'Brexit' foes trade barbs on race as debate heats up

 An Operation Black Vote poster stirs debate by encouraging ethnic minorities to vote in next month's referendum on the EU.

Story highlights

  • Britain's right-wing media accuse campaign poster of skinhead vs. South Asian woman as divisive
  • Group behind poster: Minorities have equal sway in vote on "Brexit," Britain's exit from EU

London (CNN)Whether Britain should stay in or out of the European Union is quickly becoming part of a racially charged debate if the campaign posters for the June 23 referendum are anything to go by.

The latest to cause a stir depicts a skinhead and a South Asian woman in a traditional sari on a seesaw. He aggressively points a finger at the woman, but she is unbothered, smug even -- despite her small stature, she holds equal weight.
    The poster has drawn criticism from the UK's right-wing media and many on Twitter, who have called it racist and divisive in the vote on the so-called Brexit -- Britain's exit from the EU.
    But to Operation Black Vote, the organization behind the poster, the message is clear -- Britain's ethnic minorities have equal sway. There are more than 4 million people from ethnic minority groups in Britain who are eligible to vote in the referendum, yet 30% are not registered and the majority historically do not turn out to the polls, the organization says.
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    It is also a response to what the group sees as racist and xenophobic campaigning around next month's referendum.
    "Many people feel that this debate, whether it's the Remain or the Leave camps, has been characterized by anger, not much objective information, and at times the demonization of foreigners and in particular people of color. Our campaign poster illustrates that," the organization said in a statement.
    Migration has been a key issue in the referendum debate. Prime Minister David Cameron brokered a deal with the EU that would allow Britain to freeze an array of benefits for immigrants if it voted to stay in the bloc.
    The Office of National Statistics released data Thursday showing long-term net migration to the UK rose to 333,000 in 2015, the second-highest figure on record.
    But this figure was up by 20,000 people when compared with 2014, an amount that the data agency said was not statistically significant.
    Operation Black Vote is not new to controversy. Several months ago ahead of the general election, it released posters of black people with their faces painted white with the message: "If you don't register to vote, you're taking the color out of Britain." The campaign, designed with advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, drew both criticism and support.
    The Vote Leave campaign has also ruffled feathers for using Turkey as a reason to turn Britons off the EU. Turkey has applied to join the bloc and has made progress in recent months.
    In another poster, the campaign highlights the fact that the EU may soon share a border with Syria.
    It also draws attention to the money being put into the Balkans, a region that was hit with conflict in the 1990s but that is now largely peaceful.
    The Vote Remain campaign, known as Britain Stronger in Europe, is also trying to encourage a certain demographic to register for the vote -- millennials.
    Its #VOTIN campaign uses terms such as "chillin," "tourin" and "ravin" to attract the youth vote, sending Twitter into a flurry of laughter and mockery.
    Some young Britons have said they find the campaign patronizing, while others seem offended by the stereotyping of millennials.
    London Mayor Sadiq Khan also is encouraging young Britons in the capital to turn out and vote, saying they can benefit from cultural and student exchanges that the EU offers.
    In his first official speech, he showed his support for the Vote Remain campaign, celebrating the diversity Britain has embraced.
    In the mayoral election, Khan pegged himself as one of Britain's migrant success stories, the son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver who grew up in council housing.
    He made headlines after criticizing Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has suggested the United States ban Muslims from entering the country. After Khan's election, Trump said he would make an exception for London's first Muslim mayor. Khan brushed off the hypothetical invitation.
    In an interview with CNN after his speech, Khan said that Trump's views on Islam were "ignorant."
    "My point about Donald Trump is that he inadvertently plays into the extremists' hands by giving the impression that Western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam or that there's a clash of civilizations. I don't think there is, and if he came to London he'd see the best of West and the best of Islam as well," he said.
    "But my point today, there's also a patriotic case to remain in the European Union. We've always been an open city -- walk down any high street, you'll see a Spanish tapas bar or an Italian restaurant. You'll see fashion in London, not just from London, but also from Paris, from Milan, from Barcelona. We're an outward-looking, open city. That's always been the London that I know and love, and I'm hoping that will be the London of the future as well."