1998 Black Flag article about asylum seekers, New Labour, the local community in Dover, fascist and anti-fascist protests.
The arrival of a few hundred Roma asylum seekers in Dover during September and October 1997 resulted in much media and government hysteria. Meridian TV dubbed one group "illegal immi-grants" - they all had passports and tickets and asked for asylum as soon as they were able to speak to an immigration officer. "Scroungers" screamed The Sun. The Mail described the asylum seekers as a "leisure class" allegedly motivated by a Czech TV documentary which had painted a rosy picture of life on benefits in Dover. The so-called quality press were similarly hostile. A Times editorial claimed that EU law had made a nonsense of Britain's frontier laws, blaming the Dublin convention. This is bullshit of course. The Dublin convention means that instead of just bouncing asylum seekers from country to country paperwork has to be sorted first. The government signed it because they were getting stuffed by legal actions and a "gentleman's agreement" with France was, surprisingly, not working. Never a paper to let fact get in the way of hysteria, The Times claimed that Dublin allowed asylum seekers to claim in the EU country of their choice rather than in the first safe country.
All the EU countries are trying to pass the buck of responsibility for refugees to each other. In Britain the airlines and, possibly the ferry companies, are liable for financial penalties for bringing asylum seekers to this country. This means airline officials do some of the dirty work for the Immigration Service. Recently Stena ferries in Calais have refused to carry Roma people with passports and tickets to Dover on the pretext that they will have to pay for flights to Prague or Bratislava. Those that manage to make it as far as Dover face the threat of imprisonment while their claims are processed. "Heads" of families have been detained. Many have been threatened in detention and "persuaded" to withdraw their claims and leave. Institutional racism reared its ugly head once again as Home Secretary Jack Straw dubbed the Roma people "economic migrants" and "bogus". Gwyn Prosser, Labour MP for Dover and Deal who had privately said that he was sympathetic to the refugees echoed Straw's remarks in a Dover Express article. The Guardian pitched in with a comparison of the "generous" benefits system here with that of the Czech republic. Mike O'Brien, Straw's immigration monkey, chose this period to announce a cut in the time limit from 28 to 5 days for legal representations to be made in "abusive" cases. Now this may have been just coincidental but it was clearly an attempt to further smear the Roma and stir up hatred against them. Home Office sources indicated later that the time limit was to be cut in all cases. Presumably because they view all asylum applications as "abusive".
The 1996 Asylum Act's pressure on asylum seekers to apply on arrival and the swift refusal of many cases resulting in loss of benefits while waiting for appeals meant that responsibility for welfare is dumped on local social services. This is a clear divide and rule tactic which resulted in local people being forced into competing with the Roma people and other asylum seekers living in the Dover area, for already scarce resources. Instead of pleading for more resources from central government the leader of Kent County Council branded the asylum seekers "bogus" and, you guessed it, "economic migrants" and met with Czech. and Slovak government officials to discuss repatriation. Dover is a town of 30,000 people that has been decimated by the closure of the Kent minefield, redundancies and sackings on the ferries in the '80s and the loss of jobs in the construction industry after the completion of the channel tunnel in the 90s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, local hostility to the Roma has been at times considerable (though by no means overwhelming). Hostile petitions began to circulate in some shops and schools. Eveline Reynolds, a local toyshop manageress, produced a petition accusing the asylum seekers of "raping the social security system". The petitions have since been withdrawn. Kent Campaign for asylum seekers, Kent Socialist Alliance, Militant and IWW activists got together and produced leaflets to counter the official and media hype, setting out the real reasons why the Roma people had left Eastern Europe, and met with a very mixed response. People in Dover became less hostile to the asylum seekers when the National Front announced a few weeks later that it intended to hold a march through the town centre on November 15th. Also the BNP started leafleting. Kent police gave the NF permission to march along the sea-front and claimed that only the Home Secretary had the power to ban the march. Jack Straw, having done so much to encourage racism in the first place, said that only the Kent police could ban it.
A counter-demo was called by Kent Socialist Alliance and Kent Campaign for Asylum Seekers supported by AFA, SolFed, IWW, Slap magazine, NAAR, Kurdish groups, Unison, YRE, Militant and others. (When we say supported we mean turned out for a counter demonstration, not necessarily the same one. We don't think there was much tactical or political unity before or on the day. Not necessarily a bad thing either.) Around 250 people attended a rally in the centre while another 150 or so physically and verbally confronted the 40 or so NF supporters and blocked their way along the seafront. The police soon came to their rescue. A couple of people were injured, one bitten by a police dog. Twenty minutes later the NF left en masse in the coach they'd arrived in. Only 4 or 5 locals had turned out to support the NF [and] did not march with them. The headline of the Dover Express the following week read "Never Again. Fascists flee Dover with the message, Don't Come Back".
At the time of writing, mid-December 1997, there seems to be less hostility to the asylum seekers in Dover. Many people who signed the petitions in September and October have since said they now regret it and didn't fully understand the issues at the time. There have been no signs of fascist activity but there is certainly no room for complacency. Needless to say the Fortress Britain policies of the government continue. New arrivals of Roma continue more slowly. Some sympathetic items in the media, the Mirror and The Big Issue and World In Action highlighted the levels of racism in the Czech and Slovak Republics and their government's unwillingness to deal with racism or the social exclusion which the Roma continue to suffer. Anti-racists continue to leaflet in Dover and have strengthened their links with the Roma community.