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In post-Brexit Britain, xenophobic attacks are on the rise

July 1, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Immigrants and minorities in post-Brexit Britain are living in fear, reporting an uptick in xenophobic attacks that some are blaming on the immigrant scapegoating of the Leave movement. In Hammersmith, a Polish war memorial and a cultural center were vandalized and anti-Muslim pamphlets are making the rounds in Birmingham, where a Halal butcher was firebombed. Hari Sreenivasan reports from London.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Just days after the British vote to leave the European Union, police in the U.K. announced an increase in hate crime reports against immigrants and minorities.

Anti-Muslim cartoon pamphlets were distributed, and a Muslim butcher was firebombed near the city of Birmingham. On streets and public transport across the country, South Asians and other minorities are reportedly being told to — quote — “go home.”

Polish immigrants are the largest group of E.U. citizens in the U.K. They have also come under attack in recent days.

Hari Sreenivasan was in London, and he filed this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This section of London, known as Hammersmith has always been a hub for Polish immigrants. The Polish deli opened up a few years ago, serving up a slice of home.

Daria Pluszczok’s parents own this business. Xenophobic attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit vote has the 22-year-old anxious, so anxious, she asked us not to show her face.

DARIA PLUSZCZOK, Business Owner: I have loads of customers that are coming in, and telling us they’re a bit afraid now, they’re a bit scared of coming out and speaking Polish on roads and someone maybe attacking them or being rude to them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daria knows the feeling firsthand.

DARIA PLUSZCZOK: I was in a train station and a guy was like, the lift is not working because of you foreigners. Go back to your country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sentiments that are being expressed more post-Brexit vote.

In Huntingdon, an 11-year-old boy found one of several leaflets sent throughout the town, saying, “Polish vermin, go home.”

In Portsmouth, this was spray-painted behind a war memorial. In Hammersmith, London, just down the road from the Polish deli, someone vandalized the front of the Polish Social Cultural Association.

We sat down with director Joanna Mludzinska.

JOANNA MLUDZINSKA, Director, Polish Social Cultural Association: They immediately started to scrub this message out, because, obviously, we didn’t want all our visitors coming in all day to be confronted with this message.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What did it say?

JOANNA MLUDZINSKA: I don’t really want to repeat the exact words, but you can imagine. But the basic message was, get out, but fairly graphic. It was the first time we have ever had anything like this. Yes, I suppose you have to draw the conclusion that something — something has been set free with this referendum decision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since the vandalism, there has been an outpouring of support toward the center from well-wishers. Police are investigating. The mayor has asked for vigilance. Even Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned it in his first significant address to the House of Commons since the vote.

DAVID CAMERON, Prime Minister, United Kingdom: We have seen verbal abuse hurled against individuals because they’re members of ethnic minorities. Let’s remember, these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our country. We will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks. They must be stamped out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jakub Krupa works as the Polish Press Agency’s U.K. correspondent. He says part of the reason Poles are being targeted comes down to numbers.

JAKUB KRUPA, Polish Press Agency: You have 850,000 Poles in the U.K., which is a significant group. When you think that three million people are coming from the E.U. living in the U.K., every third migrant from the European Union is Polish.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of the tension springs from the community’s rapid growth.

JAKUB KRUPA: Twelve years ago, before Poland joined the European Union, there were only 50,000 people. You have 800,000 people coming to the U.K. over the last 12 years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Poland and Britain have a long history together, going back to World War II, when Polish airmen aided in the battle for Britain.

Suresh Grover is tracking the most recent battle. He works for The Monitoring Group, a 35-year-old civil rights anti-racism organization.

SURESH GROVER, The Monitoring Group: The Muslim Council, for example, has reported over 200 calls to the government, mosques being picketed by people. We have had reports of people coming out on the streets in Newcastle with T-shirts saying, “Now that we have won, send them back.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Grover says 90 percent of these incidents are never reported to the police. He blames the leave campaign’s immigrant scapegoating for the expressions of nativist anger and immigrant fears.

SURESH GROVER: Racism that used to be meted out because of the color of your skin now transferred, not color-coded, to other people because they’re products of a globalized world coming in and taking their markets.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After the vote, Nigel Farage, who leads the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party, said the strain immigrants put on every system, from the economy to health care to education, is something the remain voters don’t understand.

NIGEL FARAGE, European Parliament Member: They don’t get what open-door mass immigration as a result of E.U. membership has done to people’s wages, to people’s availability of getting G.P. appointments, or their kids into local schools. This was the issue ultimately that won this election.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The spark that lit the racist fire may have been economic, but Grover says the flames can spread, consuming vast parts of British society.

SURESH GROVER: The residue of this nationalism, it’s not just patriotic — it’s nationalism towards the right — lasts for a long time, and the damage is done for a long time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Beginning with a sense of injustice for people like Daria Pluszczok.

You think that Polish citizens are second-class citizens here?

DARIA PLUSZCZOK: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why?

DARIA PLUSZCZOK: I don’t think we’re just being treated equally at all. I don’t know. That’s just my opinion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the PBS NewsHour, Hari Sreenivasan, London.

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