— Two Polish immigrants were eating takeout pizza against a brick wall on a muggy night in Harlow
, a working-class town about 20 miles northeast of central London.
As they chatted in Polish
, witnesses said, a group of young boys and girls attacked them. The group repeatedly pummeled and kicked one of the men, Arkadiusz Jozwik, 40, a meat factory worker, in the head. He died two days later from his injuries, in a killing that the police are investigating as a possible hate crime.
The second man, who was not identified by the police, was hospitalized with bruises and hand fractures.
Six boys from Harlow — five 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old — have been arrested on suspicion of murder in the attack, which occurred shortly before midnight on Saturday. All have been released on bail. The police have appealed for witnesses to come forward, and they said they were investigating reports that the attackers had hurled racist abuse at the victims.
The brutality of the killing and its apparent targeting of immigrants shocked many Britons and prompted soul-searching. It renewed alarm among Eastern European immigrants that the campaign leading to Britain’s decision in a June 23 referendum to leave the European Union
, known as “Brexit,” has unleashed a wave of xenophobia.
Before the vote, members of the far-right who supported leaving the bloc played adroitly on concerns about unchecked immigration, warning that the union’s open borders threatened the British way of life, made the country vulnerable to terrorism and hurt workers. One poster, released during the campaign by the far-right U.K. Independence Party, showed a seemingly endless line of migrants and the words “Breaking Point.”
The killing has shaken the close-knit multicultural community in Harlow, which has a large Polish population. Dozens of residents participated in a candlelit vigil; some held signs saying “migrants and refugees welcome here.” Others lay flowers in a makeshift memorial on the street where the attack took place. One note read, “Not everyone in Harlow is as evil as those people.”
Poles constitute the largest number of foreign-born residents of Britain
, with 831,000 of them in the country, and the assault in Harlow added to a string of attacks against them. In June, shortly after the referendum, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in the Hammersmith district of London, home to a large Polish community, was vandalized.
In early July, laminated cards with abusive messages like “No more Polish vermin” and “Go home, Polish scum” were left on cars and at several properties in Cambridgeshire, north of London
The death of Mr. Jozwik has been devastating for his family. His brother, Radoslaw Jozwik, spoke this week outside the pizzeria with his wife, Sylwia. He said that his mother, who had worked alongside Arkadiusz at the meat factory, was struggling to cope with his death.
“My mum came back from holiday and did not know what had happened,” Radoslaw Jozwik told reporters. “We had to meet her at Stansted Airport and tell her, and then take her straight to the hospital. She is really struggling.”
He said his brother, who came to Britain four years ago to work, had been targeted because he was Polish. “The police have told us he was attacked because they heard him and his friends speaking the Polish language,” he said. “He was standing, eating pizza and they picked on him because of that. He does not speak much English.”
He added, “After the Brexit vote it has got worse — I have seen people change — it is hard at the moment.”
Arkady Rzegocki, Poland’s recently appointed ambassador to Britain, said in an interview that he feared the decision to leave the European Union had given license to xenophobia, and that more minorities were being targeted. He visited the crime scene in Harlow on Wednesday and met with Mr. Jozwik’s family. He plans to participate in a “march of silence” organized by the Polish community on Saturday.
“This was a big tragedy, and I was very shocked,” Mr. Rzegocki said by telephone. “The truth, unfortunately, is that before the Brexit referendum there was less xenophobia and racism. Now, we are seeing an increase in such incidents.”
He was joined at the site of the killing by Robert Halfon, the Conservative member of Parliament for Harlow, who lamented that a “very small minority” was using the referendum result to exploit divisions and pursue a racist agenda. Such people, he added, “come from the sewers.”
Mr. Halfon added that Polish immigration to Harlow had helped regenerate the town, which is dotted with grocery stories run by immigrants.
The killing has reverberated in Poland. The left-wing political party Razem posted a statement expressing solidarity with the victim’s family. “The racist and xenophobic attitudes are reaping an increasingly horrid harvest,” it said.
Pawel Robert Kowal, a former member of the European Parliament, told the Polish news channel TVN24 BiS that the scapegoating of minorities by politicians had empowered hooligans. “Today, those who use anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if innocently, are doubly guilty,” he said.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, was scheduled to meet with his Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, in Potsdam, Germany
, on Thursday to discuss recent attacks on Poles in Britain.
According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the number of reported hate crimes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has jumped 46 percent, to 1,831 in the week after the June 23 referendum from the comparable week a year earlier. More recently, in the period from July 22 to 28, reports of hate crimes had jumped 34 percent from a year earlier. The police cautioned, however, that the rise could be attributed in part to higher awareness of hate crimes.
Mr. Rzegocki, the ambassador, emphasized that there had been an outpouring of support from residents of Harlow, and from Britons of all walks of life, since the killing.
“There are two faces of Britain,” he said.