David Cameron and Nigel Farage are among the British politicians and institutions accused of fuelling rising xenophobia in the UK as debate continues to rage over Brexit, the refugee crisis and terrorism.
A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found a “number of areas of concern” over political discourse and hate speech, as well as violent racial and religious attacks.
Police statistics have shown a sharp rise in Islamophobic, antisemitic and xenophobic assaults over the past year, amid growing tensions in Britain and across Europe.
As well as attacks on religious buildings, migrants from Eastern Europe have been targeted since the vote for Brexit, including a student stabbed in the neck for speaking Polish in Telford and killing of a Polish man in Harlow.
“It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians,” said ECRI chair Christian Ahlund.
“The Brexit referendum seems to have led to a further rise in ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment, making it even more important that the British authorities take the steps outlined in our report as a matter of priority.”
Government figures have recorded a sharp increase in hate crime but the true scale of the problem may be far higher than recorded, with the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimating that of 106,000 hate-motivated crimes every year, only a quarter are recorded as such by police.
In a report spanning the period from 2009 and March this year, the ECRI noted positive steps with the enforcement of the Equality Act 2010 and legislation against racism and racial discrimination in the UK, as well as the government’s new hate crime action plan.
But the commission noted “considerable intolerant political discourse in the UK” particularly focusing on immigration, discrimination against Roma, gypsies and travellers, and a spike in online abuse and violent racist incidents.
It singled out statements made by Mr Cameron during his tenure as Prime Minister as examples of degrading terms towards refugees that “contribute needlessly to an increase in xenophobic sentiment”.
The report joined human rights groups in condemning his description of asylum seekers risking their lives to reach the UK as a “swarm” in 2015.
The term was criticised by Mr Farage at the time but the former Ukip leader and his party were also cited by the ECRI for comments claiming there was “public concern about immigration partly because people believe there are some Muslims who want to form a fifth column and kill us”.
A representative for Mr Cameron could not be reached for comment but a spokesperson for Ukip defended the party’s record on immigration, particularly regarding Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.
“Ukip is not anti-immigrant as this report states, far from it, we would not pull up a drawbridge, but we do believe that a country should have the right to decide who comes over that bridge,” he added.
“It is demonstratively true that some people are concerned about immigration due to the fact that some in the Islamic community wish us and our liberal society ill.”
The ECRI also took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.
It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”.
The report called for the establishment of a press regulator according to the recommendations set out in the Leveson Report, saying the two competing bodies currently in place were insufficient, and that current reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.
The ECRI, which is the Council of Europe’s premiere human rights body, examines all EU member states periodically and released its UK report on Tuesday, offering 23 recommendations for change.
It contended that the shift in public attitudes was contributing to a rise in hate crimes against minority groups including Muslims, Jews, refugees and immigrants.
Tell Mama, an anti-Islamophobia group, has recorded hundreds of incidents that are increasingly targeting Muslim women online.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters and Tell Mama welcomed the ECRI’s report and joined its criticism of “language that has inflamed community tensions and also scapegoated other sections of society”.
“For example, talking about refugees as ‘cockroaches’ or putting out headlines that ‘1 in 5 Muslims support Jihadis’ is not only irresponsible, it is organised to punch the worst buttons of fear in communities and society,” he told The Independent.
The first six months of this year saw an 11 per cent increase in antisemitic hate incidents recorded in the UK compared to the same period in 2015, according to the Community Security Trust.
The ECRI’s report also raised concern about the lack of a government programme on refugee integration in England.
Dr Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said hate crime has no place in the UK or anywhere else.
She added: “Politicians and the press must condemn and seek to eradicate this behaviour, while ensuring that their own rhetoric and reporting on immigration is responsible.”
In a response included with the report, the Government defended its record and noted progress with a new Cohesive Communities Programme, Hate Crime Action Plan and the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, but said it would not acquiesce to calls to ratify an anti-discrimination protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“We are particularly concerned to see that the Commission repeats controversial and eye-catching press headlines and some alleged statements by politicians, which wrongly implies that these are the prevailing narratives in the United Kingdom and/or are government policy, when there are numerous cases of leading politicians celebrating and speaking out positively about the enormous contributions that minorities have made to this country’s success,” a spokesperson added.
Sarah Newton, the minister for vulnerability, safeguarding and countering extremism, said: “We are clear that there is no excuse for hate crime against anyone of any nationality, ethnicity or religious background - it has no place whatsoever in our diverse society.
“This commitment is underpinned by some of the strongest legislation in the world.”
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