Balkan refugees find tense welcome in Britain

British officials plan to relocate asylum seekers after weekend clashes in Dover.

Ahmed arrived by truck in this port city from his native Kosovo three months ago, seeking to exchange the violence and ethnic hatred of the Serbian province for a trouble-free life in Britain.

Instead, he says, pointing to a knife wound on his cheek, he has found "mistrust and resentment."

"The British don't like refugees. They are worse than Serbs," Ahmed complains as he climbs the steps of the bed-and-breakfast hotel where he lives while awaiting word on his application for political asylum.

Police in Dover have increased patrols following weekend violence between refugees and local youths that left 11 injured. In an unrelated incident in Oxford Sunday, a racist gang reportedly attacked homes where Kosovo refugees lived.

In recent months, ethnic Albanians fleeing the conflict in the Serbian province have added to the strain on local facilities that has been mounting since refugees from the former Yugoslavia began arriving in Britain and other European countries five years ago. While the wars have ended, the exodus has not.

"More than 1,000 refugees are entering Britain through [Dover] every month, and they are stretching local education and health services to [the] breaking point," says Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of the Kent County Council.

It's unclear whether a British government plan to evacuate hundreds of Balkan refugees to the north of England will defuse the tense situation.

Britain and other nations have been generous in organizing aid for Balkan refugees. But those who have resettled in Western Europe say they often face hostility and suspicion from locals.

As on the US-Mexican border, many of the new arrivals are regarded as unwelcome economic migrants.

The problem is especially acute in Dover, a southern English town of only 50,000 with a high unemployment rate. It is also Britain's main port of entry from continental Europe and a favorite place for refugees, genuine or otherwise, to land.

Dover authorities are bound by law to find accommodation for the newcomers and pay them 40 ($64) a week while their claims to refugee status are considered by the government in London, which can take as long as two years.

Ahmed is one of an estimated 1,500 asylum seekers, mostly from the former Yugoslavia, currently living in or near Dover. Local immigration officials say there are another 3,000 in towns and villages along the coast of Kent County.

TWO months ago, police and county officials warned London that conflict was probable. Many longtime residents accuse the newcomers of violent or intimidating behavior and an increase in crime.

Leon, a Dover teen wounded by an ethnic Albanian in the weekend fray, says, "I did nothing to provoke the guy. He just lunged at me in the crowd."

One customer at Pipp's fish-and-chip shop in central Dover, who declined to be identified, says the refugees "spend a lot of time just hanging around.

"They are short of money and have nothing to do. In the supermarkets shoplifting is a real problem," he says.

Reacting to the recent violence, Home Office Minister Lord Bassam said the number of refugees in Kent had become "intolerable." He ordered urgent moves to transfer at least 1,000 to other parts of the country. British officials are reportedly talking to authorities in several northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool.

But Nick Hardwick, chief executive of Britain's Refugee Council, warns that dispersal carries dangers. "Dover is not the only British town where refugees are likely to be resented," he says.

"If we dump people in monocultural areas where there are already difficulties with local industries, these conflicts are hardly surprising."

Meanwhile, Dover police say there is an urgent need to cool tempers while longer-term measures are organized. That may not be easy.

According to a British law enforcement source, there have already been indications that neo-fascist groups with a record of fomenting ethnic violence in Britain are showing interest in the tension between Dover residents and the asylum seekers.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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