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Gary Younge
Villagers and the damned

Along with the post box and the telephone box, the public noticeboard constitutes the full extent of the small village of Newton's local facilities. In this community of around 350,with neither a pub nor a corner shop, the posters on the board publicise the flower festival in nearby Shelford and the village show in East Bridgford, suggesting that even for the most modest diversions you must venture elsewhere. Nothing much ever happens in Newton. And that's the way they like it.

"Everyone moved here knowing there were no facilities", says Halina Geary. "We moved here because we wanted to have children and live in a small community." So news that the local population was about to treble in size came as something of a shock. In May, the Home Office confirmed plans to house 750 asylum seekers in the former RAF base at the top of the road.

Planning permission pending, the centre will be part of a pilot scheme to place refugees in privately managed accommodation centres in rural areas nationwide. In the six months it will ostensibly take to process their applications, their children will be educated separately.

Local residents are fuming. "The site is entirely unsuitable for this type of development because the infrastructure in the area couldn't cope with it," says Geary, chair of the Newton Action Group which is leading opposition to the plans. Those who accuse the protesters of being nimbys (not in my backyard) have a point. Asylum seekers, after all, must live somewhere.

The notion that their presence in the countryside would disturb the bucolic bliss and add nothing to this monocultural community is offensive. But in Newton the ire is not reserved for refugees. They do not want anyone in their backyard. The group was set up three years ago to oppose the building of 3,000 homes on greenbelt land, a plan that was eventually shelved.

They have every right to be annoyed at the proposals. The arrival of such a relatively large number of people will have a huge impact on their lives. And while they have been invited to Home Office presentations explaining how the centre will work, none of the consultation initially promised by the home secretary has materialised.

None the less the far greater outrage has been committed against asylum seekers. After all, refugees should be able to live wherever they wish - including Newton. The truth is, given the choice, few would want to. The trouble is they won't be given the choice. So, while the newcomers' potential presence may be inconvenient to the villagers, the Jim Crow conditions in which they will be held would be the ultimate indignity.

The proposals contained in the asylum and immigration bill would effectively erect Bantustans around the British countryside, corralling refugees in ways that will leave them isolated and vulnerable. The Labour-dominated committee on human rights recently argued that the proposed changes to the asylum system contain up to 14 breaches of human rights law.

Educating children outside mainstream schools, the committee's report stated, would give rise "to troubling echoes of educational regimes where children were educated separately on the basis of race or colour." State racism will have segregated them.

All of this is of, at most, secondary importance to local campaigners. At a recent 2,000-strong rally opposing the plans one lone, brave protester, Lesley Byrne, dissented, holding a banner saying: "I welcome asylum seekers", before it was taken from her and snapped over someone's knee. "I do not think they are being honest about why they are protesting," she said.

She may have a point. Just above the streaky bacon counter in the Costcutter in Bingham, a collection box to fund the campaign declares: "We are NOT driven by racial or political motives but by the genuine concerns of local people."

Around the corner, in the window of the Daisy Chain florist, a different poster tells a different story. It starts with a question: "Are you happy to have 750 unknown asylum seekers wandering the streets of Bingham? Young men with nothing to do and lots of time to do it?" It ends with a rallying cry. "Let's all do something to stop it for the sake of our families, children, way of life and community." The handful who support the centre say they have been shocked by racist comments from lifelong friends.

The British National party certainly sees potential in this. It has leafleted the area and given placards to youngsters with the message: "Warning, illegal immigrants operating in your area." Residents have so far taken a firm line against organised racists. When a BNP activist was exposed at one of their meetings they ordered him to leave. But if ever there was evidence that the proposals inject confidence rather than fear into the far right then this is it.

To that extent campaigners have a great deal of political education to do. You will be hard pushed to find anyone in Bingham or Newton who has ever met an asylum seeker. They know them by reputation - not as people but as a construct. Even Geary admits her ignorance and says she wants to know more: "All you hear is the bad side of things. We know about Sangatte. That's all the representation we have had from the news."

Bingham's mayor, Eric Sharp, says his main concern is crime. But refugees have more to fear from locals than vice-versa. Research by the Association of Chief Police Officers shows asylum seekers are more likely to be the victims of crime than perpetrators.

A recent national Mori poll showed almost two-thirds of people associate asylum seekers with the words "illegal immigrant", followed closely by "desperate", "bogus" and "scroungers". A long way down the list comes "persecuted" and right at the bottom the words "skilled", "intelligent", "hardworking" and "welcome".

The same poll revealed that people believe Britain takes in nearly a quarter of the world's asylum seekers - the true figure is 2%. The government, to its shame, has colluded in this - an example of why its recent outbursts about media relations range between the petulant and the pathetic.

The home secretary, David Blunkett, may have lambasted the Daily Mail last week for "insanity". But the paper was presumably no less insane when he wrote for it last month, lauding it for backing him on the asylum bill and calling on its readers to help him prevent Britain being "a magnet" for economic migrants.

At present, sentiments around Newton and Bingham waver precariously between understandable local resentment and unchallenged latent racism. The truth is that while their demands may be local in origin they remain national in significance, political in character and racial in context. Proclaiming they are not racist is not enough. They will have to learn to be actively anti-racist if they are serious about preventing their campaign descending into xenophobia and bigotry.

This will be the crucial difference between opposing asylum centres and opposing asylum seekers. Herein lies the distinction between broadening their protest by finding common cause with others who are being treated contemptuously by this government, and narrowing it by turning on those even weaker than themselves.

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