Britain: Racist incidents rise disturbingly after 'Brexit' vote

July 1, 2016
Anti-Polish placard ahead of the June 23 EU referendum.

Since Britain voted by a narrow margin on June 23 to leave the European Union, England has been hit by a significant rise in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment and violence in the country.

John O'Connell, from anti-racism group Far Right Watch, told Al Jazeera on June 29 that his group had documented more than 90 incidents in the past three days, ranging from “verbal abuse up to physical violence”.

Incidents have included racist graffiti, distribution of threatening posters, brutal bashings, violent pickets of mosques and the fire-bombing of a halal butcher's shop in Walsall in the West Midlands.

Local MP Valerie Vaz said: “[S]ince the referendum result we have witnessed a surge of racially-motivated incidents nationally. This increase in hate crime is deeply disturbing.”

Racism and xenophobia were central to the successful Vote Leave campaign, but there has been reluctance by the British establishment to acknowledge this.

Referendum results showed that support for leaving was highest in communities with lower numbers of migrants and historically high support for anti-immigration parties. Moreover, analysis of the results by Lord Ashcroft Polls published on June 24 found that significant majorities of people who identify as Asian, Black and/or Muslim voted Remain.

One in three leave voters gave opposition to immigration as a main reason to leave. “By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave,” Lord Ashcroft Polls said.

During the referendum campaign, the Conservative Party leaders of the official Vote Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, used “dog whistling” — coded phrases understood by the intended audience — to convey their anti-immigrant message. In particular, they stressed the need for British control of Britain's borders.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), was less subtle.

Farage's political career is based on racism and xenophobia. At the 2013 UKIP conference he accused Eastern European immigrants of causing a “crime wave”.

In an interview last year with Channel 4, he described Muslim immigrants as “a fifth column [who want to] kill us”. He said: “There is an especial problem with some of the people who've come here and who are of the Muslim religion who don't want to become part of our culture.

“So there is no previous experience, in our history, of a migrant group that comes to Britain, that fundamentally wants to change who we are and what we are.”

Ahead of the referendum, Farage launched a UKIP billboard that appeared directly modelled on Weimar Republic-era Nazi propaganda. It showed a large column of refugees (photographed walking through Slovenia in October 2015) and the headline “Breaking point”.

Different demographic groups have been targets both of the pro-Brexit propaganda and the post-referendum attacks. This includes the type of immigrant whose numbers have risen as a result of Britain's EU membership — permanent and temporary migrants from other EU countries.

However, research published last August by Oxford University's Migration Observatory indicates that anti-immigration sentiment actually fell at the time that this type of migration increased.

After the referendum, intimidation and violence against migrants from EU countries has particularly targeted Poles and other East Europeans, causing the Polish Embassy in London to express concern.

While right-wing politicians and media have blamed this group for housing shortages, unemployment and living off welfare, these claims are not factually based. “The Chartered Institute of Building points out that any caps on immigration will harm house-building rates, as not enough British-born nationals are either trained or interested in construction careers, and migrants have been filling the gap,” the January 25 Guardian said.

A report released in May by the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance said: “There is also little effect of EU immigration on inequality through reducing the pay and jobs of less skilled UK workers. Changes in wages and joblessness for less educated UK born workers show little correlation with changes in EU immigration.”

Likewise, research released in April by the Oxford Migration Observatory said: “EU migrants are less likely to claim out-of-work benefits, such as Jobseekers' Allowance and incapacity benefit, compared to their UK counterparts.”

The harassment and violence has also targeted those whose presence in Britain is unrelated to EU membership. Members of Britain's Black and South Asian communities have felt the effect. These communities have been established for over half a century and many of those being victimised are third or fourth generation British.

Since the West launched its “War on Terror” in 2001, Islamophobia has become an important part of British racism. This is reflected in Farage's comments and in the targeting of mosques and halal butchers in post-referendum violence.

Muslims who are part of Britain's long-established Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi communities have been targets. But Islamophobia is also central to the vilification of refugees.

Anti-refugee racism is not just pushed by those who campaigned to leave the EU. In June last year, Prime Minister David Cameron, who headed the Remain campaign, referred to refugees as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs”.

On August 9, 2015, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who also campaigned for Remain, said: “So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area, there always will be a threat…

“Europe can't protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”

Following the Australian example, British politicians have increasingly used scaremongering over refugees to deflect anger caused by their neoliberal attacks on living standards at the behest of big business. These deliberately created misconceptions have become intertwined with misconceptions about the EU.

In reality, the number of refugees arriving in, or accepted by Britain is not connected to EU membership. Despite some attempts by other EU governments to impose quotas, Britain has refused to accept more than a negligible number of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. This was one of the concessions Cameron won from the EU in negotiations leading up to the Brexit vote.

The fact that Britain is already turning its back on asylum seekers is shown graphically by the desperate attempts of refugees in Calais to smuggle themselves onto trucks going through the Channel Tunnel. Others have attempted even more desperate methods, such as swimming the channel.

Some make it, others die trying. Most remain in the squalid refugee camp near the tunnel entrance, known as the Jungle.

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