‘Individual’ Racism and Xenophobia Directed at Migrants and Perceived Migrants

Notwithstanding the material factors underpinning support for a Leave vote, the main mobilisation behind Brexit was driven by a section of the UK media and political establishment with a significant campaigning focus on migration control. The voting dynamics in NI were complicated. BrexitLawNI heard views within unionism that there had been a significant turnout for Leave in areas that previously had low electoral participation. That said, there were different opinions as to whether migration control or other issues were the main driving factor.

A mobilisation focused on migration control has specific implications for NI. Whilst attitudinal racism and anti-migrant racism in particular have been on the rise across Europe, NI has for some years had a particular problem with the well-documented involvement of elements of loyalist paramilitary groups in racist intimidation and attacks. Despite this, official initiatives to monitor and tackle paramilitarism to date have tended to overlook or downplay this issue. In addition, an approach of ‘tolerance’ towards sectarian expression has had crossover implications for the way other forms of racist expression are dealt with.

Individuals providing testimony to BrexitLawNI indicated that their experiences of racist abuse and intimidation have been exacerbated in the context of Brexit. We have encountered qualitative examples of racist abuse and intimidation that are directly linked to the referendum – directed at migrants regardless of whether they were in fact from the EU. BrexitLawNI also heard testimony that migrants are more reluctant to report racist abuse following the referendum, given a perception that anti-migrant sentiment, which had hitherto been considered as the preserve of a few, had now become quite widespread.

There is significantly more that could be done by public authorities, including (but not limited to) criminal justice bodies, to tackle racism and sectarianism effectively. Whilst not specifically examined by the research, mention should be made of the significant examples of anti-racism work across all communities.

Institutional and Structural Racism and Discrimination

Notwithstanding the potentially life changing impact of racist attacks on directly-affected individuals, it became clear in our engagement activities that there has also been a shift in the treatment of migrants and perceived migrants in relation to their interactions with public and private services in NI since the referendum. More specifically, we heard evidence that there had already been a significant shift in the treatment of EU26 nationals in relation to the querying of their entitlements and difficulties in accessing essential public services. This included delays and increased evidential
requirements where processes, for EU nationals at least, had previously been more straightforward. It is not always clear if such changes are the result of formal policy changes or the result of attitudinal changes among decision makers.

The government also has a stated strategy to use ‘in country’ checks to regulate migration in NI following Brexit. This includes the use of the ‘hostile/compliant environment’ powers in the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. We heard testimony from EU migrant workers around injustices and unnecessary distress that existing ‘hostile/compliant environment’ measures had caused them, and that this had also worsened significantly since the referendum.

As covered in more detail in our report on the border and free movement, the UK Position Paper only committed not to introduce ‘routine’ border controls on journeys within the Common Travel Area (CTA). Despite official assurances to the contrary, we encountered multiple complaints of racial profiling (the form of discrimination whereby persons are singled out on basis of skin colour or other ethnic attributes) in existing checks on such routes, relating to both the UK and Irish authorities. EU migrants have also reported significant changes in experiences when arriving home into Belfast airports from visits to home countries and being subject to unnecessary questioning.

A further issue is that of emerging differential entitlements of access to services, or even employment in NI for British and Irish citizens. As things stand, when the EU treaties cease to apply, legislation will not permit Irish citizens to access a number of essential services in NI. Whilst political intention to remedy this has been articulated, to date nothing concrete has been taken forward. This context, alongside moves to treat EU26 differently from non-EU migrants, and different categories of EU26 differently to each other, is going to create complex and multiple different hierarchies of entitlements, with a likely outworking of significant increased discrimination.


  • Official initiatives to monitor and tackle paramilitarism should include specific work on tackling racist (including sectarian) expression, intimidation and violence.
  • Public authorities, including those with an education function, should ensure they define and interpret the good relations duty as including positive obligations to tackle racism and sectarianism and take forward concerted and effective action to achieve this goal.
  • A strategic policy switch from tolerance to zero tolerance of incitement to hatred – this can in part be taken forward through the current Department of Justice review and the PSNI reviewing their interpretation of the legislation.
  • The PSNI and Housing Executive review and improve practices in relation to dealing with racist and sectarian housing intimidation.
  • The PSNI, Councils, Housing Executive, Department of Infrastructure and other relevant public authorities should develop and adopt policies providing for intervention, within their competencies, to remove items that constitute incitement to hatred or hate expression on protected grounds.
  • Public authorities also need to introduce safeguards and take all reasonable steps to ensure funding or facilities they provide or endorse are not used for activities which are likely to be the sites of racist expression.
  • NI needs equality legislation that evolves in step with international standards and best practice in a post-Brexit, such provision should be underpinned with the implementation of a Bill of Rights for NI.

*For a black and white version of the report, please email us: brexitlawni@qub.ac.uk*

Transitional Justice Institute CAJ