The residents of Llanelli, a former industrial town in west Wales, were stumped when they were told in late May that their Stradey Park Hotel would taken over by an immigration contractor and used to house around 240 asylum seekers.
Although local residents had previously welcomed asylum seekers who had been dispersed in small numbers throughout the town, many felt unsure about the large group who would be residing in the hotel. Would it impact local tourism? How would the local NHS services cope with the influx? Where would people who lost their jobs at the hotel get work? And most importantly, residents wondered, why weren’t they consulted about the plans in the first place?
But in a matter of a few months, local apprehension grew into loud protests infused with racist tropes deployed both online and in person, not least thanks to far-right groups seizing the opportunity. Although far-right protests about asylum-seeker hotels have erupted all over the country in the last couple of years, none of them were quite as demonstrative or long-lived as in Llanelli.
By the autumn, the Home Office announced the hotel wouldn’t be used after all. Protestors claimed the decision as a “win” – but was it?
No consultation, no warning
“There had been no discussions or warning us this was even an option,” Abigail*, a resident of Llanelli, tells The Lead. “It was such a shame that this beautiful hotel would close to the public, and then a further shock that the 95 staff would be losing their jobs. But the actual asylum seekers being in the area hadn't bothered me in the slightest.”
Abigail was equally concerned about the economic impact the decision would have on their town, which relies heavily on tourism, and the impact on already stretched services like doctors, dentists, and schools.
She wasn’t alone. At a town meeting to discuss the plan - held only after the announcement was already made - was attended by at least 400 people, many of them disgruntled they hadn’t been consulted prior.
“I stood up and said that from my point of view, it was wrong for the community and for the asylum seekers themselves,” Steve Kelshaw, a local resident and member of Llanelli Hope Not Hate, tells The Lead. “I appealed to people to be careful about the type of language used. I was already hearing extremist and inaccurate language. When I said that, most of the 400 people started shouting and booing at me.”
The heated response to Steve’s gentle warning was no surprise to him. He had expected pushback, just like he expected far-right involvement following the announcement. But what he didn’t foresee was the sheer number of people in Llanelli who would prove open to extremist narratives. In a matter of weeks, a 24/7 protest camp was set up in the car park of the hotel. Far-right figures dipped in and out of the camp, convincing locals that these asylum seekers would be violent and pose a unique risk to women and girls.
“I went to the protest when it first started,” remembers Abigail. “It was supposedly about the staff losing their jobs. There were mainly older people there speaking of their sadness at losing the hotel.”
The camp became somewhat of a social club, especially for the older generation. It was a place to “fit in” with people who shared similar views.
But very quickly, Abigail began to notice the focus shift: “They were being drip-fed awful stories of worst-case scenarios, and it was becoming more about who would be in the hotel. I didn’t go again as I didn’t wish to be associated with the tone it was rapidly becoming.”
Members from Patriotic Alternative, Voice of Wales, Students Against Tyranny, and UKIP showed up at the camp throughout the summer, reportedly exploiting the worries of locals for their own agendas.
The flame that had started among residents was fanned into a fire by far-right members who leafletted, held banners, and spread rumours in social media groups. At different points in the summer and early autumn, more than 200 people could be found in the camp near the hotel.
Banners reading, “Wales is not a migrant camp”, “Llanelli says no”, “Welsh lives matter” and, “Save Furnace from invasion”, were held high in the camp and in the town. Protestors blocked access to the site from workers coming to prepare the hotel for asylum seekers. Several arrests have been made for “significant disorder that resulted in substantial damage to the hotel.”
Online groups formed, too – a space for people to air their opinions freely.
“Videos [in these online groups] emerged celebrating the fact that these incidents [of property damage, harassment, and verbal abuse] were occurring, and mocking them,” recalls Abigail. “These pages then became private groups where people would openly post their hate for incoming refugees and actually tell people how to cause the most harassment to anyone that spoke against them or their behaviour.
“They targeted businesses that refused to support the protest, actively telling others to do the same. They would stalk people who had different options and share all kinds of personal information about them and or their families.”
But there was no organised “pushback” about the misinformation going out, according to Kelshaw.
“The county council played the neutral card,” he says. “Local politicians in the main tried to hide. We were left with big numbers of far-right coming from all over the country and hundreds of local people radicalised by that message. And there was just a small group of us trying to counter it.”
Those opposing the protestors said they felt threatened at times, either online or in person. As the protests got louder, most of the opposition stayed quiet, afraid of what the repercussions would be if they spoke out.
Janet*, a 36-year local in Llanelli, chose otherwise
“I got in touch with as many people as I could to ask what we were going to do,” she told The Lead. “We wanted to be a visible presence to show that there were people who didn’t accept this racist message.”
Standing on a corner 100 yards away from the hotel, Janet and a handful of others held up banners that could be seen by passing cars on the way to the hotel, and made themselves available to discuss their views to anyone willing to chat.
“We weren’t inviting confrontation,” she said.
Even though her counter protests were peaceful, Janet said there were two times (which she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing) that she felt in “threatening situations” as a result of her visible opposition to the protests at the hotel. Even after the threats, Janet carried on speaking out against the racist messaging being spouted.
Then, near the start of October, the Home Office made a u-turn announcement to withdraw its plans to use Stradey Park Hotel to house asylum seekers.
Far-right groups and the camp claimed the decision as a victory, with applause ringing out from protestors at the camp.
A Home Office failing, not a “victory” for the far-right
“We’re worried about this model being replicated elsewhere,” Rosie Carter of Hope Not Hate, tells The Lead. “There was a lot of chatter on far-right forums seeing this as a tactic that might work elsewhere.”
In Lincolnshire, a similar camp model has already been set up in hopes of achieving a similar outcome as in Llanelli.
“But this was not a victory,” says Carter. “No one thought it was a good idea in the first place. It was completely unworkable from the moment it was conceived. The fact it hasn’t gone ahead isn’t down to the far-right.”
If anything, Llanelli was a lesson on the Home Office’s failings, and a “win” for the housing provider contracted by the Home Office.
“There was a huge amount of money made by Clearsprings in the process,” Carter notes. (Clearsprings declined to comment.)
Carter also says Stradey Park, along with hotels all over the country, are being reopened for large numbers of asylum seekers without considering the impact on the communities or on asylum seekers.
“The Home Office is moving people into places not set up for them,” Rosie says.
Communities aren’t consulted or prepared. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support asylum seekers, so they end up just hanging around the hotel. And local authorities aren’t equipped to handle the sudden influx of new residents.
“Hotels were never a long-term plan,” says Carter. “They were emergency measures that have now become standard.”
The fault, according to Carter, lies with the backlog of asylum applications, a “crisis” of the government’s making.
“Why was the backlog allowed to build up?” she asks. “They ended up with a situation with people with nowhere to go. So you are going to have hotels that need to be used.”
Although Carter has seen a lot of far-right demos about asylum hotels’ use, she hadn’t seen one quite like in Llanelli, and is worried what their perceived success could mean in the future if hotels continue to be used for asylum seekers.
“It was a merging of local activism with quite extreme ideology,” she says. “And that’s quite alarming.”
A town more divided than ever
While the far-right rejoiced, Llanelli locals not engaged in the protests breathed a sigh of relief at the decision not to open the hotel, hopeful that the divisions and threats brewing over the summer would finally come to an end. But it seems the new fractures will take time and effort to heal.
While Kelshaw hopes residents will come together following this summer’s protests, he is concerned about the increased number of people blatantly opposed to asylum seekers seeking refuge in Llanelli.
“Before this happened, you would rarely hear anything locally that was racist or anti-asylum,” he said.
But now, he says, these attitudes have become normalised both in public conversation and in online forums.
Janet said that Llanelli has always considered a welcoming place, but not anymore.
“It was what struck me when I moved here 17 years ago,” she says. “And somehow, we’ve ended up with a reputation as the town that hates foreigners, despite it’s only a small and vocal minority that does. There were people who got deliberately misled and swept up in this almost cult. And we have to now find a way of talking to those people – not ostracising them for what they’ve done.”
“The community has been left hugely divided,” says Carter. “And it’s going to take a lot to rebuild.”
*Some names have been changed.