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Refugees and Migrants Wake Up to Brexit and Brace for What Comes Next

Some are left asking, "What has happened to my home?"

Photo Credit: Andrew Linscott / Shutterstock.com

“This morning, I woke up thinking, ‘what has happened to my home?’” Carolina Gottardo, the director of the London-based Latin-American Women's Rights Service, told AlterNet. “My eight-year-old child said to me, ‘Mommy, when do we need to go to Colombia?’ My children are British, they have British passports, but this is the panic the Brexit is causing. The negative feelings, the sense of not belonging, of not understanding why a place that is your home did this.”

Gottardo is just one of countless UK-based refugees, migrants and people of color reeling from the narrow victory of the far-right in winning the vote to exit the European Union. The so-called “Brexit” campaign hinged on coded and overt racism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim incitement—including an outrageous campaign poster recently released by the United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage that depicts a long line of non-white refugees and migrants next to the words, “Breaking Point.”

Following the outcome, Farage proclaimed that the "leave" campaign had won “without a single bullet being fired.” But that is not true; Jo Cox, a Labour Party politician and advocate for human rights who campaigned to "remain," was recently stabbed and shot to death by an apparent supporter of “British independence” with neo-Nazi affiliations.

This real violence has been accompanied by high pitched incitement in the British media against migrants and refugees.

“It’s been a systematic, month after month of the mainstream rightwing newspapers running story after story of the threat of migrants, to create the concept that the answer is about the borders, not about inequality, neoliberal globalization or the real drivers of the anger,” Asad Rehman, chair of the London-based anti-racist Newham Monitoring Project, told AlterNet. "The anger that ordinary, white working-class people have about the establishment has been harnessed largely by right-wing forces."

As a result, said Rehman, “anger was turned towards migrant, refugee and Black communities in the UK.”

As proto-fascist leaders and candidates, including Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, hail the outcome of the vote, the communities targeted by the Brexit campaign’s vitriol are busy trying to calm the panic the outcome has set-off.

“The response to the Brexit in our community is dual,” Barbara Drozdowicz, director of the East European Advice Center, told AlterNet. “It’s panic about what will happen to us and bitter disappointment, because people have read the campaign literature that is strongly anti-immigration in tone, and they have woken up in a country that doesn’t want them. It’s an incredibly emotional moment for the whole community, which has dealt with rhetoric about Eastern Europeans stealing jobs, like Polish cleaners and Romanian construction workers.”

Nazek Ramadan, the director of the London-based Migrant Voice, declared in a press statement: “European migrants who have made the UK their home—nearly half of whom have lived here for over 10 years—need to be made to feel welcome again.”

The European Union, of course, is the target of legitimate criticism for its callous disregard for refugees displaced by NATO's wars, as well as the EU's brutal austerity policies. In contrast to efforts among some sectors of the Greek left to exit the Eurozone as a means of resisting EU-imposed, neoliberal austerity measures, the Brexit campaign was driven primarily by reactionary forces—and fueled by the rise of the far right across the West. As journalist Ben Norton put it, “A Brexit is fundamentally different than a Grexit. The latter was about letting the politically weak country of Greece oppose hegemonic EU neoliberalism, which was forced upon it, against the democratic will of the Greek people.”

Nick Dearden, the director of the advocacy organization Global Justice Now, said in a press statement, “It’s hardly surprising that people have voiced such distrust towards the EU when it negotiates exploitative trade deals like TTIP, visits economic destruction on its own member states, and treats refugees as if they were criminals. But the mainstream ‘leave’ campaigns have done a great deal of damage by pandering to nationalism, building a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and fostering the spurious notion that outside the EU we can return to an age when Britain was the world’s foremost ‘great power.’”

Now, those communities scapegoated by the far-right face the monumental challenge of forging a path forward.

Don Flynn, the director of the Migrant Rights Network, wrote that the vote to leave the European Union has “thrown politics into a massive period of uncertainty.” He emphasized, “There is an urgent need to resist any drive to expel EU citizens from the UK if unemployment starts to rise… The trade unions have a role to play in acting in defense of the rights of this group of people should they become victims of a downturn induced by a downturn in the economy.”

According to Rehman, “Now questions remain about what happens to the migrants here from Europe. What will happen when we Brexit, will people be forcibly expelled? And who will define who is a migrant and who isn’t?”

Whatever happens, said Gottardo, “Now is an important time to ensure human rights are upheld. We need to have a voice in this. Migrant communities need to stay together.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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