When it succeeded, Britain's campaign to leave the European Union shook up a deeply unpopular political order. And its anti-immigration platform appears to resonate with many voters. But a rise in reports of hate crimes may lend merit to fears that the referendum’s outcome could have ugly effects for Britain’s minorities.
Last week, a prayer event planned by the British Bangladesh Cultural Academy (BBCA) in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was cancelled in Southampton, England, after the BBCA discovered that activists from a far-right anti-immigrant group would converge on the city for a rally over the weekend.
“We have decided it would be best if we cancel the huge gathering,” BBCA chairman Shere Sattar told the BBC, “considering the political situation and unrest in the UK after leaving the EU and the rise of racist activity and comments around the other cities."
On Saturday, clashes erupted in Southampton between the anti-immigrant group and anti-fascist demonstrators who staged a counter-protest in support of refugees seeking asylum in Britain, reported the BBC.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said last week that in the week immediately following the Brexit vote, a UK national online hotline had received 331 reports of hate crime incidents, compared to a weekly average of 63 reports.
The NPCC noted that the reports accounted only for those made through one channel, and that the “extensive focus” on the issue had likely encouraged more people than usual to report. “We also cannot determine how many of the reports are linked to the referendum,” it wrote.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University-San Bernardino, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor that “catalytic events” like the vote to leave the European Union are sometimes followed by a significant but temporary spike in hate crimes.
“What I think we’ve seen in England with the Brexit vote is that there have been significant increases [in reports] that can’t adequately explained but for that catalytic event,” he says. But he cautions against attributing the spike to the referendum alone. "These events oftentimes are tied to more longstanding conflicts, anxieties, and fears that can be exploited, like a gusty wind can spread a wildfire on a dry summer day."
Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling in Britain may have inspired an increase in incidents dating back to before the Brexit campaign. One watchdog's report, based on data from 15 police departments, found a 326-percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2015, though the Brexit campaign officially began in April 2016.
Most of the post-Brexit complaints catalogued by the NPCC appear to stem from verbal altercations rather than physical violence. Several laws in the United Kingdom allow for the prosecution of hate speech, including one 1986 law that prohibits “threatening, abusive or insulting” written materials intended to “stir up racial hatred”.
In the aftermath of the referendum, the NPCC said, “migrants are reporting verbal abuse, negative social media commentary including xenophobic language, anti-migrant leafleting and, in very limited numbers, physical assaults.”
“When a nation feels like its policies aren’t serving them, it’s valid that they hold a vote," says Professor Levin. "The problem is that the vote also became about immigration and the loss of some kind of national character which sometimes hit the third rail of bigotry.”