The spectacle of a torched police van outside a Merseyside hotel, and a mob chanting “get them out” at asylum seekers cowering inside, should provoke profound soul-searching in the Home Office. Amid evidence that far-right groups are monitoring hotels accommodating migrants, and after the recent petrol bomb attack on a Dover immigration centre, Friday night’s disorder in Knowsley must be a wake-up call. Performative politics in Westminster can have real-life consequences.
As the government seeks to leverage the small-boats crisis into a vote-winning asset, its rhetoric has shamefully dehumanised vulnerable and often traumatised refugees. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, has notoriously depicted the arrival of migrants on English shores as an “invasion”. In contravention of international law, the government has chosen to criminalise asylum seekers arriving via the Channel. Rishi Sunak has made it clear that he would like to swiftly deport small-boats asylum claimants to Rwanda; sources close to him have suggested that Britain may pull out of the European convention on human rights, if the move faces legal opposition.
When a “hostile environment” is promoted in political discourse so relentlessly, it should not come as a surprise when matters turn ugly in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Toxic allegations circulating on social media – in this case relating to one individual’s alleged approach to a teenage girl – are meat and drink to far-right groups seeking to whip up enmity. Their job is made easier if ministers have rolled the pitch by suggesting that irregular migrants are simply not welcome.
There are also other lessons to be learned from the Knowsley episode. Whitehall’s approach has long been unacceptably tin-eared when it comes to the burdens that its dispersal system imposes on less well-off communities. Successive Guardian analyses have established that, as the government seeks to find the cheapest available accommodation, migrants awaiting the outcome of claims are disproportionately placed in economically challenged areas. Far too often, this takes place with little or no consultation with councils that are already struggling to provide adequate services.
Last year, councillors in Knowsley were given less than 48 hours’ notice of the Home Office’s intention to accommodate asylum seekers in the Suites hotel. This top-down, undemocratic approach – replicated elsewhere – is presumably intended to pre-empt local opposition. Instead, it breeds resentment. Lucrative contracts to manage such accommodation are given to private contractors such as Serco, providing handsome dividends for distant shareholders. But as the number of asylum seekers being placed in hotels for lengthy periods soars, councils are being left to cope with no extra resources. Local populations have a right to expect more economic support.
On Tuesday, in an open letter to political party leaders, refugee organisations warned of a growing risk of “premeditated extremist attacks” in the wake of Friday’s violence. Mr Sunak and his government should take heed and drop the reckless, bellicose language on small boats, work on clearing the asylum application backlog, and empower local councils to deal properly with a complex, sensitive issue. What happened in Knowsley was shocking. Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman played their part in fostering an ugly climate which made such an event more likely. They now have an obligation to do all they can to ensure that it is not replicated elsewhere.