Dover the top
How did a flare-up in Dover between residents and refugees become a cause of national hysteria? Brendan O'Neill reports
'Refugee razor gang slashed us to pieces' screamed the Mirror in August, over pictures of white youths with stitched-up stab wounds. 'Refugees slash teenagers in rampage at funfair' said the Sun, reporting that 'razor-wielding asylum seekers left 11 people injured'. And there we had it: the famous old naval port of Dover had been invaded by bloodthirsty asylum seekers who were making local people's lives a misery.
Anybody who visited Dover might have heard a slightly different story. Muhammed, a 15-year old Kurdish boy, had eight stitches across his lip, a black eye and cuts to his nose - but the cameras did not seem so interested in him. 'I was attacked by white boys because I have dark skin', he said. On the night of Saturday 14 August, when the violence broke out at the funfair, three Kosovan refugees were severely beaten by locals. 'People in England hate refugees', said their friend Alic. 'They spit at us and smash our windows.'
For months, Dover's representatives have complained about being 'swamped' by asylum seekers and 'not being able to cope'. One local councillor told me, 'They are too different for us. People in Dover are British - they cannot handle these asylum seekers who have a different way of life'. In the wake of such 'them and us' pronouncements there has been a steady rise in attacks on refugees. Akhbal from Iran said: 'We have come from very bad places, but never have I seen a place where they put shit in your door.'
The violence in Dover looked like a case of small-town racism reaching boiling point. At least it would have done, had not journalists and politicians chosen to blow the problem out of all proportion, as a symbol of the crisis supposedly being caused by Britain's 'swelling numbers' of asylum seekers. The London Evening Standard coverage was typical of the sensationalist tone, reporting that there had been a 'breakdown in tolerance...following the influx of some 1500 refugees into the town with a population of 41 000'. In fact, according to the 1991 census the resident population of Dover District Council was then 103 216 (the number of households was 41 654); and according to Kent social services there were 790 asylum seekers in the area in August. So the proportion of the population formed by asylum seekers is less than one percent - hardly a case of 'swamping'.
That did not stop some doing their best to inflate the crisis for their own purposes. With William Hague a laughing stock in 1999, desperate Tories dreaming of 1979 tried to stage a rerun of Margaret Thatcher's successful scare about British culture being swamped. Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe took her campaign to be the darling of the right on to the road down to Dover, inspecting the site of the skirmishes as if she were visiting the frontline of a war zone and announcing that the 'refugee problem' was her 'major issue for Britain' that month. Brian Sewell sounded a blast for the past when, from behind the battlements of his swish London home, he complained about once-mighty Britain being 'besieged and invaded by would-be immigrants'.
On the other side, meanwhile, anti-racist campaigns cited the violence in Dover and a chauvinist rant by the local newspaper as evidence that racism is a growing problem in Britain, against which the nation must unite. The locals were branded as 'unreconstructed racists' with no place in post-Macpherson New Britain (where the polite thing is not to distinguish between foreigners and Brits, but between 'bogus' and 'genuine' refugees). Never mind that Dover is a desperately poor town, in which many locals were already living close to the edge before things were stirred up with the asylum seekers. The fact that a handful of British National Party members were threatening to march was all the evidence of racial hatred needed.
It soon became clear that two things were happening at Dover. There were the local tensions which culminated in a funfair fight in August. And there was the transformation of these events into a political game, where a variety of players staked their claim to national political authority using both the Dover residents and the refugees as pawns.
It doesn't say much for New Britain when a sense of political purpose can only be gained by turning a minor seaside fight into a major controversy. The inflation of Dover's local difficulty into a national crisis has had a predictable impact in the town itself. With the locals branded as racists and the asylum seekers labelled either as scroungers or victims, race relations in Dover can only deteriorate.
'We let the refugees in here', said Sian as I was leaving Dover. 'Now all we're asking is that they show a bit of respect.' But respect for what? A country where a local crisis can be blown up into a political drama, to give everybody something to pontificate about in the silly season?
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999