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Refugees Rush To English Port City

June 28, 2000

DOVER, England (AP) _ Locals call it ``Asylum Alley″ _ Folkestone Road’s mile-long stretch of shabby bed-and-breakfast motels that cater to Britain’s most desperate newcomers.

Some 20,000 illegal immigrants passed through here in 1999. Another 1,000 have taken up full-time residence, most young men hoping to gain asylum from the troubled hot spots of Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq or Kosovo.

For their Folkestone Road neighbors _ many low-income retirees and World War II veterans who remember a city center pummeled by German bombs _ the white cliffs of Dover may as well be under siege again.

``People are standing around all day and all of us old-age pensioners are paying for them,″ said Reginald Power, 70, a retired engineer.

Dover’s refugee problem was brought to the world’s attention last week when port authorities discovered the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in the back of an airtight truck during a five-hour ferry crossing from the Netherlands.

But the grisly June 20 discovery simply hardened the resolve of many who believe Britain’s immigration policies and border enforcement policies are too lax, resulting in a nationwide backlog of about 100,000 asylum requests.

``The local people, instead of being sympathetic, were saying ’Tough. Dover’s had enough,‴ said resident Sheila Farrell.

Added Paul Watkins, a Conservative Party representative on the Dover district council, ``People were sympathetic, but they see the port as a problem.″

The Dover council spent $16.5 million in 1999 providing housing and other services to asylum-seekers, many of whom used this southeast England city as a pit stop before moving to London and beyond.

Britain’s Home Office, which oversees asylum issues, reimbursed the city, but the local authority complained of a $600,000 shortfall. As a result, this year’s tax bill was hiked an average $225 per household, leaving residents fuming.

``We are fed up to the teeth here in Dover,″ said Farrell, who persuaded 3,000 of the city’s 33,000 residents to sign an anti-tax petition in May. ``We feel we’ve been dumped on from a great height.″

Fortified by its craggy, steep cliffs and military might, Dover has played a strategic role in securing Britain’s coastline since the 11th century, when it was one of five key defense ports.

During World War II, the town again proved itself by offering a base for Britain’s Royal Navy. Dover Castle, built by the Normans in 1168, was the headquarters for Operation Dynamo, the British evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops during Germany’s 1940 invasion of Dunkirk, France.

But today, once-proud Dover has morphed into a dowdy port city favored by economic migrants and smugglers who ferry tobacco and alcohol across the Channel from Calais, France.

Last August, the council wrote to Immigration Minister Barbara Roche warning that the coastal city was becoming a ``tinderbox″ for racially motivated violence. Two weeks later, 11 people were stabbed during two nights of violence between refugees and local youngsters at a fair. An 13-year-old girl needed 46 stitches on her arm and back.

``We can’t go out. Everyone shouts at you all the time and calls you an asylum-seeker,″ said Gazmend Hoti, a 20-year-old Kosovo refugee who was smuggled into Dover in a truck and discovered by customs officials last year. ``Even if you go into the shops to buy something, they look at you like you are an animal.″

Gillian Caseman, chairman of the Dover-based Kent Refugee Action Network, said many legitimate asylum-seekers are afraid to speak out, fearing they, too, will become targets.

``It is ridiculous to be paranoid about immigrants,″ said Caseman. ``We would say to the government: You have to stop listening to these racist arguments and recognize that we need migrant workers to do the work that the British people refuse to do.″

Dover may get some relief from the Labor Party government’s new Immigration and Asylum Act, which took effect in April, and shifts the burden of housing and financing new arrivals from local councils to the government.

The legislation also gives the government the power to force other local councils to accept their share of refugee claimants to alleviate the pressure on port towns.

Some 1,800 new immigrant arrivals and their families have been transported out of Dover for resettlement since April, said Annie Leger, spokesman for Dover’s Migrant Helpline, which is funded by the Home Office.

But residents like Farrell and Power say they won’t be satisfied until the government takes a harder line by withdrawing welfare benefits for asylum-seekers and coordinating border patrols with the rest of Europe.

``We’re a silly little country of 60 million people,″ Power said. ``We can’t take them, too.″

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