This weekend a silent march and vigil was held in the town of Harlow, Essex to commemorate Arkadiusz Jozwik. The 40-year-old Polish man, who had lived in the UK for four years, was attacked with a friend a week earlier in the town and died of head injuries. Police are investigating the attack as a hate crime.
The killing follows a spate of hate crimes since the UK referendum to leave the European Union, including several arson attacks, excrement shoved through letter boxes, physical assaults, and most commonly, verbal abuse. One arson attack on a Polish family’s shed was accompanied by a note reading: “next be your family.”
Police hate crime figures for 2016 suggest a rise in incidents following the Brexit result. While this may partly reflect better reporting or recording of these incidents, could it also be related to Brexit?
The United Nations certainly thinks so. In a critical report on the UK published last week, the UN Committee on Eliminating Racial Discrimination said that the Brexit referendum campaign was marked by “divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric”, and that some politicians had “created and entrenched prejudices, thereby emboldening individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate.” The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner has expressed similar concerns.
As well as calling for better reporting of, and effective punishment for, hate crimes, the UN committee recommended that public officials act to reject and condemn “racist hate speech and xenophobic political discourse”.
Senior politicians and police officers do seem to be taking hate crimes seriously. In July, the government published a new national action plan to tackle hate crimes, including xenophobic attacks, and police leaders have warned post-Brexit that hate crimes will not to tolerated.
But the scale of the problem requires a concerted response. Even though reported hate crimes are up, the number of hate crime cases referred to prosecutors is down on the same period last year, which means fewer reported incidents ending up in court. Politicians have also yet to seriously reflect on how their own rhetoric, including during the Brexit campaign, can drive intolerance.
And despite widespread public support for such a move, the government still refuses to guarantee the future of EU nationals already resident in the UK. This risks emboldening those who mistakenly believe the referendum result was a vote to get rid of immigrants, and also creates great uncertainty for children and families with EU passports living here.
What is needed is a clear commitment from British politicians that hate and xenophobia have no place in our country. That should be coupled with a clear signal 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.