Attack on Syrian schoolboy exposes ‘toxic environment’ faced by refugees in UK

Discriminatory attacks against young people are increasing, warn groups monitoring hate crimes

Richard Hall,Harriet Agerholm,Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 29 November 2018 13:48 GMT
A video shows a 15-year-old boy being grabbed by the neck and thrown to the floor, at a school in Huddersfield last month
A video shows a 15-year-old boy being grabbed by the neck and thrown to the floor, at a school in Huddersfield last month

Physical and verbal attacks are increasingly becoming part of the refugee experience – partly because of the debate around Brexit, MPs and support groups have warned.

A “toxic environment” is seeing a rise in hate crimes targeted at children, they said, in the wake of a brutal attack on a young Syrian refugee.

A video showed the 15-year-old boy being grabbed by the neck and thrown to the floor, at a school in Huddersfield last month. The attack, in which he also had water poured over his face, shocked much of the country.

Organisations representing Syrians said they were being increasingly targeted by vicious attacks that were not receiving media attention.

“We are in touch with Syrians all across the country, and more and more have been reporting hate crimes and discrimination,” said Abdulaziz Almashi, co-founder of the Syria Solidarity Campaign.

“We recently heard about a Syrian girl who was pushed in front of a train in north London. She was wearing a hijab. She was so scared that she didn’t want to travel by train any more,” said Almashi, who moved to the UK from Syria in 2009.

Other attacks targeting Syrians have not received the same attention. In August, a teenager in Scotland was sentenced to seven years in jail for attempting to murder 25-year-old Syrian refugee Shabaz Ali. And last year, a Syrian refugee family in Merseyside was forced to flee in the middle of the night when their home was set alight in an arson attack.

Many incidents are not reported to police, but organisations that work with refugee communities are seeing them more and more.

Paul Hook, from Refugee Action UK, told The Independent: “We know from our own work that hate crime against refugees and asylum seekers is rising.” The increase has been so large that the charity has made it an organisational priority.

The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, devastated much of the country and forced more than 5.6 million people to flee. Fighting has wound down in many areas of the country as the Syrian government, backed by its ally Russia, has taken back control from rebels, but the UN has warned that it is still not safe. Many refugees fear their homes have been destroyed and believe they may be targeted by the government if they return.

In 2015, then prime minister David Cameron committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK over the next five years. More than half of that number have already arrived in Britain. The 15-year-old refugee assaulted in Huddersfield, who cannot be named for legal reasons, came to Britain as part of the flagship resettlement programme. His family left the Syrian city of Homs in 2010 and lived in Lebanon until they were brought to the UK two years ago.

Their arrival coincided with the bitterly fought referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union, which has led to a spike in xenophobia and a marked increase in hate crimes. According to Home Office data, reported hate incidents reached a record 94,098 from April 2017 to March 2018, a rise of 17 per cent from the previous year.

Children are bearing the brunt of the hostility, according to groups monitoring hate crimes. Tell Mama, a national project that records anti-Muslim incidents across the country, said one in 10 reports it receives involve incidents taking place in schools.

Attacks against kids are really picking up,” said Iman Atta, the project’s director. “There is of bullying on all levels in schools, and there are a lot of discussions on social media around refugees and migration. We’re now in the height of Brexit. Refugees are always going to be the focus of those discussions,” she told The Independent.

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Police said Wednesday that they have charged a 16-year-old boy with the assault on the young Syrian refugee in Huddersfield. The teenager, who also cannot be named for legal reasons, had shared posts from the founder of the far-Right English Defence League Tommy Robinson and other far right groups. One post, which referenced comments by Boris Johnson about Muslim women wearing veils, said: “Should Britain ban letterboxes because of all the trouble they’re causing?”

Ms Atta said young people are being exposed to more abusive and intolerant language online, which is fuelling the bullying of young refugees and migrants.

“We are seeing kids go from talking about football and music and regular stuff that young kids talk about, to Ukip, Tommy Robinson and Trump. These platforms are promoting rhetoric that is anti-refugee, anti-migrant, anti-anyone who is different, eventually they consume that language and they consume that hatred and they take it into their hands. A lot of that is reflected in the playground,” she said.

We are seeing kids go from talking about football and music and regular stuff that young kids talk about, to Ukip, Tommy Robinson and Trump 

Iman Atta, Tell Mama’s director

Figures obtained by children’s charity the NSPCC from 43 police forces across the country and published earlier this year revealed there were 5,349 incidents of a child being targeted because of their race or religion in 2016/17, up 14 per cent on the previous year.

NSPCC counselling service Childline launched a campaign earlier this year to challenge discrimination after it became concerned about the numbers of calls from children who said they were being bullied because of their race and religion.

The service said it delivered almost 2,700 counselling sessions about race and faith based bullying in the three years to March, reporting increased demand directly after terror attacks.

The true number of attacks on refugees and asylum seekers is not known. Crime statistics do not differentiate for immigration status, and many refugees do not report crimes because they are afraid to go to the police.

Ciarán Price, of the Migrants Resource Centre, which supports refugees and asylum seekers, said: “People who have come to our country having escaped this very type of violence are vulnerable.

“They are less likely to seek the help of authorities because they may not be aware of who they can go to, may not yet speak English well and may be very afraid. People from Syria in particular may have suffered violence at the hands of authorities there, so it’s easy to see how they may be reluctant to go to the police.”

A Home Office spokesperson said refugees arriving in the UK are given advice “on the rule of law, including how to report crime to the police and how to access support if they need it”.

People who have come to our country having escaped this very type of violence are vulnerable 

Ciarán Price, Migrants Resource Centre 

“Upon arrival each resettled family has a dedicated support worker who maintains close contact with the family for the first 12 months to support their wellbeing and integration.”

But some MPs have called for more government action to challenge xenophobia towards refugees in the UK. Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, told The Independent that a “hostile environment” created by government policy and the media was fuelling ill-feeling towards people who seek asylum in Britain.

“We’ve seen 15 years of headlines in papers and popular media about asylum seekers who come here to cheat the system, who pretend they are 15 but are actually 30, who are really terrorists, and this whole concept of genuine refugee and non-genuine refugees has really cracked into our public discourse. You add to that the rise of the far right, and it creates a really toxic environment in which individuals – including young people – start to feel that it’s fair game to pick on refugees.

These myths need to be loudly and clearly refuted and the value of refugees and asylum seekers promoted in order to counter this,” she added.

Tell Mama’s wider research on Islamophobic incidents in Britain indicates “alarming” levels of street attacks on women.

Of 608 verified reports from January to June this year, one third happened online and two thirds in person – usually in public spaces.

Monitors said that a majority of street-based victims are Muslim women and there has been a “marked shift” towards more serious offline incidents such as physical attacks, threatening behaviour and abuse.

Researchers said Muslim women whose faith is visible because of headscarves and veils are frequently targeted by opportunists, and warned that “irresponsible language” from politicians and commentators appeared to be emboldening attackers.

“Being a woman and being Muslim are markers for some of this gendered Islamophobia,” Ms Atta said. “Of equal concern are the rising levels of aggression that are being shown to victims at a street level. This is deeply concerning and possibly indicates that something is changing for the worst.”

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