Racist attacks on Eastern Europeans and, in particular, migrant workers continue to occur regularly and are being perpetuated by policies which foster destitution.
Earlier this month, speaking through a translator from a hospital bed in Exeter, where he had spent the last three weeks, Daniel Sobieraj pleaded for information regarding three men who attacked him and left him needing extensive surgery including a metal plate inserted in his face. After finding out he was Polish, they threatened to kill him and, ‘After one punch, I was on the floor. They jumped on my head. After that, I remember nothing’.
Research by the Institute of Race Relations shows that eastern Europeans in the UK face a significant threat of racial violence. Cases over the last twelve months reveal incidents ranging from graffiti and abuse to brutal attacks causing long-lasting physical damage. Some people have resorted to moving away to escape from danger and although incidents occur throughout the UK, there is a particularly high number of cases in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Most of the cases we have recorded involve Polish people.
Since the expansion of the European Union in 2004 and 2007, incorporating twelve new countries (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004; Bulgaria and Romania in 2007), there has been an upsurge in racist violence against eastern Europeans in the UK that, year on year, has continued unabated. So ferocious has this been that, in some cases, it has proven fatal. In 2007, a Polish man, Adam Michalski was racially abused before being stabbed to death in Wrexham. In 2009, Marek Muszynski, another Polish man, was robbed and beaten to death in Northern Ireland. (Read the IRR’s Factfile on the Racially Motivated Murders (Known or Suspected) 2000 onwards.) In other cases, victims have been left fighting for their lives, with permanent disabilities.
According to the organisation Human Rights First, ‘attacks on Poles, Lithuanians, and other immigrants from the new E.U. member states [have become] a major new component of hate crime violence’ in the UK. The police in some areas, have been prompted to set up specialist reporting mechanisms to try to increase the number of offences reported to them. Questions have been raised, however, about the effectiveness of the police and their role. In Belfast for example, in 2009, over 100 Romanians were forced to take shelter in a church after a systematic campaign of racist violence against them during which criminal justice agencies were, at best, slow to respond.
The backdrop to this violence has been a vitriolic tabloid campaign about the presence of those from the ‘new’ EU countries that has linked their presence to increased criminal activity and disorder, breakdowns in local cohesion and increased social and economic costs. The Daily Mail alone has kept up a persistent series of stories, year on year, which have accused eastern European migrants of exploiting supposedly generous welfare entitlements, said that they add pressure to particular services in the NHS, suggested that they are responsible for increased crime rates in the UK, argued that their presence prevents British workers from finding employment and, in one case, reported that they are ‘pillaging’ British rivers of fish and swans for food. In 2008, the paper was forced to remove some of its articles about Polish people from its website after the Press Complaints Commission intervened.
But if a general climate of hostility has been buttressed by tabloid coverage on the one hand, on the other, the tone for such reporting has been set by political figures who have blamed immigration for social and economic problems. In 2010, Labour minister Ed Balls told the Observer that, ‘There have been real economic gains from the arrival of young, hard-working migrants from eastern Europe over the past six years. But there has also been a direct impact on the wages, terms and conditions of too many people…’. He echoed remarks by former minister Phil Woolas, who lamented the ‘disruptive effects’ of EU expansion and, in 2011, Conservative immigration minister Damian Green set out a more stringent policy which would prevent ‘another unplanned influx from abroad’. ‘This Government’, he explained, ‘will push for stringent controls to stop workers from new member states from being able to access our labour market – we will not repeat the mistakes of the past’.
If EU immigration policy under Labour was based on a drive to utilise the expansion of the EU to draw in eastern European migrants as a cheap, flexible labour force, this rested on a hierarchical framework where EU migrants were considered preferable to non-EU migrants, but both could satisfy economic demands for deregulated labour markets. The jingoistic protectionism which came to be adopted through a rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’ though has been adopted more succinctly by the Conservatives. Now, non-EU migrants are ‘capped’; EU migrants (from the accession countries) may still benefit from fewer restrictions on movement, but face increasingly hostile public authorities and, in the background, the welfare state is being dismantled so as, perhaps, to compel British people to take up the scraps of work available in a climate of savage unemployment.
In this context, living conditions for many EU workers have deteriorated and exploitative working practices have intensified. With reduced access to benefits there has been a massive increase in the number of migrants from the accession countries forced into homelessness and, in 2010, it was estimated that they made up about 40 per cent of those rough sleeping in London. This is a pattern repeated throughout towns and cities in the UK and the consequences have been lethal. In Hull last year, a man saw two Polish nationals rooting through the bins of a fast food restaurant, shouted at them to ‘get a job’ and deliberately drove his three-tonne van into one of them. He then ran him over again when he was prone on the ground, breaking ribs, shattering both of his collar bones and cracking several vertebra in his back. After this, he got out of his car and knocked the other man unconscious. In January this year, Pavol Medzei, a Slovakian man who had been destitute for four years in Bradford, was found dead in an outside toilet. Local charity workers said that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people living in such squalid conditions in the city.
For many people, all of this has simply become too much. By 2007, some eastern Europeans had already begun to leave the country as a result of racist attacks and conditions had become so volatile that aid workers had arrived in the UK to support those who wished to go home. Others don’t even have a choice. In 2009, UK charities and local authorities received government grants to repatriate people and, last year, the UK Border Agency began scouring soup kitchens and the streets and deporting the homeless.
Daniel Sobieraj, however, lying in a hospital bed in Exeter, has explained that he wants to stay. The economic reality means that he wants to get back to work and send money home to his family. Like many in his situation, he does so in the face of a threat of attacks, of harassment, and of exploitation.
Selected attacks against eastern Europeans over the last twelve months
- 23 April 2011: A Polish man in Exeter, on his way home from a bar, was attacked by three men who beat him unconscious and left him requiring extensive surgery on his face. (Exeter Express & Echo, 17 May 2011)
- 10 April 2011: Three men subjected two Bulgarian students in Plymouth to racist abuse before assaulting them. (Plymouth Herald, 15 April 2011)
- 26 March 2011: A 42-year-old Polish man was hospitalised after being set upon by about ten youths as he took a friend of his daughter to a bus stop in Rosehall, Scotland. The attackers punched and kicked him about the head and body. He later explained that the family had previously had their windows smashed. (Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser, 30 March 2011)
- 15 March 2011: A Polish family who had their car burnt out in Ballymena, just days after moving in, said they wanted to leave the area through fear of further violence. (Belfast Telegraph, 16 March 2011)
- 5 February 2011: A group of Polish men in a pub in Somerset were racially abused by a woman who was thrown out by security staff. She then confronted the men in the street and punched one in the face. (Chard and Ilminster News, 14 February 2011)
- 18 December 2010: A Romanian taxi driver picked up four white men and an Asian woman in Plymouth who subjected him to racist abuse before punching him repeatedly. The driver was left with scratches and bruises. (Plymouth Herald, 28 January 2011)
- 11 December 2010: A 22-year-old eastern European woman was racially abused by a man inside a shop. A witness informed the police, who arrested and bailed a man in connection with the incident, because the language used was so ‘severe’. (Isle of Wight County Press, 13 December 2010)
- 5 December 2010: A Polish man was chased by two men in Bristol who subjected him to racial abuse and punched him in the head. Although the victim escaped to his house, one of the men later returned and smashed a glass panel in the door. (This is Bristol 8 December 2010)
- 14 October 2010: Graffiti, reading ‘Polish c**ts get out of Scotland’, was scrawled in foot-high letters on a railway bridge in Inverness. (Inverness Courier 15 October 2010)
- 26 September 2010: A 23-year-old man was arrested for racially aggravated violence after a fight with a Polish man outside a pub in Haverhill. (Haverhill Weekly News 19 January 2011)
- September 2010: A Polish couple gave up the lease on their pub in Edinburgh after an 18-month ordeal of racial harassment and abuse. The business partners claimed they received up to 20 threatening phone calls a day and, in one incident, a man smashed up the bar with a hammer. (Scotsman 6 December 2010)
- 29 August 2010: An eastern European man was hospitalised after being attacked by a group of youths at about 4am. (Northants Evening Telegraph 1 September 2010)
- 21 August 2010: A man who was refused re-entry to a nightclub in Lincoln subjected a Polish doorman to racist abuse and punched him in the face. (Lincolnshire Echo 11 September 2010)
- 11 August 2010: A Polish man travelling on a bus with his Hungarian girlfriend in North London was attacked by two white men who shouted racist abuse and slashed his face with smashed glass. (Islington Gazette 19 August 2010)
- 1 August 2010: A Romanian couple were attacked by six men in Halstead. The incident, which police described as a ‘brutal and unprovoked racist assault’, left the woman with three cracked teeth, damage to another tooth, two black eyes and a bruised nose. (Halstead Gazette 9 August 2010)
- 22 July 2010: A Polish bus driver in Aberdeen was subjected to racist abuse by a motorist. (BBC News 28 July 2010)
- 21 June 2010: A group of around eight masked men ransacked three houses in Belfast, smashing furniture and attacking the occupants. Although there was a sectarian dimension to the violence, some of the victims were eastern European. (BBC News 22 June 2010)
- June 2010: A woman in West Lothian was sentenced for subjecting her Polish neighbours to racist abuse and harassment on a daily basis. (Scotsman 8 January 2011)
- 13 May 2010: A Polish woman who had finished a late shift at a pub in Edinburgh was grabbed by a man on her way home who threatened to stab her and offered her money for sex. When she refused, he called her a ‘Polish f***er’ and told her that she ‘did not belong here’. (Edinburgh Evening News 17 November 2010)