'It's not the country I know': British government responds to spike in hate crimes after Brexit

Barney Burnham broke down in tears as he handed a red rose to the receptionist at the Polish Social and Cultural Centre in North London, along with a note he wrote to the community.

“Day-to-day petty attacks, insulting people in the streets that don’t ‘look British’ — it’s not the country I know,” said Burnham, a freelance journalist and long-term London resident. “It’s not a country I want to be a part of.”

Barney Burnham delivered a note to London’s Polish community after graffiti was spray-painted across the doors of its social and cultural centre. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Last Sunday morning, a vandal sprayed the words “F–k you” in bright yellow paint across the centre’s doors. The incident came in the wake of Britain’s stunning decision only days earlier to leave the European Union. Reports of hate crimes increased 57 per cent in the days following the vote compared to the same period last month, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

“We all just felt terrible,” said Annabel Chaplin, who works for a local restaurant and left a platter of sushi for the centre’s staff. “It’s just upsetting. In this day and age, you just think we should all get along now. Why are things like this still happening?”

On Wednesday, politicians and members of the public gathered to fight back. 

Describing the centre as a “beacon for the community,” Tariq Ahmad, the minister for countering extremism, issued a stern warning to those who might seek to commit similar crimes: “We will stand in solidarity, in unity against you, and we will defeat you.”

Polish ambassador Witold Sobkow welcomed this “important gesture of solidarity” by the British government.

‘That is not what we do in Britain’

Prime Minister David Cameron echoed those sentiments, condemning the incidents in the House of Common on Wednesday. “That is not what we do in Britain,” he said. 

He also announced a plan to tackle hate crimes, which will include:

  • Measures to boost reporting of hate incidents;
  • New guidelines for the prosecution of racially aggravated crimes;
  • Increased levels of victim support;
  • A new fund for enhancing security at institutions that may be vulnerable to hate crimes. 

“Whatever we can do, we will do to drive these appalling hate crimes out of our country,” Cameron said.

Noel Simpson

Noel Simpson, a 60-year resident of London’s Hammersmith neighbourhood, voted to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum, convinced the country needs to take back control of its borders. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

The feeling is far from universal. Earlier this week, some local residents snacked on pierogies and borscht in the Lowiczanka restaurant next to the centre. Among them was Noel Simpson, who has lived in the area since immigrating from Ireland 60 years ago.

“Now that the Out vote has come, people are starting to wake up and get the message,” he said. “We’ve got no government now. We’ve got no opposition … we’ve got nothing. Only a load of foreigners.”

Simpson voted Leave in the referendum, largely because of his concerns about immigration. “If you want something to grow fit and strong, it won’t grow unless you keep it trim,” he said. “You have to cut it back somewhat.”

Janusz Guttner

Janusz Guttner voted to remain in Britain’s June 23 European Union referendum and argues Britain’s decision to leave the EU emboldened those who hold anti-immigrant views, in large part because of the negative tone of the campaign. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

A few tables away, Janusz Guttner, a Polish-born Briton, described his reaction when he first learned of the graffiti.

“To me, it was a result of the way the campaign was fought and conducted because it was solely based on immigration, really.”

Irina Robu

Irina Robu, a 20-year-old Romanian working in London as a cleaner, worries what the Brexit vote might mean for her future in Britain. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

“It makes me a bit nervous and a bit scared of what’s going to happen,” said Irina Robu, a 20-year-old Romanian working in London as a cleaner. “I heard that in two years, some people will have to go back to their own countries and I feel nervous about it, because I really like London and I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave.”

Long-simmering tensions

It isn’t just a matter of post-Brexit reactions. A report released on Wednesday by Tell MAMA, a national project that tracks anti-Muslim attacks, found street-based incidents rose by 326 per cent in 2015.

“As a society we are still failing far too many of our citizens,” said the group’s director, Fiyaz Mughal. 

“With the backdrop of the Brexit vote and the spike in racist incidents that seems to be emerging, the government should be under no illusions, things could quickly become extremely unpleasant for Britain’s minorities.”

London Polish Social and Cultural Centre support

London’s Polish Social and Cultural Centre has received hundreds of messages of support since the centre was vandalized on Sunday. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Elsewhere in Britain, Cambridgeshire police continue to investigate after laminated cards bearing the message “Leave the EU — No more Polish vermin” were found outside a school on June 24, the day the referendum results were announced. Police also confirmed some of the community’s Polish residents received the same cards by mail.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain has compiled a list of more than 100 racially motivated incidents that have taken place in the last week. These incidents, which have taken place both online and in person, have targeted a broad range of migrant communities. In response, many victims and witnesses have shared their experiences on Twitter, using the hashtag #PostRefRacism.

Back at the Polish community centre, demonstrations of support continue to pour in. It has been inundated by messages from across the country, with local residents leaving gifts to express their shock, sorrow and solidarity.

Miqdaad Versi

Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, says that while the Brexit referendum has emboldened those who hold anti-immigrant views, xenophobia has long been a problem in Britain. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

“The worry is that this has opened a Pandora’s box of bigotry and Islamophobia,” says Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council.

Still, he remains optimistic these trends can be checked. “We are hopeful that, actually, when communities come together, when society works together, when there is strong leadership, change can happen.”

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