Since the Brexit referendum, the UK has witnessed an explosion in racism and hate crimes. In the second half of June, when the vote took place, some 3,219 hate crimes and incidents were reported to the British police forces. This represented a 37 percent increase compared to the same period last year. But it wasn’t the vote itself that generated the hostility—it was the environment of intolerance that’s been cultivated by UK politicians for years.
Thirty years ago, when I first arrived in the UK, Margaret Thatcher was already disparaging migrants. Ever since then, in election after election, we have seen politicians use migrants as a scapegoat for the shortcomings of their own failed policies. They accuse us of refusing to learn English and tell voters that migrants don’t want to work—or, paradoxically, that we are taking all of the jobs.
The situation reached a fever pitch with the Brexit vote, during which the British people were told repeatedly that by leaving the EU they would get back their country, as if they had lost it in the first place.
Migration has long been presented as out of control and a threat to the British way of life. This has led to a string of restrictive migration policies—for instance, the introduction of the net migration cap in 2011, which gave credence to the notion that there are too many migrants in the country. The “Go Home” van campaign, in which roving vehicles displayed advertisements warning migrants to return to their home countries or face the consequences, took the hostility to a new level. These relentless efforts to establish migration as a problem in the public consciousness had already fostered an antimigrant environment by the time the referendum rolled around.
During the referendum campaign, the Leave side used the immigration issue as a wedge, while the Remain side failed to prevent it from being exploited. Ranging from the distasteful Breaking Point posters to the focus on access to benefits as a key concession to get from the EU for the UK to stay in, migrants were once again presented as a burden or a threat. Even though it has been proven that migration brings a net fiscal benefit to societies, no side of the campaign voiced that argument.
The referendum campaigns gave the public license to express racist and xenophobic views, and the media provided a unique opportunity for those views to be heard and amplified. I remember watching a woman in Harlow saying on national TV, “We are British. We don’t want all the other people. We only just want us.” Racism on daytime television had become completely normalized.
In community meetings we organized before and after the referendum, migrants expressed concerns about the uncertainty of their future status in the UK. Would they be asked to leave? Would they have to close down their businesses and take their children out of school? Not having the right to vote in a referendum about their own future made them feel powerless while the debate about them rolled on, and the outcome made them feel genuinely sad. Europe means a lot to migrants. Most migrants feel European, and freedom of movement is sacred to them. Shortly after the vote, then Home Secretary Theresa May added to the sense of uncertainty by refusing to guarantee EU migrants’ legal status in the UK.
In all of this negativity, there remain opportunities. Since the referendum, ordinary people have stood up for migrants by the thousands. There is also a renewed focus on reporting the real extent of racism and hate crimes—to this day, most hate crimes go unreported. Some victims don’t know what a hate crime is, or where or how to report it. We know, because we talk with migrant communities, that the attacks are real, and that the fear is real.
Politicians must understand that they have fueled this. They need to stop talking about migrants negatively, and using us to divert attention from policy blunders. It is vital that migrants are part of the discussion about the future of the society they have invested in.