The video is harrowing.
A group of teenage boys approach one of their smaller classmates, whose arm is already in a cast. One of them grabs the victim, named only as Jamal, by the neck and forces him to the ground. As he pins him down, he then proceeds to pour water into his mouth, in what can best be described as a schoolyard version of waterboarding. Around him a crowd of children laugh.
The incident ocurred in the northern English town of Huddersfield in late October, but has only come to light this week after the video of the attack began to circulate on social media. On Thursday, separate video emerged of the victim’s sister being attacked. The family’s lawyer told the Evening Standard that she had been abused, sometimes racially, for more than a year and had tried to self-harm as a result.
The extent of the bullying endured by the 15-year-old victim and his sister — who are both Syrian refugees — has prompted fury. A GoFundMe for the siblings has so far raised nearly $200,000, while the main bully has been charged with assault by West Yorkshire Police.
“I woke up at night and just started crying because of this problem,” Jamal told ITV News. “When I saw everyone looking at this video I felt ashamed of myself and why it happened. I was really upset about that.” The family’s lawyer, Mohammed Akunjee, told the Guardian that they would be using the money from the GoFundMe to relocate away from Huddersfield.
This bullying incident cannot be considered in a vacuum — but rather in the context of rising hostility in the U.K. toward migrants, as well as a resurgent far-right.
New data gathered by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics this week showed that net migration from the EU had fallen to its lowest levels in six years, mainly due to Brexit. In October, meanwhile, the British Home Office reported a 40 percent spike in hate crimes driven by hostility towards the victim’s religion. More than half of all the offences were aimed at Muslims. In a 2017 report, the Home Office had reported a 29 percent spike in hate crimes.
“We recently heard about a Syrian girl who was pushed in front of a train in north London. She was wearing a hijab,” Abdulaziz Almashi, co-founder of the Syria Solidarity Campaign, told the Independent on Thursday. “She was so scared that she didn’t want to travel by train any more.”
Then there’s the resurgent far-right, who have been helping to galvanize and direct this anti-migrant hostility. They are perhaps best exemplified by Tommy Robinson, the founder of the of the xenophobic street movement (and now mostly defunct) English Defense League who has now moved on to describing himself as an “independent journalist” and “activist.”
In May, Robinson was jailed for contempt of court, prompting a wave of global far-right apoplexy before he was released on appeal. Earlier in November he had plans to address a group of Congressmen in Washington D.C., including Rep. Steve King, but his visa was denied.
Robinson has waded into the Huddersfield bullying case, claiming in a video on Facebook that Jamal was not in fact “innocent” but a member of a gang who was attacking “English” schoolkids and that he also somehow a member of ISIS. Robinson went on the claim that “lots of Muslim gangs are beating up white English kids.”
None of this has any evidence to back it up, and Akunjee has announced that Jamal’s family intends to sue Robinson for defamation.
OH DEAR. 'Tommy Robinson' just posted screencaps of a message claiming that Asian gangs were beating up kids at Almondbury Community School. Only problem is, the pics were nicked from a Mirror article about a kid in Surrey last year.
— Mike Stuchbery💀🍷 (@MikeStuchbery_) November 29, 2018
Ironically enough, the reason Robinson was jailed for contempt in the first place is that he almost derailed a Huddersfield trial which saw members of a grooming gang jailed for a collective 220 years for abusing and exploiting vulnerable girls in the town between 2004 and 2011.
The outpouring of support that Jamal and his family have received in wake of the bullying has been heartening. But the fact that it happened in the first place, and the Islamophobia clearly seen in the video of the attacks on Jamal and his sister, reflect the growing and worrying xenophobia present in post-Brexit Britain.