In Dover, I hear once more the old racist stories

It is more than a decade since I was last in Dover. The miners and P&O ferry workers had been on strike in quick succession. Dover had a radical edge, enriched by a wave of migrants over time. Then came the refugees from eastern Europe - Slovakian gypsies, as well as Kosovar Albanians, many concealed in lorries, some openly declaring their plight, others disappearing in the dark.

Only a few remain now, heads beneath the parapet after a virulent outburst of racist garbage, assaults and uncontrolled hatred fanned by a small group whose vocabulary in letters to the local press has been so similar as to suggest some right-wing orchestration.

I was reminded of how, 40 years ago, some new story about West Indian immigrants would hit the headlines almost every day. Reporters would give some unsuspecting West Indian a wad of pound notes to hold aloft outside a labour exchange and photograph him smiling before they took back the money. "Scroungers," the headlines screamed, and there followed letters from irate citizens. Coloured people were accused of being thieves and shoplifters.

I visited some of today's residents of Dover and found them barking the same old stories. With their appetites being fed by the Home Secretary's asylum bill, they want something done. Mass deportation, I am sure.

I had almost forgotten the sexual dimension. Women of Kent were about to be violated by swarthy men wearing moustaches and looking like Omar Sharif. Local women were seen with huge love bites, I was told. (Well, Dracula came from roughly the same part of the world.) They should be "screened for sexual diseases", one woman shouted.

And where could I find them? They were everywhere, I was told, easily recognisable because they travelled in large groups and had marked out Folkestone Road as their terrain. They all wore Tommy Hilfiger tracksuits, they all carried mobile phones and they all had hundreds of pounds in their pockets.

With my documentary television crew in tow, I checked. For three days, we patrolled the Folkestone Road. Not a sign. We approached people at random and asked for the whereabouts of the invading hordes. We were sent to a local supermarket where we were told the refugees gather on a Monday with stacks of vouchers, enough for one of them to purchase £45 in chicken legs. Off to the supermarket, camera at the ready and not a single Kosovar, Slovakian or Serb in sight.

Then at last someone identified three kids, in their early teens, who sat quietly on a bench in the local park. I asked if I could sit and talk.

They were with foster families and attending college. All three had been placed on a lorry by their fathers in the still of the night and shipped out of their village in Kosovo. They didn't know where their parents were, and doubted that they would ever see them again. They were sad all the time, they told me, alone in this world and so far from home. Tough television researchers, and dab hands at camera and sound, wept. The director turned away, tears streaming down a troubled face.

Yet I do not see the refugees as victims. Sooner or later, vouchers will appear on the market in their hundreds of thousands, the invention of a clever forger. Already there is a trade in the genuine product.

Refugees will take these benefits and go off in the morning, seeking work from some greedy employer. There is always, in the new immigrant, a reservoir of innovative powers. You learn, compelled by the hostility of the hosts, to cut corners, to paddle furiously in order to keep your head above water, and that process is already in motion.

I said farewell to the young Kosovars, and I was sure of one thing: that the grandchildren of those local people of poisoned minds will contribute much less to England than those fresh-faced and lonely Kosovars who must obey the weight of this sad time.

Cristina Odone returns next week

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning