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Thinking about post-Brexit xenophobia

United Kingdom

Manchester tram attack where teens and young adults hurled racist abuse at passenger Juan Jasso – a US Texas army veteran who has lived in Britain for 18 years. The incident occurred days after the Brexit referendum. by Youtube screenshot

Alastair Levy interviews economist and crime scholar Dr Marianna Koli, about the context giving rise to xenophobia.

In the days following the 24 June Brexit referendum result, there was a 57 per cent rise in the number of hate crimes reported to police in the UK. On Twitter the hashtag #PostRefRacism archives many shocking examples of the abuse suffered by people in public spaces. Xenophobia is nothing new but there is a sense that the vote has legitimized certain behaviors. There has been the firebombing of a halal butcher in Walsall, the defacing of a Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and the Manchester tram tirade to list just three. It is a small minority who carry out these acts but it is a worrying trend nonetheless.

The economist and crime scholar Dr Marianna Koli has lived in the UK for 16 years since moving from Finland and has never personally experienced any form of xenophobia. That was until the Saturday following the referendum, when a man in the street commented on her accent as she was talking with a friend. By her own admission, this was a very mild form of what she describes as ‘standard street harassment’ but it is significant in that it was the first time that it had happened to her.

Koli, who is an academic at New College of the Humanities in London, starts our conversation by drawing a parallel between the post-referendum days and the 2011 England riots. She makes reference to the effect of ‘the peer support element’ which dictates that the greater the number of people that engage in an activity the safer they feel. ‘So we saw that during the riots people who would never dream of stealing anything would go and steal a pair of trainers because everyone else was doing it and they didn’t expect any consequences.’ She believes that it is the same principle that has lead to an increase in hate crimes. ‘The perception here is that 52 per cent of the country doesn’t like immigrants, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s a very small minority that is committing these acts. But these numbers have been plastered all over the country, 52 to 48, that says, “I’m now allowed to do this”.’

RELATED: Stop Brexit-fuelled racism and campaign lies, by Vanessa Baird

Koli’s first thought in response to the result of the vote was that a large section of the population feel disenfranchised and deeply neglected. ‘There is a lot of listening that London should be doing, that the wealthy should be doing, that academics should be doing. Basically everyone who feels that they are heard in society should maybe talk a little less and listen a little more.’

Over the last ten years, net migration to the UK has averaged around 250,000 people per year. To put that into context, in a village of 100 people this would equate to an extra inhabitant every two and a half years. The idea that this person would be a strain on the community is based on the premise that they would not be working or paying any tax. The irony of this misconception is that this person is not only, most likely, a taxpayer, but also very often a key worker at the front line of public service. As Koli says ‘250,000 people sounds like a lot. Well yes, it would be if they all turned up in your town but that’s not what’s happening. At the same time though, we should pay more attention to fast, regional changes in population, and consider redistributing public funding so that services can keep up with population.’

Koli believes that as a society we do not understand economics as well as we could, and that this has made it difficult for people to understand the implications of statistics put out during the campaigns. ‘One figure I remember well is a prediction made a week before the referendum that a British exit would cause a 6 per cent hit to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I realised that to someone who hasn’t worked with GDP figures that’s not going to sound very much. But it’s worse than the 2009 crash. So we as economists have not done a very good job of helping people to understand these numbers. The campaigns have been extraordinarily bad at putting figures into context for people who have no way of knowing what those figures mean.’

Koli goes on to highlight the fact that, since the referendum, the problem of xenophobia has simply extended to a group, Europeans, which have previously been less affected by it. ‘When I become a part of it, it is probably not racism, it’s nationalism. Whether it’s xenophobia, it’s a fear of the other… fear of losing jobs for example. People are worried that they’ll lose their livelihood and that’s a universal worry. Those of us who’ve benefited from globalization are not hearing the people who haven’t.’

In light of the 28 June Manchester tram incident, in which teenagers verbally hurled racist abuse at a passenger, Koli states the importance of individual action that we can all take to confront these acts of aggression. ‘It’s really important for people at this point to stand up to it whenever it happens. I would very much hope that we manage to calm down the social tensions that there are. This requires understanding what’s happened in the country and doing something about how those people are feeling and trying to make sure that our society can provide them with opportunities in life.’

RELATED: Five ways to practise anti-racist solidarity in Brexit Britain, by the Wretched of the Earth collective

She goes on to contextualize this in relation to crime research. She states that in testimonials from people who have committed serious crimes the common thread is that they have nothing to lose. ‘Through the economic “scaremongering” as it was called at the time, David Cameron and the rest of the Remain campaign underestimated how little many people had to lose. If you don’t think you have anything to lose then you’re not going to react to people saying that you’re going to lose everything.’

The root causes of hate crime and xenophobia are complex and require a multi-faceted approach if they are to be combated effectively. In the short term we need to stand in solidarity with those affected by these acts, as and when they occur. In the medium to longer term we need to find a way to reduce what Koli refers to as the ‘disconnect’ that has occurred in this country. ‘It’s not just the fault of politicians. We’ve got to work for a better society, because there’s clearly something wrong with the one we’re currently in.’ Intimidation and hate must not be allowed to thrive in this uncertain period of transition and it is the responsibility of all of us to play our part in ensuring that they are resisted and nullified to the greatest extent.

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