by Safya Khan-Ruf and David Lawrence
On the evening of 10 February, many watched footage of the violent protests outside a hotel housing asylum seekers in Kirkby, Merseyside, with horror. The locally-led demonstration was triggered by a video allegedly showing a migrant harassing a local girl. Sadly, the events of that evening were not just the culmination of years of irresponsible media coverage, inflammatory rhetoric from mainstream politicians and far-right agitation. It was also the trigger for a new wave of anti-migrant and anti-asylum seeker protests.
HOPE not hate has recorded more than 50 anti-migrant demonstrations between mid-February and the end of May. Some of these have been organised by locals concerned about the Government’s poor planning and communication around the housing of asylum seekers in their area.
However, many have been organised or attended by groups and figures across the organised far right who are seeking to exploit local concerns and gain a foothold in communities. Their ultimate aim is to steer local concern towards a wider far-right worldview, through which cross-Channel migration is viewed as the spearpoint of a deliberate attempt to “replace” the white British population.
While the strategies behind the protests have evolved in recent months, the situation remains volatile and there is scope for further disruption. An extreme case of anti-migrant action, spurred by anti-migrant hate online, occurred in October 2022, when Andrew Leak threw petrol bombs at a migrant processing centre in Dover before taking his own life. Our research proved that Leak had a long history of consuming far-right content and was an ardent follower of many anti-migrant activists.
As we reach the halfway point of the year, with the summer months expected to see a rise in cross-Channel boat arrivals and “small boat” immigration remaining a focus of the Government and media, we look back and analyse this wave of far-right protests, explore recent developments and what to expect in the coming months.
People who are migrants and asylum seekers have long been key targets for the far right, which employs well-worn tropes to generate anger. Anti-migrant rhetoric commonly plays on a sense of injustice at the supposed “luxury” accommodation granted to “foreigners” over homeless Brits, particularly veterans; the “misuse” of taxpayer money during an economic crisis; and the alleged sexual threat posed to local women and children by the “invasion” of young men.
Such rhetoric is commonplace online, both in spaces dominated by the far right but also in community Facebook groups. This is in part because these inflammatory arguments have been normalised in mainstream right-wing politics and the reactionary press, which in turn pushes the issue up the far-right agenda. Online, unverified allegations of sexual harassment, theft and other crimes by asylum-seekers are often accompanied by a toxic cocktail of hateful replies, including incitement to action.
In recent years, far-right activity against asylum accommodation has increased dramatically, as a large and growing asylum backlog and a shortage of suitable accommodation has resulted in high numbers of asylum seekers being housed in hotels and B&Bs.
This includes staging protests, harassing people in their accommodations and filming content for online use, a tactic frequently implemented by the anti-Muslim Britain First, as well as independent “migrant hunters” such as Amanda Smith (AKA Yorkshire Rose).
Last year also saw opportunistic far-right activists embark on longer-term attempts to co-opt local concerns, part of a wider shift towards “community politics” on the extreme fringes. This included a months-long effort to inflame tensions in Linton-on-Ouse, a Yorkshire village close to a site earmarked to house asylum seekers. The fascist Patriotic Alternative (PA) and “migrant hunters” from outside the area infiltrated residents’ Facebook groups and offline meetings, held small protests in the village and claimed credit when the plans were eventually scrapped.
Emboldened, PA continued such activities into 2023, attaching itself to a local campaign against the potential housing of asylum seekers in Cottingham, near Hull. In January, the group held a celebratory demonstration in the city centre once the plans fell through, keen to be seen as at the forefront of local opposition.
A sign of building momentum, this January also saw an ugly street protest at Britannia Hotel in Leeds that brought former English Defence League (EDL) activists, neo-Nazis, football hooligans and “Infidels” out of the woodwork to listen to conspiracy theory-laden speeches from the PA leadership. The event was small – less than 100 attendees – but was the largest at the hotel to date, signalling a desire among a hardcore group to revive the UK’s broad far-right street movement, which has been largely dormant in recent years.
The trigger for the sharp escalation of protests this year was a disorderly, locally-organised demonstration in Kirkby, Merseyside on the evening of 10 February. After a video purporting to show a 25 year old asylum seeker propositioning a 15-year-old girl was widely circulated online, a crowd of roughly 400 gathered outside the Suites Hotel, sections of which erupted into intense anger and torched a police van. While both PA and Britain First had visited the hotel in the weeks prior, initial press reports erroneously identified PA as the group behind the protest. An onslaught of media interest ensued, some of which inflated PA’s size and influence or overlooked the extent of its extremism.
In the aftermath of Kirkby, a range of individuals and groups organised a flurry of decentralised and ad hoc demonstrations across the country, and renewed efforts were made among sections of the far right to co-opt existing campaigns. Organised via a scattered collection of Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups, while many protests remained small, others were hundreds strong and included locals with no prior history of activism rubbing shoulders with opportunistic far-right campaigners from outside the area.
From Dover to Rotherham, Erskine to Newquay, HOPE not hate recorded at least 27 anti-migrant demonstrations between mid-February and the end of March, a rate of almost 4.5 a week.
One of the most significant took place in Skegness, Lincolnshire on 25th February. A march was organised by Scott Pitts, a former EDL activist based in Leeds, and Alek Yerbury, then a prominent activist in PA’s Yorkshire branch. Pitts and Yerbury led a march to a static rally, where a crowd of perhaps 250 gathered to hear speeches from the PA brass, with leader Mark Collett standing astride a makeshift stage to tell the crowd that the media was covering up “the harassment, sexual assault and rape of white schoolgirls at the hands of these invaders”.
Another large event took place in Cannock, Staffordshire, on 11 March. Building on a well-attended demonstration the previous month, PA’s West Midlands branch helped organise the protest in conjunction with two local women, distributing thousands of locally-specific leaflets in advance. On the day itself, roughly 250 locals gathered in the town centre, a section of whom applauded as a contingent of flag-carrying PA activists marched into the square.
The Skegness and Cannock events were the fruits of a deliberate attempt to blur the lines between locally-led campaigns and those spearheaded by far-right groups from outside the area, who nonetheless wish to present themselves as representatives of the “local resistance”. Some far-right groups have gone so far as to eschew their own branding when advertising demonstrations, and, as with Cannock, have created Facebook groups made to appear as local community spaces, but are used to promote their own propaganda and actions. Similar efforts have taken place in Erskine, Long Eaton, Skegness, Lincoln and elsewhere.
The frenetic energy could not hold, however, and since March protests have reduced in both size and frequency. The decline is partly due to fatigue and financial cost for those willing to travel. As one activist from Erskine wrote, following a turnout of just 20 at an anti-Muslim protest in Wakefield on 25 March: “there’s too many […] Calling one every week splits the numbers and disalsions [sic] the people who turn up.”
Additionally, whilst some local campaigners have welcomed the logistical support that the likes of PA can bring, others have been alienated by the far right’s calculated hijacking of existing campaigns. Many local residents of targeted areas have expressed frustration at opportunistic PA activists bussing in to protests, and then erecting scaffolding for their speakers and prominently displaying banners emblazoned with their branding for the press.
This friction has been compounded significantly by the thinly concealed extremism of PA. Anti-fascist campaigners have worked hard to expose the Nazism at the heart of PA and many local figures are wary of association with the group, or else baulked when its noxious racial ideology was no longer ignorable. As one organiser of a local campaign against an asylum accommodation site wrote after Collett’s speech in Cannock:
“I wasn’t impressed […] he kept saying white white white I don’t agree there I was stood next a young black I had to tell her she felt so bad bless her we ain’t standing up for that doesn’t matter bout colour it’s about illegals.”
Local anti-racists and anti-fascists have also organised community resistance to the far right. For example, when PA announced a protest in Llantwit Major, Wales on 25 March, residents of the town organised a full 24 hours of coordinated anti-racist community response events. On the demo itself, only roughly 30 PA demonstrators materialised and were outnumbered ten-to-one by counter-protestors, a resounding rejection from the local community.
Schisms on the far right have also hampered collaboration. Friction with the PA leadership over the organisation of the Skegness event prompted Yerbury to found his own oddball protest group, the National Support Detachment (NSD), which now frequently collaborates with the EDL splinter group, the Yorkshire Patriots.
Further splits have impeded PA’s capacity to organise in the Midlands and in Scotland. In April, a group of PA activists, including much of its Scottish and West Midlands branches, broke away to form the new Homeland Party, with a greater focus on “community politics”. So far, PA’s weekly protests in Erskine, Renfrewshire have continued uninterrupted, with fascists simply exchanging PA banners for those of the Homeland Party. However, the campaign in Cannock – which had been vaunted as a major success – came off the rails entirely.
On 30 April, Homeland held its debut demonstration in Cannock, led by Connor Marlow, who had spearheaded PA’s campaign in the town. However, local campaigners informed the forlorn fascist contingent, who had arrived with their newly printed Homeland banners, that they were not welcome. Far from the dramatic promotional event they had intended, Homeland was forced to hold a tiny, separate protest from the residents of the town. As one activist said: “We’ve been made a laughing stock today at Cannock […] no point having protests anymore it’s embarrassing”. Marlow’s Cannock campaign Facebook group has lapsed into inactivity since.
Far-right organisers have recognised that prioritising the sheer quantity of protests is yielding diminishing returns. Instead, they have increasingly attempted to centralise efforts and favour a longer lead-up time, hoping to galvanise supporters and garner more local buy-in.
Even so, this process has not necessarily boosted attendance. For example, while Yerbury’s new outfit is highly active, it has thus far proved incapable of corralling large numbers. The bizarre fascist – who has made the press for resembling Adolf Hitler – has made a concerted effort to co-opt the opposition to the housing of asylum seekers in RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, but has yielded little success. Moreover, the return of Yerbury and Pitts to Skegness on 29 April also saw just 50 attendees, including a number of hardline neo-Nazis travelling all the way from Scotland. This was despite a longer lead-up period and fewer protests happening the same weekend.
However, a small but increasingly radical rump remains willing to travel. This was evident in the 8 May protest in Walsall, West Midlands. Organisers Simon Avison, Samantha Foley and Donna Brookes spent months advertising the event, which was timed just after a football match happening that day. Among the 40 activists that materialised were Yerbury and his NSD, a contingent from the tiny fascist Independent Nationalist Network (INN), figures associated to the British National Socialist Movement and Darren Fletcher, a former member of the banned terrorist organisation National Action. This dubious lineup suggests that as the wider appetite for the protests wanes, the scene is becoming smaller but more extreme and potentially primed for confrontation.
Whilst the far-right remains fractured, there have been recent calls for greater coordination across the extreme fringes. On 28 May, the INN organised a “Unity” meeting in Leeds. Attending were PA leadership, figures from the fascist British Democrats party, the tiny but openly Nazi Highland Division, and Donna Brookes. Also in attendance were Yerbury and his allies David Smaller (leader of the Yorkshire Patriots) and Katie Fanning, a trio notably absent from the group photos.
This self-described “patchwork coalition” has voiced its intent to pool resources into fewer protests to ensure they are “better attended”. The groups involved are highly fringe, and disputes remain among them. Nonetheless, this effort to establish an extreme right “united front” demands close attention.
The situation remains unstable, and tensions remain high online, both in community Facebook groups and dedicated anti-migrant spaces. Far-right activists continue to target these online spaces to spread fear and racist conspiracy theories, often focusing on instances or allegations of criminality involving asylum seekers. The recent protest boom has enabled new activist networks to form and thrive, and an incident involving a person seeking asylum, as we saw in Kirkby, could potentially spark another flurry of activism.
Channel crossings are also likely to increase over the summer, and as politicians and media respond by stirring up moral panic around immigration and small boat crossings, the issue will remain salient among the far right and wider society. Good weather may also boost attendance of protests; far-right demonstrations have often been larger during the summer months.
However, the far-right’s focus will likely be split by the revival of another ugly far-right street campaign: the crusade against Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), a series of storytelling sessions for children at public libraries. Last year, a loose coalition of far-right groups and conspiracy theorists – including PA and the INN – led an aggressive effort to cancel DQSH events, culminating in dozens of protests against scheduled sessions last summer. Far-right figures have voiced their desire to revive this anti-LGBT+ campaign in tandem with their anti-migrant activism. Nonetheless, the resurgence of the anti-DQSH movement may ultimately divide the attention of those willing to travel and sap energy from the anti-migrant protests.
In the anti-migrant space, the far right is just one part of the problem. The wave of public anger that these activists seek to ride is being stoked by irresponsible media coverage and the use of far-right language by the Conservative Government. These demonstrations are often the symptoms, not the cause, of a wider hostility to migrants and asylum seekers. If tensions are to reduce – if communities are to be protected against the far right, and asylum seekers are to be kept safe – reporters and politicians must act more responsibly.
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