Exposed: The dark side of 'liberal' Brighton
Foreign students are being targeted by violent criminals
Mansur Akhmedov and Hassan Suleymanov had only been in Britain for two weeks when the attack happened. The teenage boys, aged 14 and 15, had boarded the number 12 from Brighton to nearby Peacehaven, where they were staying after an evening spent with new friends.
The boys, who were in Brighton studying at one of the city’s numerous language schools, were chatting in their native Uzbek tongue when their conversation attracted the attention of two men behind them.
"Speak English," one shouted. "You are in England now so speak English." The boys changed to broken English, but it did not appease the men – who appeared drunk.
As they got off the bus the men followed them – kicking and punching them as they tried to run away. They made it back to the house where they were lodging, but their attackers followed.
Yelling racist abuse, they forced their way inside the house, attacked the boys again and punched their Spanish friend, Xavier, in the face as he lay in bed.
Such an attack anywhere would be disturbing, but in Brighton – a town which prides itself in being cosmopolitan and liberal – it was all the more surprising.
In the past month 21 foreign students in the town have been attacked in the space of just 23 days. In neighbouring East Sussex, where many of the students who attend English language schools in the town live, there have been seven in the same period.
More historical figures seem to suggest that the problem is a growing one. There are five major English language schools in Brighton (more than 20 if smaller, independent centres are included) which bring about 10,000 students from across western Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to the town each summer.
As the town’s reputation as a centre of excellence for English language schools grew, so did the number of students visiting and so, it appears, did the violence against them. In 2004/05 there were 179 incidents of racially aggravated harrassment in Sussex. By 2007/2008 that number had grown to 401 – an increase of 125 percent.
In the same period racially aggravated public order offences increased from 206 to 436 – 111 per cent. Crimes such as racially aggravated assault, ABH and GBH, also increased as did racially aggravated criminal damage, although not as significantly.
Phil Howson, a Conservative councillor for Peacehaven – where the latest attack took place – says he has noticed an increase in the aggression against foreign students in the area. He said: "I actually have some German students staying with me at the moment and thankfully nothing has happened to them, but I think it is becoming a bit of a problem.
"There are some people who seem to revel in student-bashing, and if the students are foreign then even better. I think the economic downturn is adding to the problem. There may be local people who are out of work and perhaps a bit stretched for money and then they see young, foreign students coming over, perhaps with quite a bit of cash, and they get jealous."
This theory of local disillusionment with foreigners in the area may hold some truth, but it is not so widespread as to have had an effect on the area’s political landscape. At the local elections earlier this year 19 British National Party candidates stood, but none gained a seat.
Meanwhile, both of Brighton’s MPs are Labour members. One of them, David Lepper, says he was shocked to learn of the rising attacks against students when told by The Independent.
He said: "It is not something which has been brought to my attention and that is concerning because, as the chair of Parliament’s all-party group on English language schools, clearly this is an issue that is very important to me and something I’d want to know about.
"I was aware that we had something of a problem a few years ago and it looks like that is re-surfacing. Maybe we need to put more emphasis on our police approach and it is something I will discuss with Sussex Police."
The current police strategy for dealing with attacks or crimes against foreign students is called Operation Columbus. Described as a "partnership between police, language schools, student bodies and local authorities who work together and apply the best practice from lessons learned through years of practical application." It was established in 2002 to deal with the rising number of crimes against foreign students.
This week officers involved in the scheme declined to speak to The Independent directly, preferring instead to release a statement concerning the latest attack on the Uzbek boys and information on other attacks.
That information details 21 students who have been attacked, aged between 14 and 22 years old, who were the victims of crimes including robbery, actual bodily harm, common assault and battery. In some of the most horrific a 14-year-old boy, whose ethnicity was described as "Arabic or north African" was robbed of his cash at knifepoint. In another a Two "Chinese, Japanese or other south Asian" boys were punched in the face by a gang of five men when they refused to give them a cigarette.
It is not clear in these occasions whether racist abuse was used, as was the case in the incident involving Mansur and Hassan.
Those boys were hosted by a middle-aged man and wife who refused to be named. But they did give details of the incident involving their young lodgers. The man said that he had tried to hold the front door closed as the two men, and a young women who had joined them, attempted to force their way inside. He added: "One of them shouted to me: ‘Let us into the house. We need to get those Paki bastards.’
"Once they were inside one of them told my wife: ‘You are harbouring Pakis. We need to get those bastards out."
Police did not release such details, but did provide descriptions of the suspects. The first suspect is described as white, aged between 25 and 30, about 5'10" tall and with a shaved head. The second man is white, also aged between 25 and 30 of medium build, about 6'1" tall. While the woman was said to be aged about 25 of slim build with a shoulder length blonde ponytail.
Inspector Adam Hays of Lewes District Police said: "Such incidents will not be tolerated and will be robustly investigated as racist incidents under the mantle of Operation Columbus."
The boys have since been moved to a different house for their own safety and Xavier, who is 22, has returned to Spain.
But, despite the severity of this attack, the language schools in the area are, understandably due to the damage it could inflict on their businesses, keen to play down the threat posed towards foreign students in Brighton and the surrounding areas.
Jes Camilleri, the general manager of the EC language school, where the boys attend, said: "The incident was obviously shocking and this was not a pleasant experience for the boys, but it is not something we see often. I can’t think of another incident like this that has been brought to my attention and I do not think it is something which should cause alarm."
But the man who looked after Mansur, Hassan and Xavier during their stay in the country, says that further increase in these attacks could threaten Brighton’s reputation as one of the country’s premier destinations for foreign language students.
He said: "Xavier, for example will never be back to Brighton, he thinks it is unsafe. He will also probably tell his friends about the bad time he had and they won’t want to come either. If these attacks continue they could destroy the industry here. It would be disastrous for the economy, the schools and the host families who are paid to look after these boys."
Gary Farmer, the director of the Berlitz language school, said that his school worked with Operation Columbus and also offered students advice on how to avoid being victims of such attacks. He explained: "We tell them not to stray into certain no-go areas, rough areas where we wouldn’t recommend young people going alone at night, the type of areas every city has. We also advise them not to take lots of cash out with them because they become obvious targets.
"But I have worked in the city since 2007 and I don’t think the threat of students is particularly high. I don’t think it is worse this year than any other year."
But the students disagree. A group gathered outside one college for a cigarette break told stories of similar attacks. Ozgur Atilla, a 25-year-old from Turkey said: "English people get drunk and they do crazy things to foreign people. We cannot protect ourselves because if we hit back we might get our visas taken from us. It is not good and it troubles me. My friend was beaten up by four English boys for no reason. I do not like Brighton because of this and I will not be back to Britain."
* Some names have been changed.
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