On June 23, 2016, the world was forever changed. A referendum deciding the membership status of the United Kingdom in the European Union took place, and despite warnings from senior UK government leaders, economists and even the then British Prime Minister David Cameron, a slight majority of the UK voted to leave the EU.
In addition to the pound’s immediate depreciation to an extent unparalleled in the past three decades, and predictions of a recession partly attributed to an exchange rate that is expected to drop by more than 10 percent, something is surging and it isn’t the British pound. Rather, there has been a 236% increase in hate crimes recorded over June 16 to June 30, relative to the same period in 2015.
Now as the entire world grapples with the consequences of this unprecedented act, the economic repercussions are not the only ones to take note of. Since the referendum, which will likely not come into effect until 2018, reports have circled indicating a huge rise in the number of incidents of prejudice-based abuse and hate crimes. As of now, these attacks seem to be motivated on xenophobia above all other forms of intolerance.
While the link between Brexit and xenophobia may appear tangential to the economic motives behind the vote, the reality is quite contrary. Rhetoric on ‘reclaimed sovereignty’ and ‘protected borders’ plagued the Brexit campaign, which played on the economic insecurities of millions. Britain’s immigration surge coupled with a history of anti-immigrant sentiments together motivated a large enough bloc to vote to severe ties with their nation’s most important trading partner. Effectively, politics of fear and alienation have normalized the expression of prejudice and bigotry against ethnic minorities in the UK.
Xenophobic remarks at UK residents to “go back to [their] country,” coupled with other “Worrying Signs” are only a few of many examples of post-Brexit intolerance. UK conservative Party chairwoman Baroness Warsi in fact explained the prevalence of prejudice on the streets: “I’ve spent most of the weekend talking to organisations, individuals and activists who work in the area of race hate crime, who monitor hate crime, and they have shown some really disturbing early results from people being stopped in the street and saying look, we voted Leave, it’s time for you to leave.”
Today in the UK, immigrants and expatriates alike are facing violent aggressions and discrimination paralleled to that observed in South Africa, especially since a major outbreak in 2008 that resulted in 62 deaths and the displacement of a hundred thousand people. Now, as hate crimes come to the forefront of public discourse on xenophobia in the UK, the HCWG continues its efforts to support the creation and implementation of sound hate crimes legislation domestically. In South Africa, the prejudice that has reached the forefront of media in the UK has long been a standing reality.
In addition to the aforementioned outbreak, there has been a troubling pattern of continuously rising rates of violence against members of the LBGTQI+ community, and particularly black female lesbians who are most often the victims of “corrective rape.”
Within the South African context, and also that of the UK and other nations where citizens project (namely economic) insecurities on to outsiders, it seems as though only a cultural revolution will remedy xenophobic sentiments. Still, everyday citizens who value peace and understanding over hatred and ignorance can unite as activists to advocate, demand and protect the values of human dignity enshrined in international treaties and Constitutions worldwide.
Likewise, governmental and non-governmental institutions must redefine and challenge the application of the law to ensure the enforcement of a proper deterrent to xenophobic acts. Beyond rhetoric of love for one another, concerned citizens and civil society alike can join forces to affect policy.
Soon, a hate crimes bill will be debated in Parliament. Public actors should be sure to follow these developments and give advice and insights when called upon to do so. Furthermore, the National Action Plan to combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is currently in a period of public consultation till August 31st. Students, victims of intolerance, professionals, workers and more can all play a part in influencing the creation of a comprehensive public policy that will protect the rights of all by simply reading the proposed draft and making comments. Regardless of background, through commenting on drafts all the way to getting involved with grassroots movements, anyone can and must play a part in combating xenophobia. It is a civic obligation those with the privilege to act must vigorously honor.