After the cowardly attack on migrants in Knowsley, a warning to ministers: your words can start fires

OpinionImmigration and asylum

Diane Taylor

Violence against asylum seekers does not happen in a vacuum: politicians are fanning the flames that lead to terror and disorder

Mon 13 Feb 2023

A fire outside the Suites hotel in Knowsley near Liverpool on 10 February. Photograph: Tony Broster/Reuters

Inflammatory rhetoric – and action – against asylum seekers in Britain is reaching a tipping point. After last year’s petrol bomb attack in Dover, we now have scenes of violent disorder outside a hotel housing asylum seekers in Knowsley.

How did we get here? Terms such as “invasion” have insinuated themselves into the public discourse, and these malign references have only ramped up in recent weeks. Organisations on the far right, often engaged in in-fighting, have united over the issue of asylum seekers. Their messaging is bold and simple, drawing on familiar tropes in their worldview: asylum seekers are stealing accommodation from homeless British veterans, they say, and pose a threat to white British girls.

The Home Office has admitted to record backlogs in processing asylum claims and, as a result, about 45,000 people are currently in hotel accommodation awaiting a decision. Hotels have become soft targets for those on the far right who have made repeated unwelcome visits, attempting to harass and intimidate the people staying there. Often the asylum seekers don’t understand the abuse being hurled at them if they don’t speak English.

According to information from the organisation Hope Not Hate, which monitors the activities of far-right organisations, groups such as Britain First and Patriotic Alternative have drawn up a list of roughly 90 hotels that are housing asylum seekers. One far-right supporter posted a map of areas where asylum seekers are living in hotels with the words: “This is the reality of the invasion. Soon the entire UK and the Republic of Ireland will be sunk.”

The far-right organisation Britain First stages regular protests at different hotels used by the Home Office, often producing and sharing videos that name and identify hotels and film asylum seekers if any agree to speak to them. (Clearly, the reality of day-to-day existence for asylum seekers is completely different to the dishonest image painted by the far right.)

Keen to appease a certain section of the electorate, the government has mirrored some of this language and does not seem concerned about the consequences. The plan to deter asylum seekers from coming at all by threatening to send them to Rwanda is one example of this symmetry between far-right sentiment and government policy.

The violence in Knowsley on Friday evening, where hundreds of anti-migrant protesters demonstrated outside the Suites hotel, with some getting involved in stone-throwing and setting a police van on fire, did not happen in a vacuum. According to Hope Not Hate, many of those who protested appear to have been local residents living in Knowsley, rather than far-right activists bussed in for a bust up. But the impact of the protest has been welcomed by some far-right commentators on social media.

Until almost 24 hours after the protest began, there was silence from the Home Office. Eventually the home secretary, Suella Braverman, tweeted about the incident, remarkably appearing to attribute some responsibility for what happened to asylum seekers: “The alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation.” This was possibly a reference to an unverified video that circulated on social media appearing to show an asylum seeker asking a teenage girl for her phone number. Police said that no further action had been taken against the man in the video following advice from the CPS, but that the investigation was “ongoing”.

Fortunately nobody was seriously injured during the disturbances in Knowsley. But more protests elsewhere in the country are planned in the coming weeks.

The government needs to extinguish its anti-asylum seeker rhetoric before the situation becomes too out of control to be reined in, with dire consequences for public order and the rule of law. The far right will never curb its hateful bile. But government needs to understand that words start fires, and it must stop fanning the flames.

  • Diane Taylor writes on human rights, racism and civil liberties
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