I was recently shocked to read about a series of racist attacks in Northern Ireland. Groups of Irish yobs went on a rampage and attacked Romanian gypsies injuring dozens of them.
The attacks were so serious that several families in that community had to flee and return to Romania.
Eastern European Gypsies have been a lightning-rod for intolerant people for centuries, but these attacks seem to be reflecting a wider change in Europe.
For years, European leaders have opened their borders and embraced immigration. Foreigners settling in have generally been treated with respect and multiculturalism-the idea that foreign cultures and the local culture can co-exist peacefully- was preached by politicians and to a large extent accepted by the public
However things are taking a darker turn. In the recent European Union elections, many far-right parties with racist policies made significant gains all over Europe.
The most shocking being right here in England where the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament.
The BNP is a blatantly racist party- membership is limited to white people and their central platform is to close the borders and completely halt any more immigration to England.
They are also bitterly opposed to the European Union itself.
The fact that the BNP enjoys such significant support is extremely worrying and there is no doubt that their popularity has been sharply increasing within the last few years.
It is clear that fear of immigrants’ plays a big role in the BNP’s rise.
There is still a stigma attached to voting for the BNP or belonging to the party, but some people are still shameless enough to flaunt it.
During those elections, I watched two white women give an astoundingly ignorant interview to a BBC reporter on TV.
They bragged about voting for BNP and wheeled out every single cliché about foreigners (‘They are taking our jobs’ ‘They are being favoured by local councils when it comes to housing’ ‘They live in segregated communities and don’t mix with other people’ etc) The two women also prefaced their views with the sentence beloved of bigots everywhere-‘I am not a racist, I have many black friends’- but their views were clearly racist.
And judging by letters I’ve been reading in newspapers, this anti-immigration paranoia is on the increase.
Such fears in this Country are usually fuelled by the media. Two newspapers in particular- The Daily Mail and The Daily Express- have an editorial line that verges on full-blown racism and xenophobia.
Every week, they have another front page splash about immigrants and their supposedly dangerous influence.
Yet such scare-mongering is often based on serious misconceptions.
For example, recent studies have shown that net immigration has actually dropped and that-somewhat ironically- many Eastern Europeans are returning to their home Countries because they think there are better opportunities there.
There also seems to be a misconception that coming to the United Kingdom is easy.
I remember the shock on my English friends’ face when I explained to her how difficult and tedious the process of getting a visa is.
The media make it look like all you have to do is sign a form and you’ll be let into the Country without any hassle whatsoever.
Certain sections of the media have promoted this idea that there is an open-border policy and the UK government lets in everyone who applies, irrespective of the strength of their claims.
The BNP may be growing here, but it does yet have the influence of similar far-right parties in Countries like France and Holland or Eastern Europe.
The fact that many people in the UK passionately oppose the BNP is heartening. When their leader Nick Griffin came here to Manchester to hold a press conference, he was pelted with eggs and he had to flee the premises.
Still, anti-immigration and racist parties are going to be a feature of Europe for a long time to come. The United Kingdom may be late in jumping on this particular bandwagon, but sadly the success of the BNP shows that even this enlightened nation is not immune from this plague.