The mounting evidence makes it impossible to deny: post-referendum Britain has a xenophobia problem.
A new survey finds that 12 per cent of Polish people living in the UK have experienced hostile behaviour following the EU referendum vote. The media is full of reports of people subjected to verbal abuse - or worse - because of their perceived foreignness. By last Friday the national police website for hate crime had recorded 5 times more incidents than the week before. And the leader of the union of head teachers warned that children from European backgrounds are worried they may be forced to leave the UK.
Prime Minister David Cameron has rightly condemned the wave of hate crimes as “despicable” and said they must be stamped out. This should be repeated loudly and clearly, and matched by an effective police and criminal justice system response.
But the government needs to do more than tackling the crimes – it should be countering the xenophobia that has erupted, including the shouts of “go home” at those perceived to be foreigners. Cameron’s government has refused to guarantee that EU citizens resident in the UK will be allowed to stay, saying it is a matter for negotiation with other EU states. Given the climate of xenophobia in the country, the government’s refusal to guarantee that EU citizens currently living in the UK can stay is deeply irresponsible.
It reinforces a message that those from European countries are no longer welcome, or that their many contributions to the country count less than their value as “hostages” or “bargaining chips” in a future trade deal. It also heightens uncertainty for the millions of UK citizens living in other EU countries.
There is widespread support for the right of EU citizens already resident in the UK to stay. Respecting basic rights, including the rights of families to live together, means that many EU citizens, like UK citizens in other EU countries, will eventually be allowed to stay. But putting them and their families through months and years of uncertainty is deeply unfair and will allow xenophobia to fester.
We need a clear signal now from the government that if you are an EU citizen and the UK is your home today, it will remain so, and those who shout “go home” are wrong. And all candidates seeking to lead the Conservative Party (and hence become Prime Minister) should make this same commitment.
Our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our doctors, nurses, builders, scientists and bus drivers - our family and friends - deserve nothing less.