Anti-racism campaigners and asylum seekers have gathered to send out the message that far-right groups peddling hate and intolerance are not welcome in Coventry.
Around 70 people attended a counter-demonstration yesterday afternoon (Wednesday, September 2) organised in response to Britain First descending on two hotels in the city in protest at the Home Office’s arrangements providing temporary accomodation for migrants.
The rally, organised by the Coventry branch of Stand up to Racism (SutR), centred on Broadgate Square in the city centre, where people of all ages gathered despite the drizzle.
Speakers included union activists and an asylum seeker who described the conditions at one of the hotels as like a “prison” that has not been of the new arrivals’ choosing.
The rally followed disorder after Britain First appeared at the Coventry Hill and Royal Court hotels, both part of the Britannia chain, on Saturday (August 29).
Speaking at the demo, Andy Pettit, of SutR, said: “Britain First came here on Saturday expecting to intimidate, harass and provoke asylum seekers who are housed at the Coventry Hill Hotel in Allesley.
“They also went to the Royal Court Hotel because that’s been in the news as a possible venue for more asylum seekers to come to Coventry.
“A lot of people on the right want to spread lies about refugees coming here to claim benefits and live in luxury.
“The reason why people are being housed in the Coventry Hill Hotel is because it’s a temporary measure due to the Covid crisis, it’s a place where they can be housed as individuals in individual rooms, but they are not that happy about the situation. It’s not something that they have chosen to do to live in luxury.
“Basically, the situation is they get three meals a day and they get five pounds a week to live on.
“Five pounds for the men, ten pounds for the women, and they have got to do their laundry, pay their mobile phone top-up, get on the bus and so on.
“If they were an asylum seeker living in the city [centre] they would be on £36.95 a week and they would be able to buy their own food and choose where to go, visit their places of worship and be amongst their communities. So they are not there of their own choosing and it’s a pretty depressing experience.”
‘We feel threatened’
An asylum seeker who gave his name as Dixon also gave a speech to the rally, giving a first-hand perspective of life inside the Coventry Hill Hotel.
He said: “Many of us here seeking asylum come from nations we are proud of, however circumstances and challenges have led us to be here, not because we have chosen to be here, but because we have issues beyond our control and because the UK has signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention that led us to seek asylum here.
“If the UK had not signed up to that or accepted us I wouldn’t be here. We are here legitimately at this point in time.
“There is this usual notion that refugees have been housed in hotels and they are enjoying luxury.
“I would like to debunk that assertion and give you the reality…this is not the case.
“We wish we could stay elsewhere, the experience is similar to prison.”
Dixon claimed that there were constraints to people’s personal freedoms at the hotel, such as not being able to choose what food to eat at three set meal times each day.
He said: “Many of us are ashamed to be identified as refugees in this strange country and we are not happy, we are all depressed, we feel rejected and we feel demonised.
“I want to make this humble appeal to the Government to say the security we sought in the UK has been breached by the activities of the far-right. We felt threatened, we felt molested and we felt mocked. The activities of the far-right have compounded our challenges. We are all afraid because we are not sure of where our security will come from.”
With restrictions still in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, most of the protesters wore face coverings and tried to stay a couple of steps from the next group or person.
A group of around a dozen people then went to the Coventry Hill Hotel, where they donated food and chatted with asylum seekers outside the entrance. After the visitors unfurled a ‘refugees welcome’ banner in front of the steps, a small group of guests came outside to express their gratitude.
One Syrian man said: “It’s amazing to see these people here. I’m happy to see this and to see some new, friendly faces here. It shows that British people do care about us.”
South Coventry MP Zarah Sultana, who was in Westminster on parliamentary business, sent a message which was read to the crowd.
She said: “I was appalled that the fascist group, Britain First, targeted hotels housing asylum seekers in Coventry last weekend. Fascism has no place within our city or our society.
“We are proud to be a City of Sanctuary and I know we will stand-up and fight back against the far-right. I join you in saying: Britain First out of Coventry – refugees welcome here.
“This city has a proud tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees, from Irish migrants in the 1960s, to Syrian refugees in recent years.
“That is a tradition that we must continue to fight for and proudly champion.”
*A man has been charged with common assault following the disorder at the hotels.
James White, of St Michaels Crescent, Southam, will appear in court on October 22.