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When his friend Arek was killed in the street, Eric Hind had sickening evidence that the country he’d come to call home had changed. But the Polish IT consultant had started to feel uneasy even before that, as Britain prepared to vote earlier this year on whether to remain in the European Union. As debate heated up about the U.K.’s place in Europe, Hind’s outsider status was made all too clear to him.
“My landlord, who went abroad to Spain for five years, he got back and the first thing he did, before the referendum, was ask me when I am going back to Poland and saying he’s going to vote for `leave,”’ said Hind. Hind, 33, was among hundreds of thousands of Poles who seized the opportunity when the EU expanded into eastern Europe in 2004 to move to Britain: an open, welcoming country with a flexible labor market and relatively high wages. Twelve years on, he’d settled in Harlow, near London, with a family and a good job.
After the June 23 vote, Hind says he received text messages. “What time is my bus back home, have I got my passport and good luck in Poland.” Free movement among member states is a key principle of the EU, and millions of Europeans have become used to studying, working or retiring abroad. Britain’s vote to quit the EU _ after a “leave” campaign that urged people to “take back control” _ is in part a renunciation of that borderless ideal.
Anti-racism groups say the vote also unleashed a wave of xenophobia that has brought insults, abuse and physical attacks. Much of the recorded abuse has been aimed at eastern Europeans, who have come to Britain in the hundreds of thousands over the past decade _ and particularly Poles, the largest group, who number a million in the U.K.
“`Polish’ has become a derogatory word for anybody who is from Europe,” said Suresh Grover of the Monitoring Group, a charity that works with victims of hate crime. “It’s not just against eastern Europeans _ we have cases of Germans, Italians and French people,” Grover said. “The victims are people who speak a different language.”
Britons from ethnic minorities also say that have been getting more abuse. Grover said the anti-immigrant tenor of the Brexit debate _ one poster featured a long line of migrants beside the slogan “breaking point” _ “has legitimized unacceptable forms of racism that I thought couldn’t exist again.”
“We have cases where the n-word is used frequently,” he said. Official figures back up anecdotal evidence of a rise in hate crime since the referendum. According to the Home Office, police recorded 1,546 racially or religiously aggravated offenses in England and Wales in the two weeks before referendum day, and 2,241 in the two weeks after it. The total for July was up 41 percent from the same month a year earlier. August’s level was lower, but still higher than before for Brexit vote.
Incidents reported around the country include offensive graffiti daubed on a Polish community center; cards saying “no more Polish vermin” left on cars; a Polish man punched and kicked in Yeovil, southwest England; another Polish man beaten by a gang of teenagers in the northern city of Leeds; and a 21-year-old Polish student stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle in the English Midlands town of Telford.
On Aug. 27, a Saturday night, Hind’s friend Arkadiusz Jozwik, known as Arek, was involved in an altercation with youths outside a pizza parlor in Harlow, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of London. The 40-year-old was felled by a single punch, hit his head and died in hospital two days later. Police said they were investigating the death as a hate crime, and arrested six teens aged 15 and 16. Five have been released for lack of evidence, while one remains on bail.
Poland’s ambassador to Britain, Arkady Rzegocki, said he was “shocked and deeply concerned” by the hostility toward a community whose presence in Britain goes back to World War II, when Polish pilots fought in the Battle of Britain and a Polish government-in-exile was based in London. “The hospitality of British society was very famous, and we appreciate it,” he said.
Rzegocki said he is confident that common sense and British decency will prevail. He said the embassy has received many supportive letters from Britons condemning the attacks. And he points out that Britain is a country with low unemployment whose economy relies on migrants, including armies of Polish plumbers, nannies and fruit-pickers.
“I am sure that most of British society is very welcoming to immigrants _ especially to the Poles which had, and still have, a huge contribution to the British economy and to the British culture,” he said. He notes that for Europe, the 20th century was the era of “borders and protectionism _ and it wasn’t a good century in European history.”
No one is arguing that the referendum introduced prejudice to Britain _ earlier groups of immigrants, from Jews 100 years ago to West Indians after World War II, also experienced hostility. In the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey, about a third of people admitted to being a little or very prejudiced against other races.
“You’ve only got to hear people’s conversations on the bus over the years, saying `What’s all these foreigners coming in?”’ said Dorothy Spriggs, an 85-year-old who has lived in Harlow for almost 50 years.
Harlow is a post-World War II “new town” whose first residents included bombed-out Londoners. Over the years they’ve been joined by others _ Chinese, Indians and more recently eastern Europeans, whose shops and delis sit alongside the town’s fish-and-chip shops, Indian restaurants and kebab takeaways.
Spriggs stopped recently beside a makeshift memorial near the spot where Jozwik died: bunches of flowers, a candle and three large stuffed animals lined up neatly on benches.
“I think people should be more tolerant,” she said.
That appeal may be too late to keep Hind in Harlow, or in Britain.
He’s stopped going into town after 6 p.m. He’s planning to leave the U.K., so his 2-year-old British-born daughter can grow up somewhere she will feel safe.
“When I first moved to the U.K. I felt like it was a dream come true,” he said with quiet sadness. “It’s the country where there are no differences, people just get on with each other, there are no questions asked about where you’re from.
“But now I just have to watch my back. People are worried to use their own language in the streets. It’s not what it is supposed to be like, or what it was like before.”
Hind worries he won’t be allowed to remain in Britain even if he wants to. The government has refused to guarantee that the estimated 3 million EU nationals in Britain can stay unless U.K. citizens elsewhere in the EU get the same right. Europe’s borders are firming up again.
“It’s just not nice to live in a country where you don’t know where you stand … if you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, if someone will come to your door and say, `OK, time for you to pack your bags and go home,”’ Hind said. “Everyone wants to feel safe and I don’t think this is the case now in the U.K.”