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Gary Younge
Strangers at the gate

A tiny stretch of time when the dart seems to hover at the dart board and beer remains suspended between tap and glass - just long enough so that everyone notices, but short enough that anyone could claim you were imagining it. Not hostile stares, for good-natured conversation soon follows, but the overlong glances from people not used to strangers and for whom a non-white face denotes not just ethnicity but geography. It means "You are not from here."

This is the Mild West - Coleridge country -where hills roll, roads wind and only the bleating of sheep and rustling of leaves disturb the silence on a balmy summer's day. But recently this apparent tranquillity has been disturbed by an attempt to house up to 74 asylum seekers from Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Sudan in a former boarding school in nearby Over Stowey - a tiny hamlet of 314 people.

Planning permission for the centre was refused by Somerset council. The inquiry into that decision, which was held last week, is being viewed as a legal test case for attempts to disperse asylum seekers around the country. It also risks being turned into a moral test case on the rights of asylum seekers to exist at all.

The proposal, which has been made by the Baptist charity Kaleidoscope, has aroused the kind of blatant xenophobia that most thought had been laid to rest with Love Thy Neighbour and the Robinsons golliwog. If some locals are to be believed, the arrival of people fleeing terror in their home countries will cause house prices to tumble, crime to escalate and even compromise the virtue of local young women.

The right has tried to portray these fears as emblematic of the Tory-led assault on asylum seekers - a bastion of essential, monocultural Englishness, according to the Telegraph and the Mail, is about to be "swamped" by unwelcome foreigners thanks to a group of do-gooding liberals. They have created not only a mythic sense of what Over Stowey is, but a demonic sense of who the asylum seekers are too.

These attitudes do not come from nowhere. William Hague has sown the seeds from which this particular strain of bigotry grows and the Labour leadership has so far proved itself too spineless to get its hands dirty and pull his work out at the roots. As a consequence, we have turned into a nation that can stand up for "humanitarianism" when it comes to sending soldiers to the Balkans and Africa but is incapable of dealing with the actual humans who flee the self-same conflicts. We have learned how to export righteousness at the barrel of a gun, we just cannot bring ourselves to distribute it through the Home Office on our own doorstep.

In the church in Over Stowey there is a picture of Msusi Nyanzi - a young boy they have sponsored from Uganda. One wonders what reception he would get if, like Clare Boylan's Black Baby, he turned up one day and asked for his benefactors to provide him with the kind of Christian charity that actually made a difference to their daily lives. Probably the same reaction as the displaced families of Bujumbura, whose pictures stand nearby on the board devoted to the Mothers' Union.

Not that everyone in Over Stowey is a bigot: far from it. Some express concern that the area is not equipped to cope with such large numbers - the nearest pub, shop or post office is more than a mile away from the hostel and the bus to the nearest big town, Bridgwater, comes only twice a week.

They have a point. The location of Quantock Lodge, where the asylum seekers would be housed, is more suitable for a hospice than a hostel. It is set in woodland off the road and a good 15 minutes walk from Over Stowey itself. True, there is a swimming pool, sports pitches and arts centre in the former school - which paradoxically some local people also resent - and Kaleidoscope plans to run a minibus to Bristol, Bridgwater and Nether Stowey. But it remains extremely isolated - possibly ideal for people suffering from traumatic experiences but hopeless for those who want to exercise some independence.

Somehow, however, one gets the feeling that if the asylum seekers were white Zimbabwean farmers on the run from Mugabe, we would not be talking about bus services and walking distances. It is also a very small community in which to place a relatively large group of people. But then Over Stowey has already shown that it can cope with this. The idea that it has been a haven of pure, lily-white Englishness is bogus, not the asylum seekers. The Lodge used to be a private school that took in a large number of Hong Kong Chinese. But they were wealthy and not, at the time, national hate figures.

There is little doubt that the arrival of asylum seekers will change Over Stowey and the surrounding area. The trouble is the automatic presumption that it will change for the worse, the notion that all that 74 people from different parts of the globe can bring to a small, ageing, rural area is crime and destitution, that an area where black people are still to be stared at has nothing to learn about the modern world.

Not everyone in the area believes that. Several local people are strongly in favour of the plans. The debate has pitted the vicar (pro) against the head of the parish council (anti) and split families. There have been petitions and heated meetings.

"It'll be great to have people here," said Suki Ince as she weeded her garden. She says those who oppose the hostel are a vocal minority; they say most of those who back it are outsiders. "Some of the things people have been saying have made me ashamed to be from this village. One person said they'd moved here from London to get away from all that. That kind of thing really surprised me."

When a visitor expressed envy at the fact that transport in the area is bad and yet the asylum seekers will get their own bus, Ince retorted: "Well, great. Then maybe we can use their bus."

Her visitor had not thought of that. And in just one sharp response, the focus had shifted from asylum seekers being people who will definitely take something away to people who had something to add. From a problem to an opportunity.

And then she went back to her weeding - seeking out the problem plants and yanking each one out by the roots.

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