Social Justice

'Shocking' racial violence outside Liverpool asylum hotel proves why politicians' words matter

Seven men were jailed for violent disorder after a protest which saw a police van burnt outside the Knowsley hotel. But residents on Merseyside hope the incident can spark change in the way we treat asylum seekers

Knowsley, asylum seeker hotel protest

The hotel saw "sustained and extremely hostile" mob violence. Image: CPS

The sentencing of eight men for violent disorder outside an asylum hotel in Knowsley should be a wake-up call on the consequences of hostile rhetoric and inhumane policies, say refugee and migrant charities.

In February last year, a crowd gathered outside the hotel in Knowsley, near Liverpool and chanted “get them out”, threw missiles at police and claimed those inside the hotel were “Isis rapists”.

Seven men were jailed, with an eighth defendant still on the run. On Monday (18 March), a judge handed them sentences of up to three-and-a-half years each.

The judge, Denis Watson KC said they had let a “grotesquely distorted and false narrative” run riot.

He added, in remarks reported by the Guardian: “The violence which was directed at asylum seekers was racially aggravated. They are a vulnerable minority group and are entitled to look to the courts for protection.”

Knowsley, asylum seekers
A billboard put up as part of the campaign from Big Help Project. Image: Big Help Project

The incident had a profound impact on asylum seekers in Merseyside, said Ewan Roberts, service manager of Asylum Link Merseyside.

“They were shocked by the fact this was taking place,” Roberts told the Big Issue. “They said, ‘We didn’t think things like this happen in the UK.’ They came from a place of turmoil and are suddenly faced with it again.”

Far-right protests have their origins in government words and actions, Roberts added. “You actually have a particularly poisonous environment that’s been stirred up not just by the far right but also by politicians saying stupid things for their political ends,” he said. “It creates the kind of atmosphere that allows resentment and fear and misunderstanding to bubble up.”

Whereas asylum seekers at other hotels in the area were able to integrate, thanks to a strong volunteer sector and locals given information, Roberts believes Knowsley was a recipe for disaster.

“It was kind of allowed to happen. We’ve got to be far better at seeing these coming and intervening before they actually happen. Talking to people takes the sting out of the sword that they then reach for,” he said, adding that the incident made those working with refugees think how they could be more proactive. Something as simple as spending time with asylum seekers, or cooking meals, can break down barriers and aid understanding.

“As a society we’ve just decided, almost, who we do like and who we don’t like. Thankfully we don’t all always agree, but the people that are on the margins are getting pushed further and further towards the margins,” he said.

For Imran Hussain, executive director of communications and external Affairs at the Refugee Council, the sentencing can be a catalyst for a changed narrative.

“Hostile rhetoric and inhumane policies can have dangerous consequences for people who only want to live their lives in safety, as we saw so clearly in Knowsley. Words matter,” said Hussain. 

“As a country we cannot lose sight of the values we stand for – those of humanity, dignity and compassion. We must continue to live up to our proud tradition of upholding human rights and providing sanctuary to those who need it.”

With the government preparing to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, while housing hundreds on barges and military bases, local groups used the attack to advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. Big Help Project, a local charity, launched a billboard campaign across Liverpool.

“The way that residents at the Suites Hotel were treated, both at the time of the incident last year and in its aftermath, is abhorrent. We hope that this sentencing can finally draw a line under such a disgraceful incident, allowing the surrounding communities to live in peace and charities to provide help where needed without obstacles,” said a spokesperson for the charity.

“Merseyside has long been a very accepting place. Hatred has no place here and should not be allowed to take root, particularly when targeting such vulnerable groups attempting to rebuild their lives with the limited resources given to them. Whatever we feel we have done to support these communities, we have to do more.

“We urge local leaders to do the same.”

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