On a late summer morning, outside a sunbleached parking lot on the south-east coast of England, Steve Laws is waiting for his quarry. The sea is calm, so there are bound to be migrant crossings today. Sure enough, he spots movement. He turns on his camera and begins to film.
Through a chain-link fence, his camera records an exhausted line of dark-skinned men being marched towards a waiting coach. Their dinghy, which set off from France in the early hours of the morning, has just been intercepted and towed into the harbor by the Border Force.
Their clothes are stiff with salt and sweat. Some carry small plastic bags of belongings; others carry nothing at all. Border Force Officers in hi-vis vests patiently stand by as the refugees board the coach and it pulls away without incident. Seagulls yell overhead but otherwise all is quiet.
Within minutes, Laws has uploaded this scene to Twitter. It will spread online, shared by over a thousand people and watched almost 50,000 times, under an unlikely caption:
“WE ARE BEING INVADED.”
This is just one of hundreds of videos and photographs that the self-described “citizen journalist” has produced over the past six months. His content follows a common theme: migrants who have made the hazardous trip from France to the UK in small boats are portrayed as “potential terrorists” and foot soldiers in an ongoing “invasion” of the country. As the number of refugees making this journey has increased (over 7000 this year already, compared to fewer than 2000 in 2019), Laws’ tweets have begun to reach an ever-wider audience. Since he began filming in the spring, his videos have been viewed millions of times.
And Laws is not working alone. He is just the newest member of a growing network of far-right activists who have been patrolling the Kent coast. The group, who call themselves “The Migrantspotters,” insist that illegal migration is leading to the “replacement” of the native population. With their videos, they are hoping to influence public opinion and ultimately change immigration policy by depicting migrants as an existential threat to the UK.
The migrants being targeting come from all over the world, with Iran, Albania, Iraq, Pakistan, and Eritrea the highest represented nationalities. After travelling sometimes thousands of miles to arrive in camps in the French town of Calais, their final hurdle is the twenty-six-mile English Channel. The trip is dangerous – the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world and the seas are often rough. When they finally arrive, many are now confronted by activists brandishing cameras and shouting questions. One popular live stream shows a group of white activists chasing a black refugee as he tries to get back to his temporary housing, yelling “Do you like England?” Comments on these videos compare the migrants to “cockroaches” and “rats,” and deride the Border Force Officers guarding them as “paedo protectors” and “terrorist enablers.”
Bridget Chapman, local refugee advocate and media lead for the Kent Refugee Action Network, believes that these activists – or “bullies with cameras,” as she calls them – are tapping into a deepseated fear of invasion to push their anti-immigrant worldview. “There’s this ridiculous narrative that does the rounds that people are arriving on boats and disappearing into the bushes,” she said. “And there’s some hidden ISIS force that’s gonna emerge at a later date to impose the Islamic caliphate on us. It’s just not happening.”
Many of the refugees Chapman has worked with were fleeing from dangerous circumstances. “The stories we’ve heard are absolutely, mind-blowingly horrific. We’ve had people who’ve had their parents shot in front of them. People who were going to be forced to sign up with the Taliban. People escaping torture in Libya.”
“Nobody leaves their home unless there’s a bloody good reason,” she added.
Although the number of migrants crossing the English Channel has increased, asylum claims overall are actually down by 25–30% on last year, in part because of limitations the COVID-19 lockdown has put on legal asylum processes. The UK also typically takes in fewer asylum seekers than many of its Western European neighbors. So far in 2020, Germany, France, Spain, and Greece have all accepted more claims than the UK. Last year, Germany took more than triple as many refugees as the UK and France and Spain both took more than double.
But the publicly visible nature of the Channel crossings has made them the perfect fodder for social media activists, and the public perception of the UK’s immigration situation has consequently been skewed away from reality. According to a recent YouGov poll, public concern over immigration skyrocketed in August, when videos of migrant crossings reached their peak popularity. 30% of respondents rated “immigration and asylum” as one of the top three issues facing the UK, nearly triple the level of concern seen in March when only 11% said the same. The only issues seen as more important to voters in August were health, the economy, and Brexit.
Politicians have been taking notice of this heightened concern, and “citizen journalists” like Laws have been able to reach them directly by purporting to provide impartial news. The local member of parliament, Damian Collins, follows Laws on Twitter. An Arizonan congressman, Paul Gosar, has retweeted his content in support. And when word came through that Folkestone’s military base Napier Barracks was going to be used to house migrants, multiple local councilors reached out to members of “The Migrantspotters” to find out more details.
Mary Lawes, a Folkestone town councilor from the Harbour ward, is one of the local councilors who has come to rely on these activists’ videos as a source of news. She regularly checks Laws’ Twitter feed and is glad he is “doing a service no-one else is doing.”
“I would say he’s been reasonably measured in what he’s saying. He’s just reporting, mostly, the facts,” she said. But Laws’ posts often include ideological appeals to “fight back against the hard left” and tweets that call liberal media outlets “traitors.”
Beyond the local level, the national political establishment has been responding to citizens’ immigration concerns with increasingly severe rhetoric. Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is responsible for immigration policy, lashed out at “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” who support the recent migrants, and has employed a former Royal Marine as a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander.” The Commander’s primary charge is to make crossings “unviable” for small boats.
A series of leaks over the summer showed that the UK government has been looking into draconian solutions to prevent more immigration across the Channel. Their suggested schemes include creating a refugee processing center on Ascension Island, a tiny British territory 4000 miles away in the middle of the Atlantic; repurposing disused oil rigs to hold asylum seekers; installing a “marine fence,” the maritime equivalent of a border wall, across the Channel; and even using water cannons to push boats back from the shore. None of these ideas have been implemented, but leader of the opposition Keir Starmer denounced even their consideration as “inhuman.”
Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate and an expert on the far right, believes that activists like Laws can indirectly influence political decisions like these by feeding an anti-immigration narrative into the public arena from the bottom up. “There is a kind of percolation effect,” he said, “where they create content that animates the far right; the far right becomes animated and engaged; and it moves up the food chain” to mainstream news outlets like the Daily Mail and the Express before finally entering the national political consciousness. “They are the plankton that the whale eats.”
Mulhall sees this pattern not just in the UK, but all over the world. In the US, far-right activists hope to get their content picked up by Breitbart, a far-right media outlet, because “then it gets to Fox News, and then the president talks about it.” This feeding upwards of a narrative can be seen, he said, in President Trump’s support of a hoax concerning the alleged genocide of white South African farmers in 2018. The hoax came from a distortion of a real story about post-apartheid land reallocations. Far-right activists modified the story to fit their own agenda, their version was covered by Breitbart, and then it was picked up by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. From there, the story made its way to the highest elected office in the land.
A 2020 United Nations report on migration bears out that this social media strategy does impact policy. Its authors pointed to an online campaign against their international migration program, stating that “negative campaigns” by far-right activists “played a significant role in generating backlash against the Global Compact for Migration in several European countries, prompting some governments to withdraw from the migration pact.” They concluded that social media technology is “increasingly impacting the politics of migration, with a surge of far-right activism on social media platforms seeking to influence political debates and ultimately political decisions.”
As well as contributing to a hostile environment for migrants at the political level, many anti-immigrant activists have a negative impact in a more direct way. Alan Leggett, better known by his online alias Active Patriot, creates videos in which viewers can watch him, in his own words, “chase migrants around.”
Leggett has taken to waiting outside Napier Barracks to confront refugees as they come in and out of the base. In one video, he accuses the two men he is following of being “a threat to national security” as they hurry away. In another, a migrant inside the barracks is about to leave, but then spots Leggett and his crowd of supporters waiting outside. The man turns back inside.
Clearsprings Ready Homes Ltd., the company contracted to manage the housing in Napier Barracks, put plastic sheeting around the fence in an effort to dissuade filming. In response, Leggett has taken to pressing his phone up against cracks in the fencing and filming through the windows of incoming taxis. In one recent live stream, he used a drone to film the barracks from above.
This kind of footage is reaching an ever-larger audience, and with Channel crossings not slowing down, there is no end in sight for “The Migrantspotters.” Buoyed by PayPal donations from their supporters and the sale of “Border Patrol” branded merchandise, they have the means to continue making their videos for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the migrants still arriving along the Kent coast will continue to bear the human cost of their social media campaign.
Despite losing many friends and his fiancé since he began filming in the spring, Steve Laws is now more dedicated to his videos than ever. Having seen the political impact and support his content can attract when packaged as “journalism,” he is determined to master the art of social media and keep spreading his anti-immigration message.
“We’ve got to play the media game,” he said. “This is what I keep telling people. You’ve gotta use the correct terminology, you’ve gotta use the correct words.”
“It’s a long game, isn’t it?”
Header photo credit Zoltan Tasi