Victims - because their faces don't fit Politicians' rhetoric

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The Independent Online

Two men murdered, another two beaten into a coma, and two more recovering from horrific attacks in which they had petrol poured over them and were set alight. This is the reality of racial violence in Britain in 2000, and the blame is being laid squarely at the door of politicians who have waded into the asylum-seeker issue with comments widely seen as inflammatory.

Two men murdered, another two beaten into a coma, and two more recovering from horrific attacks in which they had petrol poured over them and were set alight. This is the reality of racial violence in Britain in 2000, and the blame is being laid squarely at the door of politicians who have waded into the asylum-seeker issue with comments widely seen as inflammatory.

In an atmosphere of mounting intolerance - created, campaigners say, by members of both the Government and the Opposition - those at risk are not just asylum-seekers, but almost anyone who happens not to be white and British. Numbers of attacks are rising fast, and attacks are becoming increasingly vicious.

With a demonstration outside New Scotland Yard yesterday over police handling of the death of Asian student Ricky Reel, the crisis over racial violence threatens to wreck the Government's promise of a new era in race relations made last year after the official report into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

In the new climate of hate, asylum-seekers are seen as legitimate targets, but so too are all the British members of ethnic minorities. The fact that more incidents of racially motivated crime are being reported to the police has an effect on the overall picture, but the randomness and nature of such attacks is instilling ever greater fear among ordinary people and giving authorities serious cause for concern.

The past six months have seen a rash of violence against ethnic minorities - witness the disturbing catalogue, listed right, culminating in the incident last week in which a black 12-year-old was attacked by a gang of white men who broke into his boarding school in Shropshire.

In the run-up to local elections earlier this month, both Labour and the Conservatives were accused of playing the race card, competing to be toughest in demanding the incarceration of people who some newspapers claim are threatening to "swamp" Britain with foreign cultures under the "bogus" veil of asylum.

Last weekend Roma asylum-seekers, who have borne the brunt of tabloid attacks and been the subject of ministerial disgust for their "vile" begging techniques, were the victims of attacks in Stockport, Middlesbrough, Essex and north London. But as Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, observes, the climate of xenophobia also places long-settled communities at risk: "The people that do this kind of thing do not carry out immigration checks before they beat somebody up."

He said British-born Asians had been attacked by racists shouting abuse about asylum-seekers. The Campaign against Racism and Fascism also believes that "there is little doubt that, with the massive upsurge of xenophobia against asylum-seekers, the fallout is affecting anyone perceived to be foreign or different".

Maxie Hayles, veteran campaigner on race equality issues in Birmingham, believes racism is rapidly getting worse: "As far as I'm concerned the city has now become the No 1 place in Britain for racial harassment and attacks."

Mr Hayles, who heads a unit monitoring racial attacks, added: "Since last August the cases have doubled - we now have 240 on our books. Victims don't come forward just to add to the statistics. They come forward because they need help."

Professor Mohammed Anwar, an expert in British race relations based at Warwick University, said the asylum debate had created "a feeling of insecurity and in some cases panic" among all ethnic communities. "In the short term things probably have got worse," he said. "If people keep debating those issues which have implications for race relations, the situation will get even worse still."

According to Home Office statistics, there were more than 11,000 racist incidents in Greater London alone last year, a rise of 89 per cent. Attacks more than doubled in Cheshire, Durham, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, the City of London, Suffolk, Surrey and across the whole of Wales.

There is another side to Britain's race relations. The Home Office points out that the rise in reported racist incidents is believed to be largely down to greater trust in the police by ethnic minorities and improved recording practices by forces who now take such attacks more seriously. The Institute for Social and Economic Research recently found that Britain had an unparalleled number of successful mixed race relationships, and the Commission for Racial Equality, accused in the past of being divisive, says that there is less racial prejudice in Britain than in any other country in Western Europe.

Despite areas of optimism, a CRE spokesman said: "On the question of racial attacks, we are pretty clear that the picture is not getting any better."

Ricky Reel's family and supporters are calling for a fresh investigation into his death in 1997. His body was pulled out of the river at Kingston upon Thames a week after he disappeared. Earlier he and three Asian friends were attacked by two white men shouting abuse.

The police concluded that he had fallen in, but his mother Sukhdev Reel believes he was murdered and that had he been white his killers would now be behind bars.

"The police think people from the ethnic minorities will accept a second-class service," she said "This happened a long time after Stephen Lawrence's murder but it's clear nothing has changed."

It has also emerged that Mrs Reel has received racially abusive e-mails and phone calls. Last week a student appeared before Feltham magistrates charged with sending malicious communications.

Last year, when he accepted the report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, the Home Secretary Jack Straw said: "In terms of race equality, let us make Britain a beacon to the world." But last month, writing in the Independent, black union chief Bill Morris accused the Home Office of giving "life to the racists".

By its attacks on asylum-seekers, in words and policies, ministers were contributing to mood music which "is playing a hostile tune for black Britons", he said.

Mariah Bamieh,of the Society of Black Lawyers, said many of her colleagues were now afraid to drive through the East End of London "let alone walk though the streets". She said: "I find it very sad that attitudes that were displayed when our fathers and grandfathers came to the UK are still being perpetrated today on the asylum-seekers."

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