Migration, Firebombings and the Risks of Mainstreamed Far-Right Extremism

Inflammatory language: UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman's comments on migrants crossing the Channel have come in for criticism. Image: PA Images / Alamy

In the wake of the recent far-right attack in Dover, the UK government’s alarmist rhetoric around migration is unhelpful and potentially dangerous, as it helps to bring narratives spread by far-right extremists into the mainstream discourse, thereby creating an environment that enables and justifies acts of violence.

On Sunday, 30 October, a 66-year-old man from High Wycombe posted on Twitter: ‘We will obliterate them Muslim children [they] are now our target. And there [sic] disgusting women will be targeted mothers and sisters Is burn alive’. Later that day at Dover harbour’s Western Jet Foil, a migrant centre where individuals are processed after crossing the Channel on small boats, he injured two in an attack using three petrol bombs. The man was later found dead and, a few days later, counterterrorism (CT) police took the lead on the investigation, finally concluding that the firebombing was primarily driven by extreme right-wing motivations and met the threshold for a terrorist incident.

The attack comes amid a purported national crisis around the management of asylum seekers in the UK, with recent overcrowding due to processing delays leading to outbreaks of COVID-19, diphtheria, scabies and MRSA at a processing centre in Manston in Kent. Efforts to address the overcrowding in the wake of media reports reportedly resulted in other asylum seekers sleeping rough in the streets of London after being removed from the immigration centre without being offered alternative accommodation. Similarly, overcrowding, poor living conditions, and sustained power cuts led to the outbreak of disturbances and violence at an immigration removal centre at Harmondsworth near Heathrow in early November.

Popular concerns about migration stem in large part from fears about an increase in people crossing the Channel in small boats. Around 40,000 people have crossed the Channel so far in 2022 – the highest number since these figures began to be collected in 2018. While the problem is real, it is the language surrounding the debate that is perhaps a bigger issue. One day after the attack in Dover, Home Secretary Suella Braverman – who was criticised for allegedly ignoring legal advice to take the necessary steps to avoid overcrowding at the Manston centre – referred to the arrival of asylum seekers in England as an ‘invasion on our southern coast’. She also questioned whether those arriving in England were, in fact, all ‘refugees in distress’. Rather than focusing on condemning the latest attack, she instead highlighted that the firebombing was not currently being treated as a potential act of terrorism – a situation that changed soon afterwards when CT police became involved in the investigation. As I will discuss below, this inflammatory rhetoric is unhelpful and potentially dangerous, as it contributes to bringing some of the narratives spread by the far right into the mainstream discourse, thereby legitimising their arguments and agendas.

The home secretary's inflammatory rhetoric is unhelpful and potentially dangerous, as it contributes to bringing some of the narratives spread by the far right into the mainstream discourse

The failure to take this attack seriously in the context of domestic terrorism also ignores a wider pattern of violence against migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and beyond. The attack in Dover was by no means the first act of violence against such targets. In the period between January 2020 and July 2021 alone, the Home Office reported 70 incidents involving far-right supporters targeting accommodation hosting asylum seekers, including several incidents at the barracks in Napier in Kent, as well as at Penally in Pembrokeshire in 2020. In summer 2021, following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the arrival of thousands of Afghan refugees in the UK, far-right groups including Britain First also targeted hotels housing Afghans, harassing refugees and urging their followers to post negative reviews for the hotels that hosted them. Similar incidents have been recorded in other parts of Europe, including an arson attack in Germany in October targeting a former hotel now hosting mainly Ukrainian refugees. This incident is currently being investigated by police for a suspected political motivation.

The narratives that justify and enable these acts of violence are part of a wider discourse of xenophobic and often Islamophobic anti-immigrant views that are common throughout the far right in Europe and elsewhere. While far-right groups and movements tend to focus mainly on their own national agendas and the protection of their borders and homelands against the ‘other’, strong transnational links exist between these movements, often facilitated by shared ideological narratives and ‘out-groups’ perceived to threaten the ethnic, religious or cultural ‘in-group’.

One such shared narrative is the Great Replacement theory, an ideological construct that has featured heavily in several terrorist manifestos, including that of the 2019 Christchurch attacker. This narrative revolves around the idea that there is a deliberate effort underway to culturally and ethnically replace white European populations with other ethnic and religious groups through migration. Similarly, the idea of a ‘white genocide’, which assumes that white populations are being systematically replaced by others through immigration, abortion and violence, is popular among far-right groups in countries as far apart as the US, Australia, South Africa and the UK.

The current climate of mainstreamed xenophobia threatens to play into the hands of the far right by normalising their dangerous narratives and enabling further acts of violence

Social media posts published by the Dover attacker from as early as 2014 indicate that while he was also a troubled individual, he shared such views – exemplified by tweets such as ‘is time to intern all radical Muslims’. In line with wider ideological narratives shared by the transnational far right, his posts also reveal a focus on gendered narratives portraying migrants as a dangerous sexualised threat. For example, he posted extensively about grooming gangs in the UK, claiming that ‘all Muslims are guilty of grooming … they only rape non-Muslims’ and warning the UK government that ‘if you dare come for our children we will come for you. If I can not have freedom, then I will choose death’. While he portrayed himself as a defender and protector of (white) women and children, the attacker announced that he would target and ‘obliterate’ Muslim children, women, mothers and sisters in his final tweet, as mentioned above.

Ideological narratives such as the Great Replacement theory and the gendered narratives around migration have a clear role in justifying and encouraging violence within far-right groups and movements around the world. However, what makes these narratives even more dangerous is the fact that they are mainstreamed and normalised by politicians, media outlets, and social media influencers who echo the narratives spread by far-right actors. This blurring of lines between the rhetoric of violent extremists and the narratives embraced by the mainstream creates an environment that enables and justifies acts of violence such as the attack in Dover. Braverman’s inflammatory comments, therefore, were not only disparaging toward people crossing the Channel, but they also played into the hands of the far right and potentially contributed to normalising and justifying violence toward migrants and asylum seekers.

If the narratives embraced by the attacker remain acceptable in mainstream discourse and are even shared in some sense by members of the UK government, a serious debate about the threat posed to the UK by far-right extremism cannot be expected to take place. This is also reflected in the general reluctance to think of far-right attacks as acts of terrorism, with these types of events more often publicly linked to mental health issues or individual hatred. In order to start a genuine conversation about the threat (and prevention) of far-right extremism in the UK, these types of institutional bias will first need to be confronted. An essential first step in this process would be to stop discussing migration in xenophobic and alarmist terms and portraying it as an impossible challenge to overcome. Otherwise, the current climate of mainstreamed xenophobia threatens to play into the hands of the far right by normalising their dangerous narratives and enabling further acts of violence.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Claudia Wallner

Research Fellow

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