When Shahesta Shaitly asked a cabbie in the Midlands at the weekend: “Why did you vote leave?” she was told: “To get you lot out of here.”
Her case is unfortunately not unique. It is one of more than 100 reports of racist incidents since the EU referendum that I have collated for the Muslim Council of Britain. The result seems to have unleashed a Pandora’s box of bigotry and Islamophobia – one that will require strong collective action to close.
While before the perpetrators were usually keyboard warriors, waging their xenophobic battle online, now more and more reports are emerging of real-life physical and verbal confrontations. Consider the Muslim schoolgirl cornered by a group of people who told her: “Get out, we voted leave,” or the eastern Europeans allegedly stopped from using the London Underground with shouts of “Go back to your own country.”
In Hammersmith, racist graffiti was daubed on a Polish cultural centre; in Birmingham, angry demonstrators shouted slogans outside a mosque; and most worryingly in Newcastle, a placard was placed urging the country to “start repatriation”. Unfortunately, these episodes are only the tip of this hateful iceberg.
To claim these reports are solely due to last week’s referendum would be overly simplistic. Concerns about immigration, and in particular Muslim immigrants, have been simmering beneath the surface for some time. According to the British Social Attitudes, almost 50% of the population believe immigration has a negative impact on the British economy. Similar sentiments may also be found even within some established migrant communities, with individuals fearful that fresh waves of migrants will take their jobs or their children’s school places, as was voiced during the referendum campaign. This is despite the reality, that immigration is hugely beneficial for our nation.
The EU referendum result has perhaps emboldened racists by leading them to believe that the majority agree with their views on immigration and legitimising such public expressions of hatred. For this, the political elite must take responsibility, after stoking a divisive referendum campaign that demonised immigrants by spreading fictitious scare stories, all the while pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Despite Boris Johnson once saying he was pro-immigration, his campaign focused its message on immigration, creating unrealistic and unachievable expectations of what migration figures could be. Not only did it falsely claim that Turkey was about to join the EU but it also claimed that Turks were in some way a threat to our national security, highlighting its proximity to Iraq and Syria on a poster. There are no two ways about it: such messages must either be the work of duplicitous demagogues or incompetent and irresponsible migration scaremongers.
Let’s not forget Nigel Farage’s risible anti-migrant “breaking point” poster, which was even reported to the police for allegedly inciting racial hatred. As Sayeeda Warsi told the BBC, “This kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink xenophobic racist campaign may be politically savvy or useful in the short term but it causes long-term damage to communities” – a prediction that is unfortunately being proved correct.
This scaremongering is not new. Last year prime minister David Cameron talked about the “swarm” of migrants in Europe and has failed time and time again to stop the spread of such anti-immigrant feeling. Nor did he support the next stage of the Leveson inquiry, whose recommendations are yet to be implemented on ensuring the press is more responsible in its treatment of minorities. Furthermore, he has failed to take any meaningful action to tackle the alarming rise in Islamophobia.
The free hand of the print and online media to distort facts and blame entire groups of people for the troubles of our country, with almost no recourse, plays an equally important role in this spread of hatred. Let’s be clear – they are complicit in the rise of bigotry and the consequences of discrimination. A collation of front-page scare stories about migrants from the Daily Express makes for grim reading, as does the vile Daily Mail cartoon that compares immigrants to vermin and conflates them with gun-wielding terrorists. When did journalists forget that with freedom of speech comes responsibility?
We are in a precarious position. The leadership vacuum across both main parties risks legitimising the view that the forces of intolerance have won the argument. The far right has never had a better opportunity to rationalise its hate speech. To prevent the continued and unchecked growth of such bigotry, politicians and media organisations must cease fuelling religious, racial and ethnic tensions to further their petty agendas. Silence is no longer an option.