In the first part of an exclusive investigation into the far-right response to the migrants who tragically drowned in the Channel, Paul Mason and Sian Norris look at how political pressure from such activists risks fuelling Government rhetoric and policy

Extremist views are influencing and putting political pressure on mainstream Government policy on migration, an examination of far-right Telegram posts suggests. 

Posts by users of the Telegram channel of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known as ‘Tommy Robinson’) quickly celebrated the news that 27 migrants had drowned while crossing the Channel to the UK last month.

Its administrators posted a link to the breaking news adding: “Blood not only on the hands of the people smugglers, but the UK and French government’s [sic]”. Some 323 users responded. One said: “27 less freeloading, raping, murderous Muslims is always a great thing” – a sentiment repeated by many followers. Another postulated that “some on a border foarce [sic] boat finally changed to the right side and fired the turret gun”. 

A subsidiary theme was that this was a false flag operation: “I may be cynical but could this just be a psyop to garner sympathy for them?” asked one of Robinson’s followers.

Far-right supporters discuss the Channel deaths on Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Telegram channel

While such talking points remain squarely the property of the far-right, other themes on extremist social media in response to the tragedy show a crossover into the wider right-wing populist milieu and find echoes in the language of the Government.

In the past month, Conservative backbenchers have repeatedly claimed that their “inboxes are full of complaints about the failure to stop the Channel crossings” and warned Boris Johnson that the issue could lead to the formation of a “new UKIP” – with Tory MP Craig MacKinley accusing the Government of “state failure” over the crossings.

Yet, few Conservative MPs are prepared to specify the exact nature of this political pressure or where it is coming from.

Byline Times’ analysis of the far-right messaging traffic found that the themes current in these spaces are reflected in five key messages emanating from the Government when it comes to migration and the ‘culture war’. 

The first focuses on the rhetoric that people arriving via the Channel are entering the UK ‘illegally’. The second is that the majority of people crossing are adult men, which feeds into a policy of carrying out dubious age tests to ‘prove’ whether people seeking asylum are aged under 18.

Posts also focused on left-wing forces manufacturing sympathy for people arriving in the UK. 

The most disturbing message is focused on the ‘Great Replacement’. While this baseless conspiracy theory – which posits that white people are being ‘replaced’ by migration from the Global South – is in no way Government policy, a manufactured threat to ‘British culture’ is a key element of the Conservative Party’s ongoing culture war. 

A further theme of the far-right posts – echoed by some Conservative backbenchers – is that the Home Secretary, by failing to implement “pushback measures”, is to blame for the crisis, and that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) consists of, as one user of Yaxley-Lennon’s Telegram channel put it “f****g traitors” who “assist illegal entry to UK soil”.

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Far-Right Focus, Government Policy Design

Far-right channels are packed with speculation about who is crossing the Channel, often referring to individuals as ‘illegal immigrants’ and stating that people are arriving ‘illegally’.

Such language is found in the rhetoric of the Government, which has repeatedly referred to people taking ‘illegal’ routes. This contradicts current UK law, and international law, neither of which criminalises people seeking asylum for the method in which they enter a country – i.e. there are no ‘illegal’ routes.

The Nationality and Borders Bill – which was voted through the House of Commons in December and will now go to the Lords – seeks to change this by criminalising people who arrive in the UK via so-called “irregular routes”, such as on small boats or in lorries. The policy has been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for potentially breaching international law. 

Priti Patel has also claimed that 70% of people coming to the UK are not refugees, but are instead “single men who are economic migrants”. Her language reflects a recurrent theme of the far-right posts: the belief that people coming to the UK are seeking to ‘exploit’ the UK benefits system or to ‘steal jobs’.

Her remarks were proven to be false – nearly two-thirds of those arriving into the UK on small boats are refugees. But the political choice to use language that stresses that people are choosing to come to the UK for economic reasons – and the repetition of the term ‘illegal’ – is part of the normalisation of far-right rhetoric about migration into mainstream political discourse and policy. 

A second obsession of the far-right focuses on the age of those arriving via the Channel, with Yaxley-Lennon repeatedly referring to those seeking asylum as “fighting age men”. One example of a meme on this topic is a photo of refugee children alongside a picture of angry young men – with the claim that the former represents the media narrative on migration, and the second the reality of the situation.

It is true that the majority of people arriving in the UK across the Channel are young men – data analysed by Byline Times has also found that only a minority of those who successfully claimed asylum from Afghanistan since 2009 were young women. But political pressure on the Government to identify ‘real children’ – fuelled in part by a media panic and vocalised by the far-right anxiety about “fighting age men” coming to the UK – is now being reflected in a much-criticised policy in the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The bill contains the plan to verify the ages of children seeking asylum. Ideas on how to achieve this include “scientific methods” to determine their age, despite the British Association of Social Workers stating that “there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age”. The methods suggested are not only inaccurate, but invasive and traumatic. 

Again, Byline Times’ analysis raises questions about where the political pressure to scientifically test children seeking asylum is coming from and what it means for the human rights of people arriving in the UK. 


Culture Wars

In the Great Replacement theory, the far-right falsely claims that a form of ‘white genocide’ is taking place.

One far-right activist has accused the UK border force of being “complicit in the genocide of our people” for not turning back dinghies, while claiming that media coverage of 27 deaths in the Channel was designed to “guilt trip people into accepting our demographic genocide”.

Another post mentioned the threats to the “indigenous population of these lands”, with leaflets handed out to the public falsely warning that “white Britons” are set to become a minority, while banner drops proclaim “we will not be replaced”.

Banners from Patriotic Alternative repeat the Great Replacement conspiracy theory

The Government categorically does not endorse or repeat the Great Replacement conspiracy. It has, however, pursued a culture war that positions British values as under attack by “wokeness” and progressive politics – often linked to migration and a commitment to human rights. 

The latter has led to MPs, including the Home Secretary, criticising those who represent people seeking asylum, with accusations being levelled against human rights lawyers of clogging up the asylum system with appeals. 

An antagonism towards human rights law is, obviously, evident on far-right channels.

One post by a far-right activist bemoaned that “not one” person who crossed the Channel had been deported but “they don’t want you to know that”. This is pure disinformation designed to demonise human rights laws and ignores how people are still being deported from the UK and how the majority of those arriving across the Channel are refugees and therefore have a legal right to remain in the country.

The culture war rhetoric has helped to create an ‘us and them’ narrative that is pushed by the far-right – for example, another prominent far-right activist has written about how people seeking asylum stay in four-star hotels while veterans live in mouldy flats. This is to set up a false dichotomy between those who it is believed are deserving of help (British people) and those who are not (refugees). 

The official Government response to last month’s tragedy in the Channel has been framed around concern for the victims, hostility to traffickers and the need for a deal with France. The far-right’s plebeian base does not mince its words: it is celebrating the deaths, spreading conspiracy theories and blames Priti Patel, the RNLI and the Border Force for failing to deliver on the “pushback” rhetoric that Patel herself used during debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill.

But both the bill and the Government’s response to the Channel crossings shows how an authoritarian, populist government can lend credence to the far-right. Conservative MPs urgently need to consider where the political pressure for a hard-line response to migration is coming from – and whether it can continue to be comfortable mainstreaming far-right demands in its policy.

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