprised just 0.6 per cent of the total population. According to figures released by Kent social services prior to the asylum-seekers dispersal, the 750 asylum-seekers living in Dover comprised just 0.4 per cent of the total population in Dover. Yet since 1996, the Dover Express and the Folkestone Express, both edited by Nick Hudson (a former editor of the Sunday Sport) have continually referred to thousands of asylum-seekers flooding the Kent area and, by sheer dint of numbers, running down the welfare state. Hudson, of course, never once bothered to question why asylum-seekers had fled their homelands in the first place or considered an asylum-seeker as a human story worthy of a sympathetic interview. Rather, in his broadsides, Hudson described asylum-seekers as the ‘bootleggers’ and ‘scum of the earth’ ‘targeting our beloved coastline’.
With outright hostility, both from Dover council (where no party has overall control, and power is split between Labour and the Tories), and from the editor of the Dover Express, what chance of acceptance did the asylum-seekers have? ‘People in the streets refer to all refugees as “Slovaks”,’ Rose Carey of Kent Critical Lawyers, told us. Statistics provided by Migrant Helpline, a charity that was set up to deal with asylum-seekers in the initial stage of arrival, show that asylum-seekers in Dover represent a mixed group, some from the former Yugoslavia, Kurds (mainly from Iraq, Afghans, and Roma from eastern Europe. But the authorities of a town whose white cliffs have become the symbol of English nationalism were not interested in such multiracial subtleties.
From ignorance to violence
By the time the press arrived in Dover to report the fairground incident, the Dover Express and national newspapers like the Sun, had already framed the way in which the press would situate rising racial tension in Dover. Not one national newspaper bothered to go beyond the superficial to document the long history of racist violence against asylum-seekers which had preceded the fairground fighting in August. Martin Bradley of Dover Residents Against Racism and Norman Setchel, a church minister of the United Reform church which runs a support group and drop in centre for asylum-seekers, both stress that racial violence, particularly in the Folkestone Road, has been an issue locally for the last three years. In some of the worst incidents on the Folkestone Road, asylum-seekers have been pushed in front of moving cars or hit over the head with iron bars. Refugees do not feel safe in the town centre on their own. Nor do they go to the local Folkestone Road pub because, as one refugee put it bluntly ‘If you go to the pub, you end up in hospital’. Yet the attitude of the statutory authorities to this whole situation, Martin Bradley told us, was to treat the mounting violence as a ‘temporary problem, that would somehow go away’.
Some of the incidents have involved school children as victims as well as perpetrators, others were stoked up by vicious rumours. When the Dover Express ran a story in January suggesting that Roma women were running brothels along the Folkestone Road, a young Roma woman was attacked by neighbours who had also started a petition against her, accusing her of being a prostitute. ‘There is a perception among people in Dover that all asylum-seekers are shoplifters,’ comments Martin Bradley. But again, this is hardly surprising given the stereotypes perpetuated by the local and national press.
It seems ironic that a port town through which almost twenty million people travel annually has, to use the words of a local MP ‘no culture, experience or history of receiving visitors’. Yet despite overwhelming hostility, and various attempts by the National Front to establish a membership, the last few years have seen the development of a much-needed anti-racist network and asylum-seeker support infrastructure in Dover. Daily challenges to racism have come from groups like the recently-established Kent Refugee Action Network, which will act as an overall network for all groups. From responding to racist statements in the local papers, to organising public meetings and street leafleting sessions, these groups have courageously challenged myths and stereotypes about asylum-seekers that would otherwise have gone unchecked. Much of this work involves day-to-day support of asylum-seekers. And Norman Setchel’s drop-in centre has clearly become an invaluable focal point for many asylum-seekers, not only for advice but also to socialise with representatives of the other face of Dover, the locals who are attempting, against enormous odds, to provide a welcoming culture.
But what hope have they of bringing about lasting change when their attempts are continually being undermined not just locally but, most importantly, nationally? Where has there been evidence that national politicians have been prepared to lend a supporting voice to those on the ground attempting to establish civilised conditions of reception for asylum-seekers? Most blame should be attached not to local people but to Jack Straw’s Home Office, which at first buried its head ostrich-like in the sand, refusing to accept there was a problem, and then, after the fairground incident, quickly reacted by, in effect, endorsing the racists’ view. No more new asylum-arrivals would be housed in Dover; instead they would be immediately bussed to Liverpool, Leeds or any other city that would accept them.
But the Home Office and Jack Straw cannot evade their responsibilities to the estimated 800 asylum-seekers who are still trapped in Dover. The message that the government has sent out to those who are hostile to refugees is that they are right to perceive refugees as a problem and that campaigns against them will be rewarded by success. Dover campaigners know that, in such a climate, those who engage in racial violence will prosper. A greater police presence, and the use of CCTV cameras on the Folkestone Road, may help in the short term. But until racism and ignorance are addressed, and until those who manipulate it are brought to book, what future have refugees in Dover, and the other towns like it, across the country?