Video: Demonstrators clash over whether refugees should come to York

Members of the group York Says No To Refugees gather near the Railway War Memorial in York. Photographs: Jack Gevertz

Protesters for and against refugees being resettled in York clashed in the city centre on Saturday (November 28).

Fiery exchanges, chanting and minor scuffles broke out as crowds on the two sides gathered outside the Railway Workers Memorial on Station Rise.

In one scene, captured on camera, a woman protesting against refugees says:

See that man there? That’s my husband.

Born and bred in York, worked all his life in York. Do you know where he is now? Getting shipped out of York.

We’re wasting money. Why waste money on refugees?

In a second scene, those arguing in favour of refugees can be heard chanting: “Racist scum, refugees in.”

To which a man against refugees says: “We’re not racists. Why are we racists? Tell us. Why are we racists? We’re not. We’re not racists.”

‘I’m not racist’

In another exchange, a homeless man, who is also protesting against refugees, said he has been living in a shed for the past year, but was sofa-surfing previous to that.

“I’m not racist. I’m not a bigot,” he says. “But what are we supposed to do?”

He asks me if I’m from York. “No,” I reply.

“That’s the problem,” he says. “Most of them [people on the pro-refugee side] are not either. I’ve lived here all my life.”

I tell him I’m a student. “Yeah, and do you know what they’ve [York council] done with Lawrence Street? They’ve turned the homes into student homes.”

He says he is homeless because he is not good at managing his finances.

This isn’t just about refugees, and I’m against bombing Syria. That won’t do anything.

‘Can’t turn our back’

The counter demonstration, calling on York to welcome refugees
The counter demonstration, calling on York to welcome refugees

Those against are part of the Facebook group #York Says No to Refugees, which was set-up in response to the City of York Council’s announcement that it would take in 60 Syrian refugees from refugee camps over the next five years.

The group had about 3,200 members. On Sunday morning (November 29) it appeared to have been taken down.

About 20 from the group were protesting at the York war memorial

Jon Reynolds, 51, from York, posted prior to the demonstration that he wanted to allow the “residents of York” to have their say.

The 60 or more people in favour were from a range of groups including the Socialist Worker Party, Green Party, Labour Party and local University of York Amnesty International Society.

Sophie Jorgensen-Rideout, 19, is a second year bioarchaeology student at the University of York. She says:

We cannot let our country turn its back on those fleeing for their lives, from their homes and communities, facing incredible hardship along the way.

I am hugely encouraged by the large number of pro-refugee protesters, and am also really proud of the University of York Labour Club for its strong presence and show of solidarity.

I hope that York can step up and provide new homes and communities, and help these people in their time of need.

The refugee’s view

The group chanted: ‘Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here’
The group chanted: ‘Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here’

Fasil Demsash, 43, is a refugee who lives in York who was forced to flee his native Ethiopia after taking part in student demonstrations there.

He says he is there to promote dialogue, and doesn’t like the anti-refugee protesters being branded “racist” or “fascist”.

He says: “These people need to be listened to in the first place. They represent quite a good number of people both in York and nationally.

“These people are victims of the failed social and political policies in the country. We can’t deny it.

“Britain has a long history of making profits from refugees, migrants or anyone who want to come to the UK for business or studying. It’s all about benefiting from refugees.”

He adds:

Part of the missing information is that the people who are demonstrating against refugees in York are also brainwashed by professionals, politicians and media in a negative way.

However, we don’t see all of these people at this demonstration.

Therefore, instead of calling names such as racist and fascist, we, supporter of the Refugees Welcome group, need to establish a good approach towards these people and invite them for open discussion and dialogues.

Calling names will not solve the problem.

York is a welcoming place

The candlelit vigil in Exhibition Square
The candlelit vigil in Exhibition Square
A candlelit vigil later held on Exhibition Square outside the York Art Gallery to remember victims of war, terror attacks and drownings saw pro-refugee groups gather once more.

In her speech to the 150 people holding banners and lighting candles, Esme Madill from Refugee Action York, says people were gathering in support of all refugees and to send a message that York is a welcoming place.

Harkirit Boparai, from the York Human Rights City Network, involved in organising, says the vigil was being held to show “unity and respect for York”.

“During these uncertain times, we need to remember that refugees are victims fleeing the very same violence we saw in Paris.”

One man, who was part of the anti-refugee protest earlier in the day, was speaking to police after he was caught attending.