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Fighting racism and xenophobia post-Brexit

6 July 2016

Kirsten Forkert from UCU's Black Members' Standing Committee looks at the implications of the BREXIT vote for BME members.

The vote to leave the European Union will have far-reaching consequences for post-16 education. At  moment it is unclear what many of these will be as a new deal with the EU is negotiated. Higher Education is an internationalised workplace; according to Universities UK, more than 15% of staff in UK universities are citizens of EU countries; EU students make up 5% of the student population. Currently, universities also benefit from freedom of movement rules as 200,000 students and 2,000 staff have participated in the Erasmus scheme. 16% of UK research income is from EU sources. Despite immediate assurances, all this is now at risk in the future, particularly if the government chooses to opt out of free movement and access to the single market. Concerns are already being raised about European universities being reluctant to collaborate with UK institutions on research projects due to uncertainty around funding arrangements.

Uncertainties facing EU staff and students

The vote to leave the EU means the futures of EU staff and students in post-16 education in the UK have now become uncertain. Despite assurances by the Leave campaign that EU citizens in the UK will be offered indefinite leave to remain, it is unclear what will happen to them if the government puts into place immigration restrictions, such as an Australian-style points system. The Migration Observatory found that if the current criteria for work visas for non-EU citizens were applied to EU citizens working in the UK, 81% would not meet minimum income threshold. There are also questions about whether EU staff would feel comfortable continuing to work in the UK within a climate of xenophobic backlash and inward-looking nationalism. There have been recent accounts of EU academics at UK universities facing online abuse and being told to leave the country, or generally being made to feel unwelcome.

In the face of this, it's urgent that UCU branches seek assurances from university managements to commit to defending the rights of EU staff and students in the UK and to seek assurances from government that EU citizens will continue to be able to work and study in the UK in the future without penalty or discrimination. UCU branches also have a key role in fostering solidarity between people of different backgrounds and nationalities, and in resisting xenophobia. The direct involvement in local campaigns of those directly affected by the outcome of the vote will also be crucial. UCU branches also need to feed information into Head Office about how their institution is being affected, in order to create a national picture.

Racist attacks

More disturbingly, there have been accounts of racist attacks against Black people and/or anyone perceived as 'foreign' since the announcement of the referendum results. There has been a 57% increase in hate crimes reported to the police in the four days following the results announcement, including racist graffiti on a Polish cultural centre in London and the bombing of a halal butcher shop in Walsall, in the West Midlands. An American university lecturer on a tram in Manchester was told to 'get back to Africa'. There have been accounts of children being taunted in schools and discrimination at work. A review of the national picture by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows that the actual incidence of hate crimes could be much higher, as many incidents are not reported or prosecuted:

'On social media people are describing incidents of hostility and racial abuse across the country where perpetrators taunt passers-by on buses, on the streets, in workplaces, or from the safety of their vehicles, with comments like 'get packing', 'white power', 'time for you to leave' or 'get out, we voted Leave'.'

While people voted either way for many different reasons, the outcome is being interpreted by a minority of people as an opportunity to license racism in public. According to the IRR, the victims of these crimes are most likely to be citizens of Eastern European countries, and members of Black communities.  The IRR notes that 'history teaches us that if such open hostility goes unchecked, it can quickly morph into something much worse'.

Responding to racist attacks

This video from the Guardian newspaper website and Stop Hate gives advice on how to respond to hate crimes:

Racial abuse can be reported to the police at Report It website. You can also call Stop Hate's free confidential hotline at 0800 138 1625. The #PostRefRacism Twitter hashtag and Post Ref Racism Facebook page are being used to catalogue incidents. iStreetWatch is also mapping reports of racial abuse in public, to get a sense of where incidents are occurring and their correlation with inflammatory political speeches.

Changing the conversation

As those of us who have experienced discrimination know full well, these sorts of incidents have been taking place long before the referendum campaign, and as commentators have noted, this rhetoric has been with us for a long time, and politicians and the media have to bear responsibility for stoking fear and division to win votes and sell newspapers at the expense of normalising the idea immigration is fundamentally bad for society, pitting immigrants against working class people (who are, within this context, imagined to be exclusively white and British, ignoring the diversity of contemporary British society). While Leave.EU's grotesque 'breaking point' billboard made this  explicit, it is important to remember that not so long ago, David Cameron linked London mayor Sadiq Khan to an Islamic State supporter and called refugees a 'swarm'. This is why it is urgent for us both as trade unionists and educators to ask some hard questions about the normalisation of racism and xenophobia within public debate and everyday life, how we can challenge the scapegoating of migrants for social grievances, and how we can build solidarity.

Last updated: 13 March 2019