Josephine Gardiner reports on Dover's refugee controversy
There's an old stone cattle trough in Dover's central market square that bears the inscription "Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be given to them". The quality of mercy has been under severe strain recently as an atavistic fear of the gypsy has been stirred up by the arrival in the town of Czech and Slovakian gypsies seeking asylum.
By the start of this week, those still prepared to defend the gypsies were beginning to look isolated as Home Secretary Jack Straw announced new rules to speed up the asylum-seeking process by cutting the time for appeals from 28 days to five.
The town's MP, Gwyn Prosser, welcomed the move because "Dover is being overwhelmed by an influx of bogus asylum seekers who are part of a concerted campaign to abuse the system."
But Dover citizens who work with the asylum seekers, including teachers, insisted that the majority were genuinely fleeing persecution, and accused the Government of making policy to appease prejudice.
Patrick Carey, who lives in Dover and teaches English at Pent Valley school in Folkestone, also works for the Kent Campaign for Asylum Seekers. He said he had heard many stories of persecution, though the gypsies rarely possessed the sort of documentary proof that might convince immigration officials. "For instance, the other day I was talking to the mother and sister of a man who had witnessed the shooting of a gypsy. The witness was tortured and beaten, and the mother and sister were obviously in fear of their lives. I think these people have every reason to be concerned. One effect of the end of communism is that attitudes to gypsies in Eastern Europe have steadily worsened."
Much of the resentment in Dover has centred on the perception that the children would be swelling class sizes and eating up scarce resources. This was exacerbated when it emerged that Kent County Council had approved a Pounds 7.5 million cut to the education budget as part of an autumn cost-cutting package totalling Pounds 27 million.
Kent instructed headteachers not to talk to the press in the wake of stories about hordes of gypsies holidaying at taxpayers' expense after seeing a documentary about Britain on Slovakian TV. The instruction also followed two petitions at separate primary schools demanding the exclusion of gypsy children.
Pam Gibson, head of pupil services in Kent, said there were currently 140 gypsy children, of which 50 had been found school places. The largest number placed in one school is 12.
"This is not a major disaster," she said. "Kent has a regular stream of children drifting in from all over the world and we have a good language support service, but it's a large number to get at once." Schools have, she insists, reacted positively, and the anti-gypsy petition was got up by local residents rather than parents. "I think parents have been worried by the uncertainty, and by the fact that this is coinciding with publicity about budget cuts."
The Romany children are being taught alongside the locals, rather than in separate units, she said, and "their behaviour is often better than the local children's".
"These people are being persecuted. As far as I'm concerned, they're children, they're here, and it's our job to educate them."
Mark Belsham, president of the International Allied Romany Council, called the Home Secretary's announcement "a disaster". "The Government has swallowed the stereotype of the gypsy. I'm very concerned about the welfare of the families who will be sent back; the Government seems to be trying to deny that anything is wrong in these countries."
He added that gypsies were victims of diplomacy: "We've got countries who want to join the European Union; to do this they have to sign up to treaties about human rights, knowing they've got a problem with their Romany populations. Their solution is to get rid of the Romany communities either by blatant discrimination or by turning a blind eye to it.
"For the British government, the problem is that to grant a gypsy political asylum is to point a finger at other countries that it may not want to offend. The result is that not one gypsy has been granted asylum in the UK."