Anti-racists in Portland are standing firm to defend refugees Picture: SUTR Dorset

A barge set to house 500 refugees moored early last Tuesday ­morning at Portland Port in Dorset. It was greeted by two protests—but for very different reasons.

The protests were organised by anti-racist activists in Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) Dorset and the No To The Barge group.

The anti-racists chanted, “No hate, no fear—refugees are welcome here,” after a stand-off with the anti-refugee protesters. The opposing side chanted back, “More hate, more fear—refugees not welcome here.”

Anti-racists are working hard to dispel the myths pumped by racists, fascists and the Tories that demonise refugees. 

They’ve already leafletted the racists’ “community picnic”, held open public meetings and organised a pro-refugee march ­demanding the local hospital is reopened. Annika was at last Tuesday’s ­pro‑­refugee protest and is an anti-racist campaigner in nearby Weymouth.

“I’d heard about the barge situation and initially joined a Facebook group called, ‘No to the barge,’ because I couldn’t imagine refugees living like that. But then I was really worried by some of the stuff I was seeing,” she told Socialist Worker.

“I also received a flyer from fascists ­Patriotic Alternative (PA), which was really nasty.  “I knew I had to do something about the overly racist, ­Islamophobic rhetoric.”

Annika thinks some anti-refugee ­protesters “are confused and buy the lies of the government, fascists and media.” “Online they say let’s all unite together against the barge,” she said. 

“But when they see us in person they’re all booing, jeering and aggressive towards us.

“I had one man come up to me and said he’ll laugh when I get raped by a refugee. It was really ugly—I was shocked by that.

“But we’ve had a really good response from local people that want to help and support refugees.”

Candy is an activist with Dorset SUTR. “I think we’re learning about a new formation on the right. This isn’t just a small group of the far right,” she told Socialist Worker. 

“These are people tapping into local people’s concerns, and that’s a challenge.

“It’s crucial we called a demonstration first when the barge was first announced. If you look online, you’d think everyone was a racist.

“Out on the street there are concerned people but they don’t want to target vulnerable humans. That’s why it’s been so heartening building up the network we have.”

Giovanna is a local councillor and activist in Portland. “People genuinely don’t see that they’re being racist,” she told Socialist Worker. “They’re taken in by stuff they hear.

“Anti-racists can see what the far right is doing, especially as it’s happening elsewhere, but people don’t want to see that they’re caught up in it.

“There’s no doubt their fears have been whipped up by groups like PA that want to stoke division. Racism is one of the easiest forms of division.” Phil from SUTR Dorset said the strategy “is to separate the fascists, ­hardline ­racists and others”.  

“It’s not the case that people turn up with fascist placards. They come with community pleas for better healthcare services. 

“But also they echo home secretary Suella Braverman by also saying, ‘Stop the invasion of illegals.’

“Our placards say, ‘Care for refugees, care for Portland.’ 

“The extreme right is benefiting from a narrative that’s been created by the government.

“Then you have Braverman blaming Pakistani men for being child molesters. We’re trying all the time to intervene and build up an anti-racist base in our unions and communities.”

‘It’s not like the rest of Dorset. It’s one of the poorest areas.

Annika thinks the Tories have “deliberately chosen the most rundown part of Dorset, with the least government funding”.

“Weymouth and Portland are some of the poorest areas of Britain—they’re not like the rest of Dorset surrounded by wealthy Tories in their big countryside mansions,” she said.

“This anti-refugee campaign is deliberately trying to stir up more hatred and resentment. It’s not as if Weymouth and Portland don’t have Asian, Muslim and black people, even if they are a small minority.

“The Islamophobes say, ‘Refugees are terrorists bringing Sharia law.’ But we already have Muslims living here—they’re our neighbours who aren’t running around killing people.

Giovanna said the racism from some locals has been “quite shocking and overwhelming”. “Portland is predominantly white, but we want to show not everyone is racist and can work together,” she said.  

“We’re trying to form a group to create a space where we can gather people. That way people can start seeing refugees as human beings, not monstrous others.”

Annika added that people in Portland “are very resentful towards the government”.  “People are struggling to pay rent, and income for this area is very low compared to other parts of Dorset.

“But the barge has also been seen as an opportunity to get more support for far right groups like Ukip in the general election next year.”

‘This is how we fought back’

The three towns Dorset anti-racists operate in are Weymouth, Portland and Dorchester. “We have got quite extensive networks built over time,” Phil explained. 

“In 2018, Britain First appeared in the area with a local election candidate in Weymouth. We coordinated meetings and mass leafleting with local people, activists and trade unionists.

“This was very effective as he disappeared and never stood.”

Then anti-racists built campaign to demand reparations for slavery. It was directed against local Tory MP and plantation owner Richard Drax.

“This isn’t a big city area, and there’s no university here either. But we’ve kept the issues of anti-racism in view,” Phil said.

Campaigners have tapped into a wider anger. “When we marched to the hospital we had Dorset Unison union banners and a delegation, local left wing leadership and other trades council and Unite union banners.

“That presence makes a point. Now we want to extend the relationship between us and unions around the barge.”

‘We have to get people to target Tories, not refugees’ 

Phil thinks the next challenge for anti-racists is integrating the refugees who will be isolated on the barge. “People are thinking about how to bring the refugees’ stories forward.

“That can counteract the nonsense of right wing, ugly lies. Ideally we should be getting into FE colleges and schools to humanise the refugees.”

Giovanna said anti-racists must “be present and give out a different message”. “Our presence is to let everyone know we’re here and will stand against racism,” she said. “We also need to be moving motions in trade union and council meetings.”

Giovanna added there are also wider concerns to take up. “There are arguments that Portland doesn’t have enough resources,” she explained.

“The difference is the racists are deflecting blame away from the government where it should sit. We know these things aren’t caused by refugees coming.

“People genuinely think the refugees coming here are getting a better deal than they are. They’ve started to ask why the homeless aren’t being housed.

“It’s not refugees’ fault there’s homelessness. We have to argue that everyone is suffering—and that won’t change by ‘stopping the boats’.”

Candy agrees. “There was a lot of press coverage last Tuesday, which was important nationally,” she said.

“But the way it’s being construed is anti-racists versus local people. That isn’t true. We have local anti-racist people. But we have to win the middle ground.

“We don’t know what will happen when the refugees start to arrive. We have to target the government and argue refugees should not be scapegoats.

“We also have to be the people who address real concerns. It means campaigning over healthcare, transport and housing.

“These arguments are also leading to discussions about why we need a socialist alternative. It’s why people have joined the Socialist Workers Party, too, in our area.”

Activists are now planning a public SUTR meeting in Weymouth to extend the solidarity network, as well as initiatives with trade unions across the south west of England.

Profiting from people’s misery

Langham Industries, which owns the private Portland Port, will make £2.5 million from its first 18-month contract with the Home Office. It is the only port in Britain that has accepted a barge to keep refugees on.

Portland Port is split between companies Portland Harbour Authority and Portland Port Ltd. The four registered directors are Alan Deves, John Langham, Justin Langham and William Reeves.

They will now profit from the misery of refugees. Portland Port said providing the berthing space was “the right thing to do”. It was also the site of HMP Weare—a prison barge moored until 2006.

Both the Langhams and Deves are directors for a range of companies, including Langham Wine Limited and Langham Industries. This is also made up of Stone Marine Group and Tridan Engineering.

Tridan Engineering proudly sports a picture of a huge tank on its webpage under the tab “Defence”. The barge itself, the Bibby Stockholm, was previously used to house homeless people and refugees in Germany and the Netherlands. It has been refurbished after being called an “oppressive environment” in the Netherlands.

The right is harping on that the barge has en-suites, a television and games room and a gym. But the refugees won’t be living it up on a party boat.

The barge holds 506 people for three to six months or more. Refugees will be forced to share en-suite rooms and potentially four to six-bed dormitories with strangers. They will be “strongly encouraged” to return by 11pm and given just £9.10 a week to live on.

Dorset County Council is getting £3,500 per refugee to provide services and a one-off payment of £377,000 to support refugees in the local area. 

Whether the refugees and local people see any benefit to this funding is yet to be seen.

What We Think—Call to arms for all anti-racists

Attacks on refugees outside hotels, barges and disused army barracks aren’t slowing down. 

From Llanelli to Erskine, Knowsley, Scarborough and Portland, anti‑refugee campaigns are becoming more frequent—and popular.

It can’t be left to small groups of well organised anti-racists to organise to fight back again the racist threat alone. A mass movement on the left, including big mobilisations of trade unionists, is required.

The anti-racist movement should expect more from trade union leaders than passively supporting demos and sending messages of solidarity.  Wherever the fascists and racists appear, the labour movement has to push it back.

If hundreds of union members from all industries were mobilised to say, “Refugees are welcome here,” the right would not be able to spread its lies or be confident to organise.

The growing hate against refugees has to be taken more seriously by the left—and quickly.

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