A phalanx of police vehicles sits in the car park of Bargarran Primary School, Erskine, on a chilly Saturday morning. The row of 12 cars and vans understandably attract attention. One couple visiting the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for an elderly relative stop to ask bystanders if there’s been an incident.

There hasn’t, at least not yet. The ladies and gentlemen of Police Scotland are here in their droves because of a meeting taking place at Bargarran Community Centre, to discuss the housing of asylum seekers in a nearby hotel. Organised by local residents, Stand Up to Racism, and various Trades Unions, it’s expected to be countered by Patriotic Alternative, the far-right group which has attached itself to this small community.

The first on the scene are greeted by two saltires bearing the phrase ‘Erskine Say’s No’ (sic), a phrase which has been used by both local campaigners and in media distributed by Patriotic Alternative. Separating the two is important, with the group looking to exploit the concerns of the community.


Colin Mack, chair of Paisley & District Trade Union Council says: “A local group started trying to organise a protest and it was hijacked. They didn’t realise who these people were and they invited them in, then when they realised who they were they backed away from them.

“Patriotic Alternative at that point started trying to take over and run events and found a couple of locals who agreed with them and they’ve used that to set up a continuous protest against the people who have been housed in the hotel.”

The foxes are, unfortunately, already in the hen house. PA’s Scottish branch is described by anti-fascist and anti-racist group Hope Not Hate as “perhaps its most active”, with a 20-year-old arrested and charged in Dunoon earlier this month for distributing its material.

Read More: How the small town of Erskine became a flashpoint for racial hate

Its national admin officer, Kenny Smith, is a Scot who is a former member of the BNP, while its leader Mark Collett has links to National Action, the first UK far-right organisation to be banned since World War Two ended. The Scottish branch is run by Simon Crane – who will later be spotted live-streaming from outside the hall - a West Lothian-based Englishman.

Ahead of the meeting the group puts out a ‘letter to the people of Erskine’ promising to “muster our activists” to oppose the event and “taking 200 fighting aged non-White men into your community”.

One man makes the rounds talking to people and, having raised concerns over safety, reacts badly to being told by one young woman that she works with domestic abuse victims. He declares himself to be on a tag and barred from seeing his children due to a conviction for domestic violence.

The man takes objection to someone standing a few feet away, snarling “I don’t like people standing behind me” and accusing the bystander of “trying to silence” his views and of being “Stasi”. The situation is calmed by the young woman before there can be any escalation.


The community hall quickly fills up, with a row of police officers standing against the back wall in case of any trouble. It is soon at capacity, with law enforcement turning people away at the door.

Gavin Newlands and Natalie Don (respectively the constituency MP and MSP, both from the SNP), Ross Greer, regional list MSP from the Scottish Greens, and Labour councillor Sam Mullin are all in attendance along with speakers from unions and advocacy groups.

Tension is high from the off. A woman sitting near the front, who has been pictured at the anti-refugee protest in media shared by Patriotic Alternative, hands over a sheaf of papers which turns out to be printouts of news articles about asylum seekers who have committed - or been accused of committing - crimes.

Another demands to know which countries the people in the hotel have come from. The elected representatives attempt to explain that, for GDPR reasons, they cannot name individuals but that statistics indicate most asylum seekers come from war-torn nations, while one union leader cites the Home Office’s own figures which put successful applications at 77%.

Pinar Aksu, Human Rights & Advocacy co-ordinator at Maryhill Integration Network, shares her own experience of going through the asylum process with the room.

Read More: Dunoon man arrested for distributing material of far-right group

She tells The Herald: “I understand the system having gone through it when I was young, so I briefly shared a bit of my experience.

“I think it’s important that people know the actual reality of what happens when someone is in the asylum process.”

At times it’s a struggle to maintain order, but there are rational suggestions from the floor. One man proposes setting up a working group, where locals could meet with some of the people in the hotel, a suggestion which is well-received.

Another person floats the idea of a football match between locals and asylum seekers to get to know each other, while concerns are raised over the loss of access to the hotel’s pool and spa for Erskine residents.

HeraldScotland: Police outside the event in ErskinePolice outside the event in Erskine (Image: Newsquest)

Ms Aksu says: “I think one of the key problems has been that they’ve moved a group of people without informing the locals, and they haven’t done any community development engagement, they haven’t done any outreach events.

“I think once there is some form of event or activity that takes place for the locals to get to know the people in the hotels it would break down a lot of the barriers.

“The genuine questions people had were: ‘who are these guys? We just want to know them’ and I think there were a few good suggestions from the people who wanted to organise something.

“It just comes down to that thing of divide and rule, ‘we don’t know who these guys are so we’re fearful of them’.

“I think putting a face to them makes a huge difference.”

Mr Mack agrees: “We felt the best thing we could do, apart from organising counter-protests, was to accept that the residents have genuine concerns.

“We want people to come and express their concerns and try to get answers to some of the questions they have and allay some fears.

“Erskine has had a chronic lack of funding, it’s had issues with the massive expansion of housing but that’s not the fault of the people in the hotel – that’s the government’s fault.

“There have been concerns raised about funding and local services and that’s fine. Protesting at the hotel is only intimidating those poor people in the rooms, it’s not helping the situation.”

The refrain from the MP, MSPs and councillor is that, because a decision has been made by the Home Office, they had no control over the decision to place the people in the hotel, and getting any information is difficult.

Organisers also point out that they, too, are not in favour of asylum seekers being housed in a hotel – they’d prefer them to be able to mix with the community.

Some of the more vocal attendees, including the woman who put the printout on the organisers’ table, demand to know what vetting has been done on the people who have moved into the hotel.

Dr Fatimah Rushwan, president of the Sudanese Community in Glasgow, a group which works with refugees and asylum seekers points out that such people are, on average, less likely to commit crime.

The suggestion is greeted with vocal scepticism.


Dr Rushwan tells The Herald: “I think there has been a lot of investment into misinformation and ignition of negative feelings toward immigrants and asylum seekers, and the government plays a major role.

“Just listen to their recent plan for people coming in boats, that explains why people are feeling like this.

“They’re portrayed in different ways but all of them are negative, and there’s really no evidence that they’re more likely to commit crimes than anyone else in the community.

“I actually agree with some of what they (the other attendees) said – there must be more community involvement in the decisions made about people coming in, maybe even just some advance notice explaining the vetting process and trying to reassure people that they’re not simply taking in people they don’t know anything about.

“The lack of knowledge and community involvement is creating this situation.

“There’s also a need to understand that the United Kingdom does have obligations to people in need all over the world that it must fulfil, and British citizens must too.

“They have the right to be involved or at least have it explained how things are being done, but I think it’s quite dangerous to have the very antagonistic approach that is being taken, it could lead to significant incidents that we shouldn’t be experiencing and that is dangerous.”

Ms Aksu agrees: "I know there were a few people in there who used to stay in one of the other hotel accommodations and came to the public meeting, and I wonder how they felt seeing all those questions and discussions."

Things threaten to spiral out of control when a man from Paisley attempts to explain his experience living across from a hotel in the town which is housing asylum seekers.


While a few try to shout him down, his contribution is largely well-received until, in trying to dispel fears over criminality among those seeking refuge, he says “there could be rapists in this room and we wouldn’t know”.

It’s the wrong thing to say, however well-intentioned, and takes a calming intervention from an organiser to restore order.

When one of the organisers takes the mic, around 90 minutes into the meeting, to explain that there will only be time for a few more questions, a large and vocal group storm for the exits.

Some who didn’t get a chance to speak hang back though. Two older women state that they felt the meeting went well and they’d learned a lot, a wall set out for ‘hopes and fears’ at the back is left with only hopes – around engagement, integration and more.

Robert Parker, secretary of Paisley & District Trade Union Council says: “Most folk we’ve chatted to are probably the silent majority who support helping refugees, they’re not wanting to stick them all back on a boat to anywhere.”

Read More: Suella Braverman small boats plan could breach human rights law

Ms Aksu agrees: “I think what was good was the fact people wanted to organise something, they wanted to do events to understand more about the people in the hotel.

“There were some locals who were really keen on staying in touch and getting to know people, so I think it comes down to a lack of information being shared with the local community which led to a lot of tension.

“We had a piece of paper in the background to say our hopes and fears and there were a few people saying that they want to know the people in the hotels, they want to organise get-togethers, a football match, to be able to speak with the community about general things the community feels is lacking in Erskine.”

Asked about a lack of engagement with the community the Home Office said it does not comment on operational arrangements for individual sites used for asylum accommodation.

A spokesperson said: “We engage with local authorities as early as possible whenever sites are used for asylum accommodation and work to ensure arrangements are safe for hotel residents and local people.”

The day after the meeting Patriotic Alternative hold their weekly protest against the asylum seekers, which is opposed by a larger group stating that refugees are welcome.

It doesn’t appear that the group won any new converts at the meeting, but their presence in Erskine may be hard to remove now it’s established.

Mr Mack says: “They’re targeting people who have come here fleeing poverty and violence, my understanding is that most of the people in the hotel are Syrians.

“If you’re a pro-democracy activist in Syria you’re going to get shot by the regime so they’ve had to flee to save their lives.

“They’ve come here with absolutely nothing at all and PA are latching on to try and say ‘they’re giving them all this money’ – they’re not.

“They’re locked in a hotel with no money to spend, they’re not allowed to work which most of them would want to do if they were given the opportunity. They use that as an opportunity to say ‘they’re scroungers’.

“They’ll target the refugees, then next it’s the benefit claimants, and you name it. They don’t consider that there are people who are millionaires and billionaires in this country who are hoarding wealth which could be redistributed through fair taxation to alleviate most of these problems.

“We’re the sixth richest country on the planet, the problem isn’t that the wealth’s not there it’s that the wealth is held by a few individuals rather than being redistributed.”

When Patriotic Alternative pack up and go home, they’re serenaded by the Match of the Day theme from the other side.

Mr Mack continues: “I never thought Gary Lineker and I would ever agree on anything, because he’s a multi-millionaire footballer but that’s one of the things he was right on.

“When the government is using that kind of language to describe any group of people then people such as Patriotic Alternative see it and go ‘I’m welcome to come and say that now because the government are saying it’.

“The language used is important here and the Conservative government are lowest common denominator, they’re trying to find somebody to blame for problems that they’ve created over a decade in government.”

For many it’s the Home Office who bear much of the blame for PA gaining a foothold in Erskine, exploiting the concerns that people from the community raised in the meeting.

Ms Aksu says: “I think this kind of thing needs to be done in Scotland before people are placed in hotels. They need to do public events with the locals to hear their concerns because if not it’s going to escalate and, unfortunately, it’s going to escalate to a point where we see what happened in Erskine where a right-wing group like Patriotic Alternative are the ones organising things.

“For that to be avoided there needs to be community consultation and events from the very beginning.”