A video showing a 15-year-old refugee from Syria being choked and bullied outside a school in Northern England has prompted outrage across the U.K. and raised questions about how to combat rising hate crime.
The video shows the teenager, named Jamal, being assaulted by an older boy who grabs him by the throat and throws him to the ground before pouring water in his face. The older boy can be heard saying, “I’ll drown you.” Jamal, who is wearing a cast, walks away after the attack as a group of students laughs.
The incident happened in late October near the Almondbury Community School in Huddersfield, northwest of Manchester, but it only surfaced on social media this week. On Wednesday, West Yorkshire Police said a 16-year-old boy will appear in youth court on charges of assault.
This was not the first time Jamal and his family have suffered abuse since fleeing Homs in Syria and arriving in Britain in 2016 through a United Nations refugee program. Police said Jamal had suffered a wrist injury in another attack in October and a lawyer representing the family told reporters on Wednesday that his younger sister had been bullied so much at the same school that she tried to kill herself.
A video of her being shoved to the ground was posted on Wednesday. “She had her headscarf ripped off in the playground,” Mohammed Akunjee, a London-based lawyer, told the Daily Mirror newspaper. “She has also attempted suicide and tried to cut her wrists with a shard of glass, the level of bullying got so much.”
Britain has taken in more than 10,000 Syrian refugees in the past two years, far fewer than several other European countries; a large number have settled in Scotland and northern England. The Huddersfield incidents come at a time of increased tension over immigration.
The number of recorded hate crimes has more than doubled in the last five years to 94,098 as of March, 2018, and most of that was race related, according to a report released by the Home Office in October. It noted that while hate-crime reporting to police has increased, “there have been spikes in hate crime following certain events such as the [2016 Brexit referendum] and the terrorist attacks in 2017.” Police reports said that people from Eastern Europe were particularly singled out for abuse around the referendum, which focused partly on “taking back control of our borders.”
Liam Hackett, the chief executive of the anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label, which conducts an annual survey of British youth, said that since the Brexit referendum they have seen an increase in the bullying of students who come from other European countries, particularly in small towns. These trends and attitudes – fed by a political narrative, he said, that “demonizes” groups of people based on their culture and religion – eventually “trickle down and influence young people.”
The recent videos of the Syrian students have led to widespread condemnation and an outpouring of offers to help the family. More than 5,600 people have contributed to an online GoFundMe campaign that has so far raised more than £84,000 pounds, or $143,000. “Jamal’s family are refugees in the U.K. and they struggle to meet the basic necessities of life,” Mohammed Tahir, who organized the fundraising, said in a statement. “The video was heartbreaking to watch and I just wanted to help them out in any way I could.”
Local Member of Parliament Barry Sheerman has called the incident “absolutely shocking.” Jamal’s family is now under police protection. In a letter to parents, the school’s head teacher, Trevor Bowen, said officials were co-operating with police and added, “This situation is being taken extremely seriously.”
The Huddersfield videos suggest a familiar scenario, said Tracy Vaillancourt, a research chair on youth mental health at the University of Ottawa: There’s the public humiliation of someone different from the group, the flock of silent bystanders – some fearful perhaps, others endorsing – and a high-status boy abusing his social power with impunity. “If these people didn’t have the support of their peer groups, they wouldn’t do it,” said Prof. Vaillancourt, who conducts a long-standing survey on bullying.
A recent international study by Prof. Vaillancourt found the chances of being bullied because of race were higher in schools where a particular group composed only a small percentage of the student body. In Canada, Indigenous students experience the highest rates of bullying.
Authorities in Britain have requested that people not share or “like” the video of the Huddersfield assaults. Prof. Vaillancourt said that parents should talk pre-emptively about bullying to their children, making it clear they will be supportive. “Kids don’t tell us because they think we will screw it up,” she said, when in fact, research shows that telling a trusted adult almost always make the situation better. Her studies found that most victims do not tell anyone, a percentage that rises with age, until it is roughly 86 per cent in Grade 12. By the time parents and teachers hear, she said, “it is pretty much at the worst possible point in their lives.”