LONDON – An Eastern European family in Rugby finds dog excrement shoved through its mailbox. A Londoner nearly gets into a fight over drunken slurs shouted on a crowded subway car. A Polish teenager in Gloucestershire is taunted with threats of deportation at her high school.
In the wake of last Thursday’s vote to leave the European Union, Britain has seen a surge in xenophobia expressed in taunts, threats and worse. For many, foreign- and native-born, the U.K. has suddenly become much scarier place.
“Before Friday we lived in a tolerant society,” said Oana Gorcea, a 32-year-old Romanian who has lived in Britain since she was a teenager. “I’ve been here 13 years, but I’ve never felt like I had to hide where I came from. But from Friday, things completely changed.”
Gorcea, who works for a multinational company in Rugby, about 135 kilometres northwest of London, said her street was being patrolled by “English commandos who walk around and try to intimidate non-white non-English people.” The talk of the neighbourhood was the dog feces shoved through a local immigrant family’s mailbox.
Gorcea’s story and others like it have been echoing across social media for days. Eastern Europeans, Muslims – even Americans and Germans – have reported acts of intimidation and harassment. Victims describe an emboldened angry fringe emerging to crow over Thursday’s vote; a T-shirt sported by a man at an Armed Forces Day parade in the working class London borough of Havering over the weekend seemed to sum up the new attitude:
“YES! WE WON! NOW SEND THEM BACK.”
British reporters across the country have seen the resurgence of racism up close and personal. Adam Boulton, a presenter for Britain’s Sky News, posted a message to Twitter saying he and his family had witnessed three separate incidents of when-are-you-going-home?-style abuse aimed at Europeans over the weekend. Channel Four’s Ciaran Jenkins said that within a five-minute span in the northern England town of Barnsley, three people had shouted “Send them home!” BBC reporter Sima Kotecha said that she was in “utter shock” after having returned home to the southern England town of Basingstoke and been abused with a racial slur she hadn’t heard “since the 80s.”
Police are investigating vandalism at a Polish cultural centre in west London and incidents in Cambridgeshire in which cards were given to Polish residents calling them “vermin” and ordering them to leave the country. The National Police Chiefs’ Council said there had been a 57 per cent rise in hate crime complaints in the past four days compared to the same period last month.
Britain’s sizeable Muslim community has also found itself caught up in the anti-immigrant backlash. Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that “hundreds of hate crimes” had been reported across the country.
“The type of language that has been used, like ‘go back to your own country,’ ‘we voted this way, now you have to get out,’ that type of language indicates there is some sort of link” to the referendum, he said.
Those who championed the campaign to pull Britain from the EU have condemned the attacks.
“I’ve never, ever, ever encouraged or condoned behaviour like that, and I never, ever would,” said United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, before adding that “the real prejudice is the prejudice that’s been there for a decade or more against anybody that dares stand up against the establishment, anybody that dares to say that we shouldn’t be part of the EU.”
Other politicians didn’t buy it.
“The leaders of the Brexit campaign have engendered an atmosphere where some people believe it is open season now for racism and xenophobia,” said lawmaker Harriet Harman, a former leader of the opposition Labour Party.
For the victims, the link between the referendum and the abuse is clear. Immigration was a key issue in the campaign, with Farage posing in front of a massive, truck-drawn poster carrying a photograph of hundreds of swarthy migrants under the words “Breaking Point.” Many “leave” voters cited the influx of foreigners as a top concern.
“Just because of one referendum … it’s coming out like woodworms,” said Julie Sauter Daoud, a French-German national who has lived in Britain most of her life. On Sunday she got a firsthand encounter with xenophobia when two men overtook her car shouting, “Go home, you (expletive) German.”
She said the attack, which happened while she was driving down a residential street in the northern English city of Sheffield, left her so shaken she was even scared to speak French to her youngest child at the supermarket.
“It’s terribly sickening,” she said in a telephone interview. “The first time ever in my life. Ever.” She paused for a second. “Probably not the last time now.”
The 44-year-old’s story is one of hundreds filling a Facebook group called “Worrying Signs,” which is gathering evidence of the recent surge in intolerance. By late Monday the site was jammed with stories and photographs of sinister graffiti and even broken windows. Polish-British national Natalia Nicholls wrote on the site that her 14-year-old sister was taunted by boys at her high school in the Cotswolds region of England who boasted that “now we can get rid of the Polish and the blacks.” Corinne Abrahams, 24, said she was returning from a music festival when she nearly got into a fight with an inebriated man yelling anti-foreigner epithets on the London subway. An American woman said she was recently accosted by people calling her a “Yankee (expletive)” in a parking lot.
The wave of rage has unsettled the country’s political class, already in disarray following the Brexit vote. Prime Minister David Cameron, in his first appearance before lawmakers since the vote to reassure Europeans and other ethnic minorities living in Britain that they would be protected.
“Let’s remember these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our country,” he said. “We will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks. They must be stamped out.”