Cameron condemns 'xenophobic' and 'racist' abuse after Brexit vote
David Cameron has condemned “despicable” xenophobic abuse after the EU referendum as figures suggested a 57% increase in reported incidents.
The country would not stand for hate crime, the prime minister told MPs.
“In the past few days we have seen despicable graffiti daubed on a Polish community centre, we’ve seen verbal abuse hurled against individuals because they are members of ethnic minorities,” Cameron said.
“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.”
Police believe there has been an increase in hate crimes and community tensions since last week’s referendum. Initial figures show an increase of 57% in reported incidents between Thursday and Sunday compared with the same days four weeks earlier, the National Police Chiefs’ Council said – 85 incidents were reported compared with 54 during the earlier period.
“It’s no coincidence this has come off the back of the EU vote,” said a police source.
Senior police chiefs have discussed how to respond amid concerns the continuing heated debate may contribute to heightened tensions.
Cameron’s condemnation came amid a growing chorus of concern over intolerance and hostility. The mayor of London and the UK’s biggest Muslim organisation spoke out against a spike in racist abuse in the aftermath of the referendum.
The Polish embassy in the UK said it was shocked at incidents of xenophobic abuse directed at members of its community in the past few days, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was alarmed by reports of harassment and abuse.
Sadiq Khan, who was elected mayor of London last month, said he had put the capital’s police on alert for racially motivated incidents. “It’s really important we stand guard against any rise in hate crimes or abuse by those who might use last week’s referendum as cover to seek to divide us,” he said.
“I’ve asked our police to be extra vigilant for any rise in cases of hate crime, and I’m calling on all Londoners to pull together and rally behind this great city.”
The Metropolitan police promised to investigate any reports of hate crime and abuse.
The Muslim Council of Britain urged political and civic leaders to heal divisions exposed by last week’s vote.
Shuja Shafi, the MCB’s secretary general, said: “As the results of the referendum became known, I called for our politicians to come together and heal the divisions that have emerged as a result of the campaign. Now we are witnessing the shocking extent of this with reports around the country of hate speech and minorities being targeted.
“We need leadership now more than ever before. Our country is experiencing a political crisis which, I fear, threatens the social peace.”
The umbrella organisation has compiled a dossier of reported racist and Islamophobic incidents since the result of the referendum was announced on Friday morning.
It said it had logged many reports of Muslims and others being taunted with “go back home” and similar sentiments.
Thomas Johnstone, 30, of Luton, was charged with two racially aggravated public order offences after the far-right English Defence League protested outside a mosque in Birmingham at the weekend.
After a spate of alleged xenophobic incidents over the weekend, the Polish embassy issued a statement expressing its shock and deep concern.
Reported incidents included graffiti being sprayed on to the walls of a Polish community centre in west London, and cards reading “no more Polish vermin” posted through letterboxes.
The embassy said: “We are shocked and deeply concerned by the recent incidents of xenophobic abuse directed at the Polish community and other UK residents of migrant heritage. The Polish embassy is in contact with relevant institutions, and local police are investigating the two most widely reported cases, in Hammersmith, London, and Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.
“At the same time we would like to [say thank you] for all the messages of support and solidarity for the Polish community expressed by the British public.”
Racist graffiti was found scrawled across the doors of the Polish Social and Cultural Centre (POSK) in Hammersmith, west London, on Sunday.
By Monday afternoon, the reception desk had been inundated with flowers and cards from locals expressing solidarity and good wishes.
One of the cards read: “Dear Poles, I am so sorry to hear about what happened yesterday. We, the Brits are grateful to you for fighting alongside us in the war and now for the enormous contribution you make to our society. We love you.”
Another started: “Dear Polish friends, we wanted to let you know how very sorry we are to hear about the abusive messages graffitied on to your building. It’s depressing enough that the UK (or part of it) will be leaving the EU. That the result of the referendum seems to have been interpreted by some as a licence to express their racism and xenophobia is truly horrifying.”
Joanna Ciechanowska, the director of POSK’s gallery, who has lived in the UK for 35 years, said she had never encountered racism before.
“All of a sudden a small group of extremists feel empowered. The margins of society feel that they can do it because they think they have the support of half of the nation. It’s sad because living here for so many years and being married to an Englishman I have never actually encountered any racism in this country, and this is the first time it happened straight in my face.
“It’s out of character for this area because I frequently engage with Hammersmith council, our recent exhibition of Polish and Russian art was embraced by them, we attend various things they organise. Whoever did this was an ugly person who saw a window of opportunity.”
Elzbieta Pagór, the centre’s librarian, said: “This centre has been here since the 60s, so why now? The referendum made people just explode.
“Me and my family came here in 1983. My eldest son was born in Poland and my younger one was born here and is married to English girl. He says he knew something like this would happen if we voted to leave the EU. That the reaction would be toxic.”
Sipping a coffee at a nearby cafe, the actor Michael Gambon said: “I just heard about it. It’s horrific and shocking. Totally terrible.”
Police said examination of CCTV had shown a suspect arriving at the centre on a bicycle at 5.22am, before spraying yellow graffiti on the doors. The Met said it was being treated as a hate crime.
In Wales, the first minister, Carwyn Jones, said the effects of an “ugly atmosphere” created by the leave campaign were being felt on the streets.
“Members cited examples of hateful incidents directed against non-British people in their constituencies over the weekend, and equally distressingly, against people from ethnic minorities born here in Wales,” he said.
“It is incumbent on all of us, no matter how we voted last week, to stand up to anybody who thinks they now have licence to abuse people of different races or nationalities. They have no such licence and should anyone suffer from this sort of abuse, they should report it to the police immediately.”
Speaking for the Board of Deputies, Gillian Merron said: “It is important during these times of political uncertainty in our country to ensure that nobody feels vulnerable and threatened. Everyone, including European Union citizens and other minorities resident in the UK, has the right to security and protection from hate speech.
“The Jewish community knows all too well these feelings of vulnerability and will not remain silent in the face of a reported rise in racially motivated harassment.”
Boris Johnson, who spearheaded the leave campaign and is the frontrunner to succeed Cameron, sought on Monday to reassure Europeans living in Britain.
“I’ve seen a lot of confusion over the weekend about the status of people living in this country. It’s absolutely clear that people from other European Union countries who are living here have their rights protected. All that people want to see is a system that’s fair, impartial and humane to all people coming from around the world,” he said.
“And also, obviously people from the UK living abroad, living in the rest of the EU, will also have their rights completely protected. I just worry there’s been a certain amount of confusion in the media over the last 24 hours.”
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, said: “London is a diverse, global city where people from many different backgrounds live and work side by side in safety. That hasn’t changed in the past few days, but if people do have any concerns they should let the police know. We will investigate vigorously any reports of crime motivated by hatred.”