The UK government has been called out for its dehumanizing language and scapegoating of asylum seekers following violent clashes involving hundreds of far-right demonstrators outside hotel in Liverpool housing asylum seekers.

Fifteen people, including a 13-year-old boy, were arrested after hundreds of far-right demonstrators started violent clashes outside a hotel accommodating asylum seekers in Knowsley, Liverpool on 10 February. A 19-year old man was charged with violent disorder and assault. According to the charity Care4Calais: “The night began with so much hope. About 150 counter protestors had arrived and were sharing friendship and a spirit of solidarity with the refugees housed in the hotel. Many were new arrivals, and must have felt scared, so to be able to reassure them was good. But as the far right arrived it seemed huge numbers had been shipped in from out of town. Initial reports suggest there as many as 400”. Chief Constable Serena Kennedy said: “They turned up armed with hammers and fireworks to cause as much trouble as they could and their actions could have resulted in members of the public and police officers being seriously injured, or worse”. A police vehicle was set on fire and missiles including lit fireworks were thrown at officers.

Reportedly, anti-fascist counter demonstrators were surrounded by larger groups of far-right supporters mobilized through a “malicious rumour and misinformation” on social media of an incident in Kirkby where a man allegedly made inappropriate advances towards a teenage girl. Care4Calais stated: “We are trapped in the car park, surrounded by hundreds of far-right protesters who have broken through police cordons”. The founder of the charity, Clare Moseley stated: “I have sympathy for anyone in our country who is concerned for our services or their own future, but terrorising victims of war and torture is unforgivable. Our politicians’ rhetoric of hate and division is destroying our society and our British values. My greatest concern is whether the police can keep the people in this hotel safe both tonight and in the future”. Care4Calais returned to the hotel on 11 February – the day after the riot: “we went back to the hotel to visit the asylum seekers and see if they were okay. The mood was muted. People were naturally disturbed. The most common things we heard were “We just want to be safe” “we haven’t done anything wrong” and “Please, can you help us move to another town?” The saddest thing I heard was a man from Afganistan who said “I wasn’t safe in my country and I’m not safe here”, the charity reported. The Labour MP for Knowsley, Sir George Howarth, issued a statement saying: “The people of Knowsley are not bigots and are welcoming to people escaping from some of the most dangerous places in the world in search of a place of safety”. The MP further noted: “Those demonstrating against refugees at this protest tonight do not represent this community. We are not like that and overwhelmingly behave with sympathy and kindness to others regardless of where they come from”.

More than 100 charities including ECRE member, the Refugee Council signed a joint letter urging condemnation from politicians, stating: “With the high risk of more premeditated extremist attacks around the country, leaders of all parties must now take a clear stand and condemn any further violence against those who come here to find safety, and set out the action they will take to prevent it”. Meanwhile, Home Secretary, Suella Braverman has been accused of victim blaming after she with some delay issued a statement including wording that appears to be referencing misinformation spread prior to the riot: “The alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation”. Foreign Office minister, Andrew Mitchell called the violence “completely unacceptable” but the government is seeing severe critique over its indirect complicity in the incident. Shadow Secretary of State for Communities, Lisa Nandy, said the government language is a “really toxic mix” that had led to the violent protest. “You’ve got a government that talks about things like ‘an invasion’ in relation to immigration; you have a perfect storm,” she stated, continuing: “We could change the rhetoric around asylum so that we no longer have a home secretary that tries to blame the government’s failings on some of the most vulnerable people in our country”. Bishop of Kirkstall, Arun Arora stated: “The language that our politicians use matters – language which dehumanises, language which incites, language that enables those bad actors of the far right to march from the margins and threaten the common good”. Diane Taylor, from the Guardian wrote: “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”. According to minister Mitchell: “The Home Office is trying very hard now to stop the excessive use of hotels and find different ways of placing them in appropriate places in the community and that is something the Home Office will achieve”. Shadow Secretary of State, Lisa Nandy remains unimpressed, stating: “The government contracts big companies to provide what they call asylum support”. Nandy further added: “Instead these companies maximise the profit they make, they put people into some appalling accommodation without help or support – people who’ve been through hell and back before they even reached this country”. The Home Office has acknowledged record backlogs in processing asylum claims that has resulted in about 45,000 people currently in hotel accommodation awaiting a decision.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.