Inside the UK's anti-migrant protests

Inside the UK's anti-migrant protests

Demonstrations in Rotherham, Erskine, Warwickshire and St. Helens last weekend show an alarming rise in the frequency of anti-migrant protests as well as the numbers attending them. But tensions have been brewing for a long time as inflammatory rhetoric has ramped up across mainstream news and politics.

ROTHERHAM, ENGLAND; It’s a dull February afternoon on the outskirts of Rotherham. On a patch of grass next to a roundabout, a huddle of around fifty people are gathered. England flags flutter in the wind as “Land of Hope and Glory” booms out on a speaker system. This is a group of far-right activists who’ve travelled from across the country to protest against immigration. They’re here to intimidate the 130 asylum seekers who are temporarily housed in a Holiday Inn across the road.

In the hotel car-park, nearly four hundred counter demonstrators have shown up to oppose the extremists. They outnumber them nearly eight-to-one, but the two groups are kept largely separated by the mass of police for most of the afternoon, except for a few minor clashes with police which lead to two arrests. 

This event, which drew considerable media attention beforehand, was notable because it was promoted and advertised by a unique brand of far-right bloggers dubbed ‘migrant hunters’. Their modus operandi involves visiting migrant facilities posing as journalists, and then harassing or abusing those staying and working there. They normally turn up armed with cameras, filming their interactions, and sometimes sharing relevant addresses in order to encourage further harassment.  

So-called migrant hunters have been active for several years in the UK, but statistics from the research group Hope Not Hate show that 2022 saw them visiting migrant accommodation sites on at least 253 occasions – which is a 102 percent increase on 2021. 

Saturday’s Rotherham demo was one of at least three protests that took place outside migrant hotels this weekend – with others being staged in Erskine, Warwickshire and St. Helens. It shows a concerning rise in not just the frequency with which these protests are being staged, but also the numbers that are attending them. 

This weekend’s events follow the flashpoint of last weekend, in which a mass of angry protesters rioted outside the Knowsley Suites Hotel in Liverpool. The unrest was sparked after unsubstantiated reports spread online of an adult – rumoured to be a resident at the hotel – sexually harassing a 15-year-old child. Soon there was a riot outside, and a police van was set alight. Fifteen people were arrested in the unrest that followed, including a 13-year-old boy.

The recent spate of protests shows a worrying trend of far-right groups co-opting local concerns in order to push their ideas. Nick Lowles, Chief Executive of Hope Not Hate, told Huck Magazine: “What we’re seeing is various far-right groups latching onto local issues and inflaming tensions in different communities. Some of these protests have been locally driven, others explicitly organised by far-right groups.”

The so-called ‘migrant hunters’ present in Rotherham on Saturday included Alan Leggett – A.K.A Active Patriot – and Amanda Smith – A.K.A The Yorkshire Rose. Smith was one of the most prolific migrant hunters of the last year, visiting asylum accommodation sites on at least 124 occasions. Statistics gathered by the anti-extremist research group Hope Not Hate show that one video of her harassing staff and residents outside a hotel received more than five million views. 

Counter protestors in Rotherham.

Aside from the migrant hunters, the far-right contingent at the Rotherham demo also included members of Patriotic Alternative, a fascist group founded in 2019. The group, which remains small with membership in the low hundreds, is the UK’s most active fascist group. It has gained attention in recent months for their persistent leafleting against immigration. They demonstrated with a banner that read “End the invasion. Stop immigration.”

Sadly, the tensions seen in the past week have been brewing for a long time. The last year has seen a steady ramping up of anti-migrant rhetoric across the mainstream. In April 2022, former Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the government’s inflammatory plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman has been just as provocative, speaking of stopping “an invasion on our southern coast”. 

Yet, the entire situation is of the government’s own making. A huge backlog in immigration cases mixed with their failure to provide basic accommodation for asylum seekers has led to the stop-gap solution of them being housed in hotels. This has given far-right groups an easy way to target vulnerable people – and a simple, black-and-white framework within which to push their ideas. 

These failures from politicians have been compounded by the emergence of GB News, the right-wing TV channel modelling itself as a ‘British Fox News’. The channel has consistently covered the migrant crossings in a sneering tone reminiscent of the Tabloids – and counts Nigel Farage as one of its presenters. 

Sadly, the past year has already shown us the dangers of anti-migrant sentiment. In June, the ‘Dover fire bomber’ 66-year-old Andrew Leak, threw petrol bombs at a migrant processing centre with the aim to “obliterate Muslim children”. Research from Hope Not Hate shows that Leak had consumed migrant-hunter content in the months before his attack – replying to ‘migrant hunters’ Alan Leggett at least 73 times, and Amanda Smith at least 18 times.

A message of thanks from the window of a hotel in Rotherham housing migrants.

A message of thanks from the window of a hotel in Rotherham housing migrants.

But despite the danger signs, there is reason for hope for anti-fascists in the UK. The counter demonstration at Rotherham – which outnumbered the far-right by around eight-to-one, shows that organised action is effective in combating extremists. The far-right protests ended up being relatively subdued, despite serious fears that there could be a repeat of the Knowsley violence.

Margaret, a volunteer for Barnsley Refugee Council, told Huck Magazine that she was inspired to join the counter demonstration “Because they have to come out in this community and try and live their lives in very difficult circumstances.”

She continued: “After the demonstration last week in Knowsley, the refugees that were staying at the hotel told volunteers that their support gave them heart and gave them strength.” 

That sense of gratitude was on display from the migrants staying in Rotherham, who waved at the counter-demonstrators from the window throughout the afternoon, and displayed messages of thanks in the windows of the hotel.

Kaltun Elmi, who fled to Europe in 1988 as a refugee from Somaliland, told Huck she was at the demo to show support for those like her who had fled their homeland: “We are all the same. No matter our colour, gender or religion. The Tory government and the right-wing can’t divide us.” 

The truth is, the far-right are just a tiny minority of people, whose voices are disproportionately amplified because of their fear-mongering and threats of violence. But when opposed with boots on the ground, they can be defeated.

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