Tuesday, May 24

After Brexit Vote: Immigrants Feel a Town Turn Against Them



A few days after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Monika Baginski was in a supermarket, chatting with a friend on the phone in her native Polish, when a man followed her down the aisle. “You foreigner,” Ms. Baginski recalled him saying. “You’ll be out soon.”

Ms. Baginski, 32, said she was stunned. Until that moment, she had never been the target of abuse, even in Boston, a port town on the east coast of England where rancor between longtime residents and the fast-growing population of recent immigrants has been simmering for years.

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But since Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, latent hostility toward the new arrivals — most of whom came to Boston from Central and Eastern Europe under rules that let European Union citizens live and work anywhere in the bloc — has burst into the open, many immigrants say. Many in the Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Romanian communities in the area are anxiously considering whether they should stay in Britain, or whether they even want to.

“Something is broken in this town,” said Paul Gleeson, a Labour Party councilor in Boston, where 76 percent of voters supported leaving the European Union, the highest pro-“Brexit” proportion in the country. “This veneer of propriety has suddenly disappeared.’’

In this new environment, some immigrants say they have stopped speaking their native tongue in public. Nervous mothers say they worry about their children being bullied at school. Young immigrants say they fear discrimination over jobs and university admissions.

Gregory Pacho, who is Polish-Italian, runs a thriving taxi company. For the first time in the 16 years he has lived in Boston, he said, he has given serious thought to moving out, prompted by a leaflet on his car’s windshield that read, “Did you pack your bags yet?”

Some of his English clients, with whom he joked over the years, no longer talk to him. “In one week, you experience that some people you’ve known for three years change their attitudes 180 degrees,” he said.

Magdalena Korzeb, 34, said she had long considered herself half-Bostonian, having worked, paid taxes and lived here for 11 years with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. Not anymore.

“I feel used. Eleven years wasted. Eleven years ago, they were so happy to invite us here,” she said at the Delight Pub, a Polish bar that she owns on West Street. (English locals call it “East Street” because of the number of Eastern European shops.) “I could now close my shop, pack my bags and say, ‘Bye-bye.’”

Polish and Chinese shops sharing a neighborhood in Boston, where 76 percent of voters supported leaving the European Union. Boston, a town of 67,000 residents, relies heavily on immigrants to work the nearby vegetable and potato fields and prepare food sold in British supermarkets for the minimum wage. Few immigrants claim welfare benefits. Their large presence — by some estimates immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe constitute more than 10 percent of the local population — has helped transform the region into a center for Britain’s agro-industry.

But the town came to epitomize the nation’s rising antagonism against immigration, a central issue for voters in the referendum on June 23.

Boston experienced a sixfold increase in foreign-born residents from 2001 to 2011, and the non-British population appears to have continued growing in the last five years, official statistics show. The rapid influx put a strain on housing, jobs, policing, hospitals and schools, which have scrambled to find more teachers of English. And a sharp rise in the number of murders involving foreigners, in a historically sleepy town, helped inflame English residents.

Across Britain, hundreds of instances of racial abuse and hate crimes have been reported since the referendum, aimed not just at immigrants from European Union nations but also at blacks, Muslims and Asians from other places who were not central to the debate over European immigration. A Polish family’s home in Plymouth was set on fire on Thursday; the family was sent a letter that read, “Go back to your country,” and a warning that the family itself would be targeted next.

In a statement before the case in Plymouth, the Polish Embassy in Britain said, “We are shocked and deeply concerned by the recent incidents of xenophobic abuse directed against the Polish community and other U.K. residents of migrant heritage.”

The attacks have shaken many Britons, who say they are proud of living in a tolerant, multicultural society, and have prompted soul-searching over British values and identity.

Magdalena Korzeb with her daughter in the pub that she runs in Boston. Some Bostonians have gone out of their way to reassure their foreign neighbors, leaving messages of support or defending them from abuse. In one case, an Englishman protected a Polish woman from being spat on in the street. And some managers at food factories have sent emails to their immigrant employees expressing appreciation for their work and urging them to stay or apply for British citizenship.

Like the town’s foreign residents, its English citizens are still unclear about what effects the vote to leave the European Union will bring. Although most of the candidates seeking to succeed David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister have sought to reassure European immigrants that they will not have to leave, no one really knows what residency status the immigrants will have once Britain negotiates its exit from the bloc or whether the flow of people into the country will reverse itself.

In any case, the negotiation is likely to take at least two years once it begins, and in the meantime there is no legal barrier to more European Union immigrants moving to Britain. As local residents realize that the immigrants are unlikely to be sent home soon — despite intimations of such an outcome by some Brexit advocates — frustration in Boston is mounting.

Mr. Pacho, the taxi-company owner, described the atmosphere as a balloon ready to burst with a single prick if it becomes clear that immigrants will not be forced to leave.

“What if the government says, ‘Let’s actually stay in the E.U.,’ or ‘We can’t end freedom of movement’?” he asked. “It will be a third world war here. Businesses will be destroyed. I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.”

Some residents said the outbursts of racial abuse could reflect Leave voters’ disappointment at having to face, for months or even years, the very people they had implicitly rejected in the referendum.

“Welcome to a new England!” was commonly heard in Boston right after the vote, residents said, shouted from windows and cars. In a street lined with Eastern European shops, a car was recently parked with two English flags fluttering from its side mirrors.

There is anecdotal evidence that some immigrants are already leaving. The vote has affected the value of the pound. So some migrant workers, like factory employees or truck drivers, are already starting to return to the Continent because their salaries are worth less in the Polish zlotys, euros or Romanian leu that they send to help support families in their native countries.

Stephen Raven, a councilor in Boston who is a member of the anti-immigration, anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party, said he was taking some of the anti-immigrant behavior displayed here in stride.

“The first year is going to be very awkward, but you have to get past the storm,” he said. “There’s always going to be controversy either way.”

On a recent evening at the Delight Pub, a Polish factory worker and a couple of longtime English clients were sipping Tyskie, a Polish beer. Polish rap and R&B blared from the sound system, and two young women twirled on an empty dance floor lit up by purple lights.

“I ask my daughter every day: ‘Have you been all right at school? Has anyone been nasty to you?’” Ms. Korzeb said, referring to reports that someone had scribbled the names of some schoolchildren from immigrant backgrounds on the school’s toilet stalls alongside the words “Go home.”

She said she was riddled with doubts. “Is someone going to come and make our lives so difficult for us so that we leave? Are they going to cut services for us? What are they going to do without us?” she asked. “I’m thinking about my daughter. What did I do to her? All her childhood is here.”

“Oh, my God. It was a mistake to come here.”