by Maya Goodfellow 

Last week, in a chilling report that has the faint echoes of lynching during the Jim Crow era, a group of refugees and migrants in the Calais camp say outsiders attacked them. Unidentified men put them in a van, drove them to a field, stripped them naked, handcuffed them and beat them one by one as the others were forced to watch.

Where were the local police? Distinctly absent in their duty to protect victims, people living in the camp say.

This is not an isolated incident. There have been reports of police aggression, as well as other outside gangs carrying out attacks.  Médecins Sans Frontières, who provide vital support to the people living in Calais, say every week they see around twelve incidents where people have been violently attacked. And that’s just the ones they come across. Marianne Humbershot, who heads up the legal centre in the camp, told The Independent of the horrors she’s witnessed: “stabbing, strangling and beating with metal sticks. These attacks are against men, women and children. Minors. I have the account of a 10-year-old boy who has been subjected to police violence. I have a 13-year-old who was beaten by police – and 10 days before he had his nose broken by ‘racists’.” No one has yet been held accountable. Crime have been committed but so far there are no criminals.

These campaigns of violence with no visible repercussions should come as little surprise. People living in these camps find few in positions of real power who will properly defend them. Just yesterday, a judge ruled to bulldoze a whole section of the Calais refugee camp with no real plans in place to rehome the people who will lose their makeshift accommodation. Already warnings are in print: they will “use force if necessary”.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. So goes the old saying that still lingers in school playgrounds. The message: actions matter, words don’t. In this line of thinking, describing people from abroad as “illegal immigrants” or a doomsday flood ready to take your job shouldn’t matter. We don’t love it, but they’re just words. Until they aren’t. These dehumanising terms float around Europe; paired with assumedly benign government policy (like cutting support for asylum seekers), they lead militia to exact a campaign of violence against refugees and migrants.

Men, women and children have risked their lives to make it to European shores, undertaking journeys more harrowing than anything many of us can imagine. These human beings are then shunted from place to place, unwanted by countries that are building walls to keep them out – some use words and mistruths, others barbed wire. Thousands of these people wind up in refugee camps. Here the xenophobia that grips Europe is violently abundant.

Violence against refugees and migrants isn’t confined to Calais. While so many turned their attention to the Cologne attacks, little attention has been given to another incident of sexual assault near this same city. Security guards in an emergency shelter have reportedly sexually assaulted and raped women refugees. In an open letter, an anonymous author writes a distressing account of a group of male guards running a criminal ring, abusing women and videotaping them while they breastfeed, shower and sleep. Women and girl refugees experience similar horrific assaults as they travel through Europe; reports say they are subjected to violence, sexual harassment and exploitation. Yet when the “outsider” is the victim at the hands of predominantly white abusers, it’s not newsworthy.

There is racism laced throughout these events; people are subjugated and attacked for their “otherness”. It’s not impossible that the same violence will manifest itself in this country. What else can we expect? Britain and other European countries undergird their policies on immigration and refugees with discrimination. With no evidence to support his decision, David Cameron negotiated an “emergency break” to cut the in-work benefits given to EU migrants in their first seven years in Britain. It doesn’t matter that migrants contribute far more than they take out; many assume this is an adequate way to address anti-immigration feeling. Although this is EU-specific and doesn’t affect the small number of refugees the government allow to settle in the UK, the symbolism stretches to touch all “foreigners”. In fact, in this haze of xenophobia it’s likely to affect immigrants and refugees of colour more. It says: people from abroad don’t deserve the same standard of living as those who are local-born; they are subhuman, here to steal and disrupt an imagined British community.

Migrants and refugees aren’t people. They are a mass, descending on Europe or Britain to rip apart the fabric of life. This is the underlying message of the words we use to describe people from abroad and the xenophobic policies that flow from politicians’ mouths. It’s in this climate that people have decided to exact brutal violence on refugees and immigrants. This isn’t just the product of a far right living on the political periphery; it comes from the very society in which we live.


Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow

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One thought on “When xenophobic words become real violence

  1. Ok and what about the endless instances where migrants have attacked the inhabitants of the countries they are staying in and seek refuge in? Guess you don’t really give a sh*t there do you?
    A child can literally be raped by an Iraqi man at a swimming pool among endless other acts of violence and you can say silently in your head “Oh well it’s still worth it overall” even while you can’t deny that that crime never would have taken place without the refugee influx.


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