As a community established around a port city, the Liverpool City Region’s entire identity has been built on the meeting and melding of people, personalities, and pioneers.
The River Mersey has been the bedrock of our fortunes for almost a thousand years, and the trade of goods, services and (shamefully) people have all contributed to make the city of Liverpool the vibrant, colourful and exuberant place that it is today.
Perhaps more than any other city, Scousers have an acute sense of identity and the history that has shaped it. We do not shy away from the darker chapters of our past, and instead look to learn the lessons of history to build a better, fairer tomorrow.
In the Liverpool City Region, we proudly remark that we are “the world in one city,” a place that Carl Jung once described as “the pool of life.”
Yet last week, the actions of a small minority in Kirkby, attracted national attention to our area for all the wrong reasons.
A hotel housing more than 100 asylum seekers was the subject of protests that descended into violent clashes with police. Fireworks were thrown and a police van set ablaze. Reports had been circulating on social media that men staying at the hotel had been approaching local schoolgirls – though Merseyside Police and the CPS have released the alleged perpetrators with no action taken.
I am proud of the fact that I grew up in Kirkby. I know that I speak on behalf of the majority when I say that we were disturbed to see such unwarranted violence escalate in our community.
Individuals attempted to take the law into their own hands – setting fire to a police vehicle, whilst risking the safety of key workers and the public and playing on people’s fears to target refugees holed up in temporary accommodation in a nearby hotel.
Many of those refugees, some of them children, have fled their home countries bearing the mental scars of living in a war zone or of persecution. Desperate people arrived on these shores putting their faith in our laws to protect them and their loved ones from danger, only to be met by a few looking to mete out their own justice – acting as judge and jury.
But let’s be clear: while the right to peaceful protest must be protected, nobody has the right to smash up a police van and put lives in danger.
If it wasn’t for the bravery of our police officers preventing those people who wanted to confront the asylum seekers, I dread to think what could have happened. Thankfully the police gained control and the crowd was dispersed.
It is clear that exaggerated claims had resulted in some local residents raising legitimate concerns to the police – yet much of the tension was stirred up by misinformation on social media and far right groups acting in bad faith, playing on people’s basic fears, conflating serious issues with fake news, directing people’s anger towards refugees.
Under the surface, there is a simmering frustration in communities across Britain. Those who have been targeted by 13 years of Conservative cuts feel left behind by those in power in Westminster and Whitehall and are sometimes led into indiscriminate acts.
It is clear that the UK’s asylum system is fundamentally broken. Government contracts are handed out to private companies who take a pile-them-high approach to people who have entrusted their lives to the British state. Often these companies will not even inform local councils, let alone consult them – when in most cases local services are already stretched to the limit.
But it is important to avoid tarring entire groups with the same brush because of the actions of individual incidents like this.
Just as it would be disingenuous to suggest that all refugees are gold medal-winning Olympic champions like Sir Mo Farah – it would be similarly wrong to suggest that all Englishmen are, well Boris Johnson – so it would be unfair to judge the Liverpool City Region on the actions of a small few in Kirkby on Friday.
Yet it is worrying how groups with far right elements have been allowed to infiltrate our communities to whip up hatred and resentment – something which I believe is amplified by the hostile environment being created by the Conservative Party.
The home secretary in particular has to take some accountability for what happened in Kirkby – and she cannot be allowed to abrogate responsibility.
Her comments about people seeking asylum, conscious use of loaded terms like “invasion”, “swamped” and “send them back” only inflames tensions.
The language being used by the Tory government today invokes memories of the toxic rhetoric spread by the National Front when it tried to recruit me – and other white working-class kids – in the 1970s.
Back then, its main priorities were to stop immigration, pull out of the Common Market, restore capital punishment and scrap overseas aid. Sound at all familiar?
But while Suella Braverman is busy daydreaming about a plane full of refugees taking off to Rwanda, my region is busy showing that there is a better way of doing things.
Through devolution, we are helping to give people a second chance in life – regardless of where they’ve come from.
Our Test and Learn initiative has supported hundreds of adult residents to develop the skills and learning they need to equip them for work, training or education. Students who are learning English as a second language are put into real-life situations rather than the classroom – and are seeing much better results.
I feel fortunate to have met Baz, an Afghan refugee who fled his home as a nine-year-old after his father was murdered by the Taliban. After a hellish 15-year journey that saw him travel through the desert, multiple border crossings and spend years in a Turkish refugee camp, in 2017, Baz and his family arrived in south Liverpool.
After passing his driving test with support from our adult learning scheme, Baz worked throughout the pandemic delivering PPE to vulnerable families and has turned his life around. His presence has enriched the community of which he is now a valuable – and valued – member.
Think of it as radical kindness – it is our area showing the rest of the country that by treating people with compassion, as human beings, we can achieve much better results.
This is the real Liverpool City Region: a community with a big heart, and home to some of the most genuine, caring people you could meet.
Today, I believe that the diversity of our residents is one of our area’s greatest strengths. It enhances all our lives and makes our area one of the best places to live, work and raise a family. Despite those trying to divide us, I believe we are building a fairer, more equal future for our residents, where no one is left behind.
It has been a difficult few days for all involved, but our message is clear: the Liverpool City Region is a welcoming place with a big heart.
We are home to one of Europe’s oldest black communities and to the oldest Chinese community in the continent, with the opening of trade routes between Liverpool and Shanghai heralding an influx of Chinese sailors, many of whom put down roots.
By the mid-19th century, the city was the leading emigration port in Europe with around 160,000 passengers sailing to North America, welcoming travellers from Scandinavia, Russia and Poland, while many others set sail for the Gold Rush in Australia.
And famously, the area saw an enormous influx of Irish immigrants during the Great Famine, as many fled for their lives and livelihoods.
In short, our area has acted as a sanctuary to those in search of a better life for centuries.
Whether people are escaping war, famine, and persecution, or are looking for a new life for their families, they have been welcomed with open arms as one of our own.
If the Liverpool City Region stands for anything, it is a fresh start.
To this day, putting an arm around someone in their moment of need is something that comes naturally to people in our region. It is in our very nature and, I believe, is one of our greatest traits.
After all, the true measure of any decent society should be how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. In the Liverpool City Region, we are famed for our kindness and generosity.
In the next few months, we will be showcasing ourselves to the world, with the Grand National at Aintree, the Open Golf Championship on the Wirral and, of course, the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool. It is here that you will see the real spirit of our people in full technicolour.
Come along and experience it for yourself. The Liverpool City Region is open, and still the world in one city (region!)
Steve Rotheram has served as the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region since 2017.