Brexit: Hate crimes could soar once Article 50 is triggered, police and community groups warn

Exclusive: Campaigners fear an 'undercurrent of xenophobia' may boil to the surface once EU talks begin

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The Independent Online

Police forces across the UK are ramping up intelligence gathering and putting protection in place for vulnerable communities ahead of a projected spike in hate crime when Theresa May triggers Article 50 next month.

The move follows a dramatic rise in the number of racially and religiously-motivated crimes reported to police following the June referendum result in favour of Brexit, including assaults and arson.

Community groups representing EU nationals in the UK have warned about the potential for an “undercurrent of xenophobia” to spread after the talks with Brussels get underway. The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, has also said he is “hugely concerned” about a backlash against European citizens once the Government’s EU withdrawal negotiations begin.

In response, the Metropolitan Police, the UK’s largest force, said it was initiating a plan to increase intelligence gathering and reassure potential victims of racism and xenophobia.

A spokeswoman said the force had witnessed a steady increase in hate crimes in recent years and acknowledged that “national and world events”, such as the activation of Article 50, could act as a “trigger”.

“Where we identify a possible trigger event that could result in more hate crime, we instigate a community engagement plan to ensure those in communities who may be victims of hate crime know that we will not tolerate this kind of crime and that we encourage them to report this to the police,” she said.

Polish ambassador calls on government to condemn Brexit-related hate crimes

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for hate crime, said the organisation had been in touch with European embassies based in the UK over the threat of increased violence.

“We know that national and global events have the potential to trigger short-terms rises in hate crime and we saw this following the EU referendum last year,” he told The Independent.

“We have increased the central reporting and monitoring functions to enable us to recognise spikes earlier. This will be used to assess any threats that may arise and inform local police activity.”

Police in Scotland said they had reactivated community impact assessments, which will allow the force to more easily investigate hate crimes as well as offering increased protection for at-risk groups.

West Midlands Police said they were “continually reviewing intelligence and community tension”.

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Members of the Polish community march through Harlow exactly a week after the killing of Arek Jóźwik (Getty)

“Should we detect an emerging threat related to the triggering of Article 50 we would intervene swiftly to mitigate that through our officers, partners and communities,” Chief Superintendent Chris Johnson. “We have a zero tolerance stance on hate crime and recognise the impact it can have on communities.”

A Government Bill giving Theresa May the power to trigger Article 50 cleared the House of Commons last week without any amendments being made, making it likely that the Prime Minister will be able to stick to her timetable of starting the process in early March.

Home Office figures show that hate crimes soared by more than 40 per cent after last year’s Brexit vote. In July 2016, police recorded a 41 per cent increase compared to the same month a year earlier.

Data from 31 police forces showed that 1,546 racially or religiously aggravated offences were recorded in the two weeks up to and including the day of the referendum on 23 June. In the fortnight immediately after the poll, the number climbed to 2,241.

In one incident in Telford, Shropshire last year, a student was stabbed in the neck with a smashed drinks bottle “because he was speaking Polish”.

Polish police were also called in to patrol the streets of Harlow in Essex alongside British officers to reassure the public after 40-year-old Polish national Arek Jóźwik was killed in what was believed to be a hate crime.

Wiktor Moszczynski, of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, said there remained an “anxiety” about a surge in attacks on or around the date Article 50 is invoked, despite the increase in police action.

“If the Brexit negotiations start with a quick settlement of the EU citizens’ rights issue it might reduce the tension,” said Mr Moszczynski. “If it does not, then there could be more unpleasant incidents.

“An undercurrent of xenophobic and unpleasant comments, mostly verbal, has been reported by Polish families.

“Often these arise in situations involving neighbours or work colleagues or classroom bullies, where there is already an atmosphere of conflict, which is then made more acute by racist comments and threats.

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A vigil held in Harlow for Arek Jozwik, a Polish man killed in an attack believed to be a hate crime (PA)

“For the most part these are not reported to the police or to company bosses as Poles prefer to keep their heads low and out of trouble.”

David Isaac, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, warned of the potential for increased violence. “After the rise in reported hate crime after the referendum, it makes sense to be prepared and plan for any potential spike in hate crimes throughout each point in the process,” he told The Independent.

“The triggering of Article 50 is the next major milestone and we must do all we can to ensure people who may feel at risk are supported.”

Such is the scale of the problem that the Government has awarded researchers at Cardiff University a £250,000 grant to help monitor Brexit-related hate crime on social media.

Professor Matthew Williams, lead investigator and co-director of the Social Data Science Lab at the university, said: "Hate crimes have been shown to cluster in time and tend to increase, sometimes significantly, in the aftermath of 'trigger' events.

"The referendum on the UK's future in the European Union has galvanised certain prejudiced opinions held by a minority of people, resulting in a spate of hate crimes.

"Many of these crimes are taking place on social media. Over the coming period of uncertainty relating to the form of the UK's exit, decision makers, particularly those responsible for minimising the risk of social disorder through community reassurance, local policing and online governance, will require near-real-time information on the likelihood of escalation of hateful content spread on social media.”

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Police officers monitor the crowds at the Notting Hill Carnival on 29 August 2011 in London (Getty)

Other forces said they were awaiting instructions from the Home Office on how to address any potential spike in hate crimes once Article 50 is invoked.

But the Government declined to tell The Independent what extra guidance it was giving police forces.

A spokesperson said the deployment of resources was an “operational matter” for local forces, adding: “The Home Secretary has been crystal clear that crime motivated by hostility and prejudice towards any group in society has no place whatsoever in a Britain that works for everyone.

“That is why we have some of the strongest legislation on hate crime in the world.”