01/07/2016 13:11 BST | Updated 02/07/2017 06:12 BST

Why Amnesty Has Launched an Emergency Campaign on Racism

Brian Rasic via Getty Images

At Amnesty we are all too used to conducting research into racism and abuse and how governments allow or even contribute to divisions in society. Indeed, we have just released one such report on Libya and the horrors African migrants are being subjected to there.

But it's a rare thing to be moved to conduct research on the rise in hate crimes and racial abuse here in the UK. A country which prides itself on being ranked among the world's most tolerant, no less.

Reports from the last few days paint a grim picture of a pattern of "go-home" abuse which targets all sorts of people here in the UK. Of course it's not only aimed at people from the EU - anyone from an ethnic minority, or perhaps with a foreign accent has suddenly found themselves a target as well. To some it's apparently open season and we must show them that, in the words of Jo Cox, "we have more in common than that which divides us".

Of course, bigotry existed before this referendum, but undeniably the campaign was marked by divisive, toxic rhetoric as well as a failure from political leaders to condemn it and it seems clear that we are now reaping the referendum rhetoric whirlwind.

Prior to that, we saw a nasty London mayoral campaign, where the Muslim candidate was constantly associated with extremism, and where literature deliberately tried to divide minority communities, setting neighbour against neighbour. Before that the Prime Minister spoke of 'swarms' in relation to desperate people seeking safety from war, violence and poverty. With this referendum, though, we undoubtedly passed a grim watershed. People feel licensed to express racist views in a way we haven't seen for decades.

The #PostRefRacism hashtag shows a constant catalogue of people being harassed and abused all over the country. An Amnesty member, Mohammed Samaana, was verbally attacked in a city-centre Belfast bar last Saturday night. "You from the EU?", he was asked, "F**k off back to your country. Get the f**k out of our country." Mr Samaana is a dual Palestinian-UK citizen who has lived in Northern Ireland for fifteen years and works as a nurse in a Belfast hospital and hadn't experienced overt racism like that ever before. The specific mention of the EU is a potent reminder of the nature of that recent campaign.

The zenith of the referendum was surely the repugnant 'Breaking Point' poster unashamedly unveiled by Nigel Farage and depicting refugees fleeing war, who could have no idea that their fate was to be exploited thousands of miles away by a party whose survival depends on seeding resentment and loathing.

Of course, we certainly don't equate Leave voters with being racist, and Amnesty took no position on the referendum, but some of the political rhetoric from the referendum campaign did demonise migrants, not simply argue for controls on immigration. It now seems obvious that some people interpreted that as license for verbal attacks.

That causal impact was predictable, whenever the state, or high-profile political figures as well as quarters of the press scapegoat part of the population and demonise them, there are ripple effects. That perceived endorsement to blame, to dehumanise is picked up by those who aim to peddle hate.

That truth holds as much in modern Burma as it did in 1970s Uganda, or 1930s Germany and Britain today. It's not only the person saying it, but those who say nothing. The posters and the grandstanding are one thing, but the failure to condemn it by other leading figures was no less part of the problem. What we have heard this week from the UN and the Prime Minister condemning this hatred is what we needed then. It is, however, never too late to do the right thing and that condemnation needs to be loud and unanimous, and we all have a role to play. That's why we are asking people to get their councils to speak out against hate crime, and why we hope every council in the country will take a stand. It must be hyper-local, in communities, and widespread across the nation.

The last century has taught us just how achievable change is, especially when it comes at both a national and individual local level - from people's perceptions about the morality of drink-driving, to the drastic reduction in the ubiquitous habit of smoking everywhere, and of course racism. But it takes a huge coming together of determined people. It takes showing that this is not what we are prepared for the United Kingdom to head towards, that this is not the new normal.

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