Expletive-laced graffiti was scrawled on the front of a Polish community center in London.
Far-right protesters in Newcastle displayed banners saying, “Stop immigration, begin repatriation.”
Less than a week after a referendum on British membership in the European Union, which galvanized fears about untrammeled immigration into the country, human rights advocates and leading politicians expressed alarm that the vote had given license to xenophobia, unleashing hatred among an economic underclass.
Although the police in at least two major cities said they had not recorded an increase in hate crimes after the vote, there were concerns that anti-immigrant sentiment was now rippling through British society and infecting daily life.
During the referendum, the “Leave” campaign effectively stoked fears of an immigrant influx to garner support, and the baiting of refugees was further fanned by concerns about terrorism, the influential euroskeptic tabloid press and by the far-right, which attributed Britain’s economic problems to immigration.
They also conflated legal immigrants to Britain from Europe with refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, portraying them as storming the country’s shores and threatening the country’s economy and security.
The free movement of workers across the bloc is a cornerstone of membership in the European Union, and proponents of a British exit, or “‘Brexit,” argued forcefully that a vote to leave would help the country regain control of its borders.
One poster, released by the far-right U.K. Independence Party, showed a huge line of migrants snaking into the distance. It was accompanied by two words: “Breaking Point.” So strident was its message that some members of the Leave campaign condemned it.
Although Britain has traditionally marginalized any party to the right of the Conservative Party, UKIP won 13 percent of the vote in 2015 general elections, and its railing against immigrants was seen as a decisive factor in the referendum.
For some, the racist taunts of the past few days recalled a time when jackbooted members of the far-right National Front taunted immigrants on the streets of Britain in the 1980s, during the painful deindustrialization of the Thatcher era.
David Olusoga, a British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster and filmmaker, said on Monday that seeing National Front protesters on Saturday in his hometown, Newcastle, with a banner saying, “Stop immigration, begin repatriation” had sent chills down his spine.
It brought back bad memories of the 1980s, he said, when he and his family were hounded out of their home by members of the far-right group and sought police protection.
“The normally primordial murmur from the racist swamp has now being released, and people feel empowered to say things they wouldn’t have said before last week,” he said. “I have never heard so many people tell me to go back to Africa as I have heard in the past few days.”
Others took to Twitter to convey their shock. Jamie Pohotsky, a screenwriter from Boston, wrote on Twitter: “Table next to me says to Polish waitress ‘How come you’re so cheerful? You’re going home.’ Him and the missus started laughing. Disgusting.”
Politicians across the political spectrum — including Prime Minister David Cameron; Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and high-profile Leave campaigner; and his successor, Sadiq Khan — spoke out against intolerance on Monday.
“Let’s remember these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our country,” Mr. Cameron told Parliament. “And we will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks.”
Suresh Grover, director of The Monitoring Group, a human rights group that monitors racist violence and is an advocate for victims, said he feared Britain was entering a new era of intolerance.
“During the campaign there was a deliberate tactic by the Leave camp to create alarm among elements of the population who have suffered from austerity, and this alarmism is now spilling over,” he said. “The far right can only do well in periods of crisis, and the Brexit vote created a new and dangerous chapter of British history”
Mr. Grover, who immigrated to Britain from Kenya and founded The Monitoring Group in 1981 after he was attacked by skinheads in the 1970s, said his group had received 15 calls on its emergency line over the weekend from immigrants who said they had been attacked verbally.
While shopping in the northern town of Preston at the weekend, he said, he saw several men wearing T-shirts that said “Send them back!”
The Muslim Council of Britain said it had compiled a list of 100 reported hate crimes after the referendum result, including an attack on a teenage boy who was on his way to a mosque in East London on Sunday.
Nevertheless, the West Midlands police, which are responsible for law enforcement in Birmingham, a multicultural city with a large Muslim population, said that reports of 10 hate crimes a day over the past three days were in line with the daily average over the past three months, and the police in London reported no unusual increase in reported hate crimes.
Among those targeted in recent days were members of Britain’s large Polish community, which constitutes the largest number of foreign-born residents in Britain after Indians — 790,000 people, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics.
“London is a melting pot and you don’t expect this kind of thing,” said Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the Polish Social & Cultural Association in Hammersmith, west London, whose building was vandalized with graffiti at the weekend. She was, however, gratified by the response, after being inundated with flowers and messages of support.
Scotland Yard is investigating the vandalism, but no arrests have been made.
In Huntingdon, a town in Cambridgeshire, north of the capital, the police said they were investigating reports from members of the Polish community that offensive leaflets were left on cars near a school as well as on several properties.
An 11-year-old boy from Poland told the BBC he had seen a card saying Poles were “vermin” and should leave Britain.
The Polish Embassy in London called on Polish nationals to report attacks to the police. “We are shocked and deeply concerned by the recent episodes of xenophobic abuse directed against members of the Polish community and other U.K. residents of migrant heritage,” it said in a statement.
Rights groups said that the anti-immigrant backlash appeared to be at least partly fueled by a misconception that European Union citizens were required to leave the country after the vote. Mr. Cameron and Mr. Johnson both emphasized on Monday that “there will be no immediate changes in their circumstances.”
Sayeeda Warsi, a leading member of the House of Lords and a former chairwoman of the Conservative Party who switched to the “Remain” camp during the campaign, had accused leaders of the Leave campaign of peddling xenophobia and racism. Over the weekend she compiled a collage of Twitter messages to show her alarm.
“This is not the post-Brexit Britain we want to see,” she wrote.
Heaven Crawley, a research professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, wrote on Twitter that on Friday evening her daughter had left work in Birmingham and “saw group of lads corner a Muslim girl shouting ‘Get out, we voted leave.’”
She added: “Awful times.”
From the New York Times (June 26th, 2016)