Arkadiusz Jóżwik had been standing outside a pizza take-away in Harlow, Essex, chatting to his friends in Polish, when a group of up to 12 teenagers attacked him. Arkadiusz, who had lived in Britain for over four years, died from the head injuries sustained in this suspected hate attack. The next weekend the Polish community organised a silent vigil and march through Harlow in honour of Arkadiusz. Yet just hours later two Polish men were badly beaten outside a pub in Harlow, during another likely hate crime.
These attacks have occurred in the context of a rise in racism and hate attacks after the Brexit vote in Britain. In the week before and after the referendum, over 3,000 hate crimes were reported to the police, an annual increase of more than 42%. The Leave campaign had focussed on the issue of immigration and in particular on the eastern European migrants who have arrived since EU enlargement in 2004. Pro-Brexit politicians fuelled the fears and prejudices of the British citizenry, spreading the populist idea that the country’s economic and social problems could be solved by ‘taking back control’ of its borders. And now, in the post-referendum reality of uncertainty and disappointment, these prejudices are spilling over into increased outright racism and hatred.
The Polish community is an established part of British society. A large section of the hundreds of thousands of Poles who moved to Britain have now settled long-term in the country. Poles are the largest immigrant group in Britain and Polish is the second most commonly spoken language in the country. Despite talk of immigrants coming to claim social benefits, Poles living in the UK are significantly more likely to work and pay taxes than their British counterparts are. One may have thought that all of this, coupled with the fact that the vast majority are also white and Christian, would have shielded them from such racism. But the Poles and other eastern Europeans living in Britain are now coming to realise that such xenophobia is not confined to those with a different skin colour or religion.
The Drift To The Right
Although these attacks have a particular context in Britain, they follow a wider international pattern. Economic stagnation and rising social inequality and exclusion are fuelling the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and the far right. The establishment with its aloof elites have nothing to offer those suffering the impact of decades of neo-liberalism and the fall-out of the economic crisis. With the left weak and divided, many are now looking to the far right for solutions and see immigrants and refugees as the source of their troubles. Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, Hofer in Austria, Golden Dawn in Greece and of course Trump in the USA are just a few examples of this political fall-out.
Poland and other countries in central and eastern Europe are caught up in this drift to the right. The de-industrialisation and economic collapse that accompanied the fall of Communism have left gross social inequalities and areas of poverty throughout the region. That is one reason why millions of people have decided to move westwards in search of work and a better standard of living. Weighed down by its own historical failures and the social and political dislocation caused by the ferocity of the pace of economic transition, the labour movement and left have been unable to provide a sufficient countermovement to both neo-liberalism and nationalism. And this has helped conservative governments to establish themselves in countries such as Hungary and Poland, once the darlings of liberal reformers in the West. These governments are also unleashing more sinister forces, with racists and the far right growing in size and confidence.
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) partly used the refugee crisis as a means to regain power in Poland in 2015. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, had claimed that refugees were ‘spreading diseases’ and that they would seek to impose Sharia law if they were allowed into the country. Following the terrorist attack in Brussels earlier this year, the PiS government announced that it would not fulfil its agreement with the EU to take in 7,000 refugees. The propaganda spread by the right has had its effect. Between the middle of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, those who believed the Polish government should help refugees declined from 72% to 39%. There has been a wave of Islamophobic propaganda in the media that has spread an irrational fear amongst a population of which only 0.1% is defined as being Muslim.
Poland has also experienced its own surge in racist attacks, which grew by around 40% in 2015. This has been accompanied by the growing activity of far right organisations, such as the National Racial Camp (ONR), that lays claim to the traditions of the pre-war far right organisation under the same name. In recent months, the ONR has organised demonstrations against refugees and immigrants, attacked pro-democracy demonstrators, and even spoken in schools and Churches. The government’s attack on the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal, the closure of open debate on historical issues and the formation of a National Guard which is open to members of the far-right are all worrying political trends in Poland.
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The Polish nationalists and far right claim that they are defending a white and Christian Poland. They believe that they are holding out against the move towards multi-culturalism and are defending not only their own country but European civilisation as a whole. Undoubtedly, they also feel that they share a similar cultural heritage and values as their counterparts in countries like Britain. There have even been attempts to set up a Polish division of English Defence League, and in Poland a Polish Defence League was created based on this EDL model.
Blind Racism At Home And Abroad
However, recent events show that racists and the far right do not distinguish between different immigrant groups. Racism has extended beyond skin colour to people speaking a different language or expressing other cultural identities. As a British immigrant living in Poland, I have not yet felt such prejudice or aggression. I have always been welcomed in this country, which has become my home. But if this wave of nationalism continues, how long will it be till this changes? What happens if the attacks on Poles in the UK continue or if a government decides that Poles can no longer work in this county? In post-Brexit Europe these fears become real as many retreat towards the false securities of nationalism and prejudice. Those who have carried out attacks on Polish migrants in Britain are fuelled by the same hatred that inspires nationalists and the far right in Poland. We see this in the whole of Europe and beyond, as nationalism and racism breed fear and resentment in others. In turn, this threatens to escalate on a scale not seen since the 1930s. This potential return to the dark days of Europe can only be defeated through building solidarity with all those who are suffering such attacks and organising together across borders against this common enemy.
Gavin Rae is a sociologist in Warsaw. He has written extensively on the political and social changes in Poland and central and eastern Europe, including Poland's Return to Capitalism: From the Socialist Bloc to the European Union and Public Capital: The Commodification of Poland's Welfare State.