Migrant communities need unconditional and precise guarantees about their future.
Source: The GuardianLet me start with a disclaimer. We still do not know what was the motive behind the attack on a group of Polish men in Harlow over the bank holiday weekend that resulted in the death of 40-year-old Arkadiusz Jóźwik. It could be a hate crime, but not necessarily. But to many of the hundreds who gathered on Saturday to take part in a silent, emotional march through Harlow’s streets, one thing is clear: the problem with post-referendum racism is real. Hours after the march there were reports of another attack on two Polish men in the town which is also being investigated as a hate crime.
I have visited Harlow three times over the past week. Once a New Labour base in Essex, the working-class town is now a Tory seat which had an overwhelming support of 68% for leaving the European Union. At the same time, it sits in the top 30 local authorities in England and Wales with the greatest proportion of Eastern European nationals.
These migrants will openly tell you about the verbal abuse they have faced from some individuals who wrongly feel empowered by the Brexit vote to express their racist and xenophobic views as if they were a legitimate position of the majority. “Even if they mean it as a joke,” as one person told me, “how funny is it if your boss asks you at 2am on the referendum night when is your next bus back home and whether you have your bags packed already?”
“They would ask if your passport was valid, or if you were happy to finally go home, to your people,” another said, adding that after the referendum even a stupid quarrel with a neighbour could easily escalate to abuses and being told to “fuck off” to their country.
Police, they said, would rarely ever treat their reports seriously. Overwhelmed by incidents seen as “more serious” and operating with scarce resources, they would push it down the priority list for as long as possible, leaving the victims of such hatred feeling more unwelcome, vulnerable, and scared.
Even one Polish journalist attending the march on Saturday said he had been verbally abused. As he was speaking Polish with his son, he was called an “invader” by an older woman. “I gave you no permission to come here, you lot,” she stressed.
Maybe she personally did not, but it is worth bearing in mind that migrants have not come here against the will of the British people. To the contrary: it was the British government’s decision to support the enlargement of the EU in 2004 – having previously advocated for it for years – and to open the borders for foreign workers immediately, unlike most other countries who waited to limit the push/pull factors for migration at the time.
Since then Britain has benefited enormously from the presence of EU migrants, as all independent statistics show, including an Office for National Statistics estimation of a £2.5bn net contribution to the budget from EU migrants, every single year. Yet despite the hard data, some people are still not happy with the situation and this is partially why they voted to leave the EU. Let me reassure them: for all the migrants I talked to, Brexit indeed does mean Brexit. We need to clarify what it actually means, but there is no way back, and we all respect that decision.
But it also means that all rights of those who chose Britain as their home must be kept, just as they were legally acquired, and their personal dignity must be respected. Future freedom of movement may or may not be up for negotiation, but those who have already invested their future here are not going anywhere. The reported decision of the Harlow victim’s family to bury the Polish man over here, and not back in Poland because they see Britain as their home now, makes this point powerfully.
Hate incidents once in motion are difficult to stop, and may escalate quickly and seriously. Mixed with local troubles – such as youth gangs, general disenchantment, and the negative consequences of cuts undermining public services – it makes for a potentially lethal cocktail.
It is worth asking yourself one question about the Harlow killing. Even if the men were not picked on by the gang solely because of their nationality, can we forcefully rule out that their “foreignness” has not in any way contributed to the brutality of the assault? If we cannot, it should make us all reflect on how we talk about immigration. The referendum is over, the decision has been made, scaremongering about “bloody immigrants” for political purposes is no longer needed.
The government needs to urgently reassure migrant communities across Britain with unconditional and precise guarantees about their future. Otherwise, people will be making their own visions of what Brexit means – including the minor group of xenophobes, misusing the referendum vote to legitimise their sick views. It is in everyone’s interest to avoid that.