The far-right have been mobilising at Penally camp where refugees are being housed, but anti-racists have have stepped up their organisation in response, reports Jim Scott
On September 18th the Home Office announced plans to house up to 250 refugees and asylum-seekers at a former Army Training Camp in Penally, west Wales.
Almost immediately far-right activists began descending upon the small village and nearby Tenby town. They had a very sinister objective: to stir up racism and fear within the local community and to exploit the situation to their own ends by spreading lies and disinformation about the refugees due to be housed there.
The increasingly well supported “Stand up to Racism West Wales”, also reacted swiftly. The group had been organising many local Take the Knee events as part of the BLM movement and campaigned for the removal of Sir Thomas Picton statues around Pembrokeshire. Here is part of their statement referencing the unsuitability of the camp:
"Stand Up to Racism West Wales supporters warmly welcome refugees to West Wales. However, a military camp is a completely inappropriate home for vulnerable people who have fled from terror and suffering. We believe that refugees should be treated with the dignity that they deserve and offered decent housing, education and jobs.
Forcing people into military bases and camps to live a ‘living hell’ is degrading, dangerous and potentially disastrous, as the appalling fire in the Moria camp, Lesbos has shown."
All sides agree that the Home Office has dealt with this appallingly. In addition to an absolute failure to consult local people or stakeholders, even the local Tory MP, also Secretary of State for Wales - Simon Hart claims that he and the Welsh Office were only informed the day before the official announcement. While the legitimate concerns and questions of the residents of Penally (which the Home Office completely failed to address) are perfectly understandable, what happened next is far from OK.
'Voice of Wales'
A small group of locals planned a protest and a far-right group called 'Voice of Wales' (VoW) immediately hate-crashed the situation and began inserting themselves into strategic positions. Until recently, VoW had been largely confined to the Swansea and South Wales areas. On closer inspection, it turns out that VoW is a front organisation for the far-right political party known as the “For Britain Movement” with notorious far-right spokesperson Anne Marie Waters at its head.
The poster boy for Voice of Wales is Dan Morgan. We are told that Morgan has strong links with Neil Hamilton (who is currently an elected member of the Welsh Parliament). Along with several other VoW activists and some locals, Morgan immediately set up a Facebook page called "Penally Camp Protest" and within hours allowed the page to be filled with streams of openly racist posts and comments, many posted by the VoW admins themselves. In addition to hijacking the protest online, VoW also physically descended on Tenby and Penally and began making films for their Youtube channel while stirring up fear and racism among the locals.
Locals soon realised what was happening and began distancing themselves from these opportunists. The locals insisted that they close the Facebook group so that they could set up a new one that wouldn't allow racism on its page. However the neo-fascist group was unperturbed, they immediately set up rival Facebook group called "Penally against Illegal Migrant camp". They made sure that any racists they'd attracted so far migrated over to their new rival page. Again, within hours their page was allowing posts such as "Burn the camp to the ground" and “Pipe it into the showers" (in reference to newly fitted gas pipes at the camp). As screenshots of these posts began to emerge, people in Pembrokeshire looked on in horror.
As if this all wasn't bad enough, other far-right, high profile “Paypal Patriots” began travelling into the area to exploit the situation too, from as far away as Cardiff, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. Most notably was a far-right YouTube streamer, Nigel Marcham, known as “The Little Veteran” accompanied by a lesser know YouTube agitator Hugh Thorne, known as “BasedWelshman”. As tensions ran high, the now predominantly non-Penally based protesters gathered outside the camp, Marcham and Thorne, the far-right and openly racist “walking talking propaganda machines” began drip-feeding a constant narrative of misinformation and untruths about refugees to anyone who would listen.
Tensions culminated outside the camp on September 21st as the first of the refugees were due to arrive. Marcham almost constantly streamed events via YouTube. His anti-refugee efforts included recording death threats onto his YouTube stream directed at a local activist. The activist had called him out on Facebook for 'joking' that the refugees should be "put on the Falkland Islands" and when it was full "they should nuke the place".
That night, Marcham encouraged clashes with the police despite already being banned from the whole of Kent and on bail for public order offences in Dover. He was seen to actively direct the predominantly teenage protesters in order to escalate the violence. The first group of refugees then entered the camp amid scenes of chaos, with riot police holding back the angry mob and barking police dogs. Protesters were heard shouting "Go Home" as the refugees were hurried into the camp. Marcham, still live-streaming continued to rile up the protesters and at one point shouted: “I hope your daughters get raped" at the police. His grooming efforts included suggesting to a group of teenagers that if they came across any refugees "out and about" that they should: "put them in a hedge and “finish” them".
Fortunately, following multiple reports to the police, Marcham was arrested the next day on suspicion of public order offences and subsequently barred from entering Pembrokeshire until his court date in October. However, much damage had already been done and these far-right infiltrators had now gained traction with the small and angry group of non-Penally based protesters outside the camp.
Meanwhile, and largely in response to these disturbing scenes the local Stand Up to Racism group was inundated with local support. In recent years a strong movement has emerged in Pembrokeshire with the groups such as The People's Assembly, Stop the War and progressives working closely and campaigning together on issues around austerity, war, racism and other campaigns. This meant that when these fascists arrived uninvited in the county, Pembrokeshire was ready for them!
In all the years I have been involved locally in fighting Tory austerity, organising rallies, demonstrations and actions, I have never experienced such a high level of organisation amongst campaigners here. Within days we had arranged a big “Refugees Welcome” rally on the beach at Tenby and two welcoming events at Penally Camp. Huge sand sketches with slogans such as; "Refugees welcome - racists are not" and "Choose love not hate" have become an inter-tidal fixture on Tenby beach.
Posters identifying the outsider far-right agitators have been created and circulated widely on social media. Vile racist posts from the Voice of Wales' Facebook page have been reported and consequently removed. Refugee support groups have been set up and divided into different areas of support which are being coordinated by different volunteers. Everywhere you look, there are people either organising to support the refugees or working together to take on the racism we have experienced and to take on the far-right interlopers who have come here to stir up racism and division.
Tracy Olin is the manager at Pembrokeshire Action To Combat Hardship (Patch) the local food bank charity in Pembrokeshire. She says that following a request for extra clothing for the refugees at Penally Camp they have been inundated with donations. Tracy Olin said that the charity’s constitution states that we will help anyone in the county who needs support and compared to normal, our donations have increased by 300%. Adding, "we have even been offered the use of a large room by one organisation to store the large volume of clothes in".
Patch has also seen a significant increase in donations through its crowdsourcing pages with many new donations also coming in from people in the neighbouring counties. Due to the high level of donations from people wanting to support the refugees, Patch says that other people in Pembrokeshire would benefit as a net result.
Patch was subjected to a torrent of vile abuse from 'anti-migrant' agitators on announcing that they would be collecting extra clothing for the refugees, so it is great to see that their work continues despite that. We have also heard reports that the more resistance there is, the more the donations flood in!
This isn't Pembrokeshire
It does seem that despite the small amount of traction the neo-fascist front organisation VoW (and a few other racist activists) have gained with a small, marginalised group of angry anti-migrant protesters, these far-right people hold a minority opinion. Something the protesters don't realise is that they are being used by neo-fascists and that VoW's primary objective and their real agenda is to get Neil Hamilton re-elected into Welsh Parliament in May 2021. These far-right paid agitators will say anything to poison people's minds against refugees and migrants. It appears that they don't mind at all if they are telling the truth as long as they keep stirring up the hate.
Unwittingly, the protesters outside the camp are being used for political ends by this fascist group from Swansea and other outside agitators. It has been heart-wrenching to hear protesters shout "Go Home" at refugees inside the camp and it is abhorrent that one of our local County Councillors, Paul Dowson has joined the Facebook group which allows openly racist and violent comments including: “Put a bullet in their heads".
It is also sadly ironic that Dowson told the press in a quote: "No-one wants a 'Concentration camp' at Penally". One cannot help but consider that if not for the thugs he supports and the protests maintaining a constant presence outside the camp, then the refugees would be able to leave and visit the beach, shops and local area. In essence, it would be far less like a concentration camp if these thugs were not patrolling outside and preventing the refugees from leaving. Yet Cllr. Dowson publically and vocally supports the bullies.
The far-right tactics have also been to single out and harass anyone who voices a vocal opposition to them online. They have targeted another local Councillor with vile and defamatory abuse for supporting the BLM movement and attended a refugees’ welcoming event. Allegedly, some have even had to be reported to the police for Facebook posts depicting one of the local Labour Parliamentary candidates as a paedophile simply because he supported events to welcome the refugees.
Where we have community spirit, empathy, togetherness and compassion, these people show hate, vitriol and intimidation tactics including personal attacks on individuals who oppose them.
The racists will not gain a foothold in Pembrokeshire, the phrase: "This isn't Pembrokeshire" has already begun to ring around the county in response to the vile racism we are seeing outside the camp and online. The huge amount of donations that Patch charity has received coupled with the unprecedented level of community activism and community support for the refugees shows us that these racist bigots nor their racist views are welcome in our county.
None of us consider that a dilapidated army camp is a suitable or dignified place to house people, especially when these are people who have fled from war, torture, suffering and persecution. While we all agree that the Home Office has acted appallingly on all levels, now that these refugees are here they deserve far better from us. We can only imagine what it must have been like for them having to arrive amidst a riot with police dogs barking, protesters rucking with police and screaming obscenities at them through the fence.
This certainly 'isn't Pembrokeshire'.
The neo-fascist activists from Swansea, the racists within the county borders and any other 'Paypal Patriots' tempted to travel here to stir up division and racism need to understand this. There is a consensus in this county and the consensus is of warmth and welcoming towards refugees. We hope with time that attitudes will soften, justified fears will turn into compassion and that as people get to know the refugees that they will warm to them rather than show them this dispassionate hostility.
In the meantime Pembrokeshire is coming together like never before with a formidable community effort driven by an absolute determination that fascism will never gain a foothold in this beautiful county.
Stand Up to Racism West Wales will be organising more welcoming events and supporting rallies in the coming weeks, if you are local to Pembrokeshire then your support will be vital. The organisers and the Police have made sure that the demonstrations are completely safe to attend and we will need numbers to show the strength of feeling in Pembrokeshire and to show the fascists the door! Please follow the Facebook page to keep up to date with future events.
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Jim Scott is an eco-socialist activist, writer and campaigner. He is the co-founder of Stick It To The Tories and has played an integral role in creating and building the anti-austerity and anti-war movements in West Wales. Specialising in rural and creative activism Jim is an active People’s Assembly campaigner.
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