In the years leading up to Britain’s EU referendum, the words, "I feel like a foreigner in my own country," became a familiar refrain in anti-immigrant rhetoric. People who felt their communities were rapidly changing as a result of new arrivals used the expression to describe the effect of immigrants who spoke different languages, ate different foods, worshipped different gods and seemed to threaten a particular way of life.
Now, after the surprise victory of the Brexit campaign, a whole new wave of British citizens and residents suddenly feel like foreigners in the country they know as home.
Between sunset on Thursday 23rd June and sunrise the next day, half my country had decided I should no longer be a European citizen. Democracy had spoken and I, along with millions across the country, began to watch the beginnings of Brexit. Sadly, it was not a pretty sight, especially as an ethnic minority. My day was bookended with stories of racist aggression.
Before I arrived at work on Friday, a friend shared a Facebook post from a young Asian woman describing how she had been stopped and told, ‘You’ll be next, you know.’ Later, another passerby informed her, ‘You can go home now.’ Born in Britain, she had no idea what they meant except, ‘You’re not really from here.’
And just before I left work, I got a phone call to say my best friend, an Asian man in his 20s, had been punched in the face as he walked through central London in broad daylight.
Both incidents left me anxious about stepping out onto the streets in a country I — and many other British citizens — no longer recognised.
Over the weekend, stories spread of racist abuse all over Britain. The hashtag #PostRefRacism has been used to document these incidents. Scroll through this Facebook album and you’ll see stories of children being taunted at school with the words ‘Bye, bye, you’re going home.’ Cards reading ‘No more Polish vermin’ were passed through letterboxes in Cambridgeshire. This threatening sign held up by extremists in Newcastle sent shivers down spines across the country.
My home town of Newcastle. This afternoon. I feel like I am back in the 1980s. pic.twitter.com/8THD1xsn1N— David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga) June 25, 2016
How has this happened? Despite the seismic shift that has just occurred on the British political stage, a country does not simply change overnight.
It is unfair to tarnish most Leave voters as racists — the very nature of a referendum forces people into unlikely camps as they are faced with a stark choice. People who believe in the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty were forced onto the same side as people whose pure focus was a radical cut in migration. Still it cannot be denied that to generate mass support, the official Leave campaign and Nigel Farage’s sideshow played on public fears of the impact of immigrants on their livelihoods and welfare. When it came to persuading voters, the Leave campaign relied on scapegoating immigrants for a sweeping range of social pressures, from a strained national health service to a lack of employment, and indicated that by leaving the EU, these voters could ‘take back control’ of their borders.
This started long before Brexit, with both Labour and the Conservative parties using anti-immigrant rhetoric in their election campaigns over the last decade. But the referendum finally gave continued expression to this hostility on mainstream platforms, intensifying and legitimising a generalised fear of outsiders. Now, anyone who looks like they’re ‘not from here’ feels like a target because the Brexit victory emboldened voters to believe they had won a fight against immigration. Not only is this is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the referendum — because simply ‘sending them home’ was never an option — it is a tragedy that people no longer feel safe in their own country.
This is not the Britain I know. While multiculturalism and diversity can be a challenge when combined with poverty and a lack of opportunity, immigration has been shown to enrich society — both literally and figuratively. One in three doctors in the NHS gained their medical qualifications abroad before practising in the UK. Statistically, between 2004 and 2011, EU migrants contributed £20billion to the UK economy and spent more in taxes than they received in benefits. And beyond numbers, this powerful speech from MP Chris Bryant highlights the role immigrants and their children have played in making Britain what it is today.
We’re at a difficult crossroads right now — with political parties struggling to come to terms with Britain’s new future. Many communities do genuinely feel that immigration has had a negative impact on their livelihoods, and this needs to be acknowledged and addressed. But so does the xenophobia and racism that has come to overshadow the conversation around migration. Nobody should feel like a foreigner in their own country. Thankfully, political leaders have started to speak out against the racist backlash — including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and current Prime Minister David Cameron - but more still need to speak out. At the grassroots level, across the country anti-racist protesters showed up to defend tolerance and diversity when extremists tried to assert their prejudices. And my friend who was punched in the face? A Polish couple instantly rushed to help. Xenophobia and racism is only half the story. As the country steps in a new direction, it’s vital that our leaders navigate the balance between integration and diversity, to ensure that tolerance and openness win the day.
This is a personal opinion piece and does not reflect the views of Global Citizen.