In the wake of last week’s Brexit vote, there’s been a sharp increase in hate crimes targeting European nationals in the UK. Experts warn of deep divisions opened up by the vote, as Samira Shackle reports from London.
On Sunday morning, staff at the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in Hammersmith, west London, woke up to an unpleasant surprise: racist graffiti daubed over the entrance of the building. This was not an isolated incident. In Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, cards saying “Leave the EU” and “No more Polish vermin” were found outside St Peter’s School. An 11-year-old Polish child told reporters that the leaflets had made him feel “really sad.” Similar leaflets were put through people’s doors in the area.
“As an eastern European, I feel worried,” says Ana Petrov, a Bulgarian national who has lived in southern England for three years. “I have built my home here but now I wonder if I speak in Bulgarian on the phone in public, will someone shout at me that I should leave? Or worse?”
According to initial police figures, there has been a sharp spike in hate crimes since last week’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU: an increase of 57 percent in reported incidents between Thursday and Sunday, compared with the same days four weeks earlier. In addition to the incidents reported to police, accounts of verbal abuse have proliferated on social media. “I suddenly feel a lot further away from home,” German national Karoline Weber, who works in London, told DW.
While much of the aggression has been targeted at EU nationals, non-white Britons have also been affected. BBC journalist Sima Kotecha was called a “Paki” while reporting on the responses to the Brexit vote in her home town of Basingstoke. Channel 4 News correspondent Ciaran Jenkins heard three people shout “send them home” in the space of five minutes as he reported on the referendum in Barnsley in northern England.
“The attacks are mostly on eastern European migrants – but not all,” says Liz Fekete, director of the Institute for Race Relations. “What we’re observing is Muslim women are a prime target and a lot of children as well. A lot of damage has been done to social and community cohesion. There’s a hell of a lot of work to be done to repair that.”
For many, this is the natural result of a divisive and vitriolic campaign that focused on immigration. In the last weeks of the campaign, UKIP released a poster showing refugees with the caption “Breaking Point”. Billboards around the UK urged motorists to “Halt ze German advance: Vote Leave.”
The divisive rhetoric has continued in some quarters. On Monday, the Sun’s headline was “How the Brex was won: Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English… But Union Jacks now flying high again.”
Analysts point out that the Brexit debate has amplified xenophobia and a prevailing anti-immigration climate, rather than creating it.
“It seems clear to me that the referendum campaign has stirred up racism, but it’s also important to recognize that this racism already existed in British society,” says Daniel Trilling, editor of the New Humanist magazine and author of a book on the far right in Britain.
“Likewise, far-right groups have always tried and will continue to parasite off the general mood. They generally do not lead debate. It would be a mistake for people who voted Remain to see racism as simply the fault of ‘the other side.’. While the Leave campaigns focused on a series of racist myths – the effect of Turkey’s proposed EU accession; a flood of refugees from the Middle East – the Remain side also took anti-immigration positions. It was David Cameron’s government that passed the recent immigration bill, and Cameron himself who talked of ‘swarms’ of migrants at Calais,” Trilling told DW.
In Parliament on Monday, Cameron condemned xenophobic incidents, as did Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged a “zero tolerance” approach. But clearly, there is a lot of work to be done to bridge the deep divisions that have opened up in British society.
“Let us be clear: such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong. Whatever direction our country now chooses, a path towards intolerance and division is not in anyone’s interest,” says Nick Lowles, director of the anti-racism organization Hope Not Hate. “Now is the time for all of us to redouble our efforts to focus on that which unites, rather than divides; to think carefully about the society we wish to shape; and to realize that, no matter what happened last Thursday, we all need to live together,” he told DW.
In the wake of the the brutal murder of left-wing MP Jo Cox in the run-up to the referendum by a far-right activist who gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, the question remains of how these deep wounds might be healed.
“Racism has been made respectable by this campaign” says Fekete. “We need an effective police response. The police systems to deal with hate crimes are in place, and they have to be used as much as possible. But also politicians have got to delegitimize this; when they engage in gutter rhetoric it creates a climate that educates for racism. Clearly the politicians involved with the Leave campaign have an extra responsibility to make their position absolutely clear to condemn this.”