Farage builds on immigration fears in Brexit battle
With the theme tune to World War II classic "The Great Escape" blaring from his open-top bus, UKIP leader Nigel Farage rode into multi-ethnic Birmingham on Tuesday promising to deliver freedom from the EU.
"Vote Brexit, vote to get our country back!" declared the head of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), standing on the top deck of the purple bus, to a crowd of placard-waving supporters and bemused shoppers in Britain's second largest city.
Farage has been relentlessly touring the country on his "battle bus" ahead of Britain's referendum on European Union membership on June 23, urging a "Leave" vote to end uncontrolled migration from other parts of the 28-nation bloc.
In Birmingham, one of Britain's most ethnically diverse cities, he received a warm welcome as he toured the market in the city centre.
"The whole face of Birmingham has changed in the last five years. We have trouble serving people because nobody speaks English," said Lynn Everett, 62, who runs a stall selling football memorabilia.
She voted for Britain to enter the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum, but told AFP: "This isn't what we voted for."
Farage, wearing a tweed suit, was mobbed by supporters shaking his hand and asking for autographs as he pressed his way through stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and clothes.
Butcher Ryan Tuckey, 26, started chanting his support as the UKIP leader approached.
"Here he is, lads! Come on, Nigel!" he roared, dodging animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling.
"He's a fantastic bloke," he said, wiping his hands on his blood-stained white jacket, after having a picture taken with Farage.
Tuckey, too, cited immigration as his biggest concern.
"In the last ten, 12 years, you see the difference in the public. A lot of English people are scared to come out to Birmingham," he said.
Nurul Sarder, 43, a Bangladeshi restaurant manager out shopping, said he also backed a Brexit.
"It is the last time to control immigration in this country, otherwise this country will lose everything," he said.
- 'More problems' -
A rare voice of dissent came from Luke Holland, a 19-year-old student who heckled Farage and accused him of "blaming immigrants" for the economic effects of the banking crisis.
Fruit and vegetable seller Mohammed Afzal, 41, who arrived in Britain from Afghanistan 16 years ago, also said he was backing "Remain" -- mainly because of free trade with the rest of the EU.
"If we go out it's going to be more problems," he said.
Some Brexit supporters are also uncomfortable with Farage's focus on immigration.
Joe Hamblin, 19, was handing out leaflets for "Vote Leave", the official Brexit campaign that is separate from UKIP.
"It's difficult because you can't pick who is on your side," he said.
His main reason for wanting to leave the bloc was the sluggish economic growth in the rest of the EU.
"I don't want to be a citizen of the EU, I want to be a citizen of the world," he said.
- 'Bodies on the beaches' -
Net migration to Britain reached near record levels last year, and Farage makes no apologies for focusing on an issue that polls show is a major voter concern.
"We have no control over who comes, chronic problems in our schools and hospitals, and our youngsters can't get a house. I think we should talk about it, yes," he told AFP.
He cited the rescue at the weekend of undocumented migrants on board an inflatable boat in the English Channel as proof that immigration was out of control.
"Those 18 Albanians must be sent back to France because if they're not we will get a lot more people coming and we'll start seeing dead bodies on the beaches," Farage told reporters.
The "Remain" camp has a slight lead with 53 percent to 47 percent, according to the WhatUKThinks website's poll of polls, which excludes undecideds.
But Farage insisted the momentum was on his side.
As he got back on the bus, he issued a final rallying cry, urging voters: "If you go out and do it, and display the kind of passion that I've seen this morning, we will win this historic referendum!"
© 2016 AFP