NEWS
11/11/2019 8:49 AM AEDT

No One Ever Told Them To ‘Go Home.’ Then Brexit Happened.

Amid a spike in hate crimes, Brits reveal what it’s like to be told to leave the country.

In 2000, Siri Abrahamson moved to London from Sweden. In 2016, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. In June 2017, while in a grocery store checkout line, Abrahamson spoke to her children, all of whom are bilingual, in Swedish. That’s when she heard a man’s voice behind her. “Speak English,” he said. 

“I was really shocked,” Abrahamson recalls. “In 17 years nothing like that had ever happened to me, but I didn’t want to cause a scene in front of my children. I turned around and asked him politely if he had a problem with me speaking Swedish to my own children.” 

“He said, ‘Yes, I do. If you live in this country, you speak English. Otherwise, go home.’” 

Ever since Brexit, Abrahamson said, something has changed in Britain.  

“I couldn’t believe it; my children are quite young and he said it so casually,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine something like this happening before the referendum. I think it’s made people feel more able to speak in that way.” 

Abrahamson is among dozens who recounted similar experiences to HuffPost UK in recent weeks, after we asked readers to share their stories of being told to “go back” to where they came from. 

The data backs up Abrahamson’s feeling that something has shifted since Brexit: Earlier this month, the Home Office released a report showing that the number of hate crimes reported to police has doubled since 2013. There were spikes after major events too — like the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. 

The number of racially related hate crimes (nearly 79,000 offences) rose 11% in the last year. Over 75% of all hate crimes recorded were related to race. 

Mike Kemp via Getty Images
A scene from a "Brexit Betrayal March" organized by the UK Independence Party in December 2018.

“The vote to leave the EU was driven by hateful campaigns which played on xenophobia and racism, normalizing and emboldening discriminatory othering,” said Rosie Carter, senior policy officer at anti-fascist campaign group Hope Not Hate. 

“Over the last three years, we’ve witnessed already fragile race relations in Britain erode, and our research finds that the majority of BAME Britons see the state of race relations today worse than five years ago.”

Hope Not Hate’s research has shown that half of British citizens from BAME backgrounds have either witnessed or experienced racist comments being made in public, with a third experiencing or witnessing violence. 

“Yet voices of black and ethnic minority Britons have been lacking in debates on Brexit,” she said. “There is a real need to recognize and respond to fears in BAME communities about the impact of Brexit, especially a hard Brexit.”

“These ‘go home’ narratives have no place in Britain, and need to be eradicated from our media and political debate,” Carter said. 

The Brexit referendum created deep divisions between the 52% who voted to leave and the 48% who wanted to stay, a rift that more than three years on remains unhealed. 

But the phrase “go home” had already entered mainstream political discourse: In 2013, the Home Office launched a month-long pilot program to target those who had migrated to the UK illegally. 

The words “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” were printed on vans and driven around six London boroughs, in a deliberate bid to remind residents of the imminent threat of arrest or deportation. 

It was the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that later proved to be a pillar of the Leave campaign, encapsulated perhaps nowhere more pointedly than the appearance of Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage in front of a truck bearing a poster depicting a crowd of what appeared to be queuing migrants. 

“Breaking point,” it read. “The EU has failed us all.” The banner, which some said was reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, was widely condemned and reported to police as a “blatant attempt to incite racial hatred.”  

Jack Taylor via Getty Images
Vans displaying the UK Independence Party's new EU referendum campaign poster near Parliament in June 2016.

Iman Atta OBE, the director of Muslim organisation Tell MAMA which monitors Islamophobic incidents said, “The fact that we have heard from victims since Brexit [being told] that they should ‘go home’ when they are born and brought up in the UK shows that for some, Brexit is associated with race and culture.” 

“Brexit is about leaving the European Union and valuing each other as we try and go it alone,” she added. “But instead, some see it as an opportunity to further divide society and communities with their bigotry and racism. This needs to be consistently challenged.”

Official government figures show that religious hate crimes increased by 3% this past year. Of the 8,566 offenses based on religion, just under half (47%) were targeted against Muslims, while 18% were against Jewish people. 

Brexit may keep being kicked down the road, but racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic abuse has, for many, become very much a grueling presence in their everyday lives.

Nikolai (not his real name), a Polish national who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years, described the discrimination he had faced at work since the 2016 referendum. 

“It was around the time of the referendum result, and two of my colleagues needed grammar advice,” he explained. “In my professional role as the company’s proofreader, I corrected the wording to help. They then turned around to each other saying, ‘It’s come to us asking for English grammar advice from you, and it’s our first language.’”

As well as being subjected to direct comments, Nikolai said he had been alone in a room with the same colleagues as they spoke at length about “Polish people coming to the UK as health tourists,” and described feeling “persecuted, excluded and picked on by bigots.”

“It breaks my heart to be so passively aggressively targeted and have to put up with this,” he said. “I have found microaggressions that you can’t really address on the spot are what get me the most. It is casual, almost by accident ... You can’t raise them with a senior manager, or tweet about them using some catchy hashtag — they don’t stand out.”