Brexit: The view from England’s “Little Poland”

In last week’s referendum, Boston recorded the highest percentage of votes in the UK to leave the EU.

Between 2001 and 2011 Boston's foreign-born population rose by 467 percent, the highest increase in England and Wales [Philip Kleinfeld/ Al Jazeera]
Between 2001 and 2011 Boston's foreign-born population rose by 467 percent, the highest increase in England and Wales [Philip Kleinfeld/ Al Jazeera]

Boston, United Kingdom – At first glance the town of Boston, on the east coast of England, looks like any other old English market town. A large parish church dominates the skyline and locals wander through the rain across cobbled streets and narrow passageways.

But, away from the main square, across a bridge over the River Witham and towards nearby West Street, the town starts to look and feel decidedly different.

On a 350-metre stretch of road one can find a Baltic food supplier with an EU flag on its shopfront, a Polish mini-mart beneath a flat festooned with St George’s cross flags and an information centre offering currency transfers and benefits advice to new arrivals.

According to the 2011 census, Boston, dubbed “Little Poland” by some locals, had a higher proportion of Eastern Europeans than anywhere in England and Wales.

Since the European Union expanded to include 10 new countries in 2004, thousands have flocked to the small, sleepy, East Midlands town, drawn to jobs in fields and factories and comparatively higher wages. Between 2001 and 2011, Boston’s foreign-born population rose by 467 percent, the highest increase in England and Wales.

Rising immigration 

While some local farmers have benefited from the supply of cheap migrant labour, many locals are unhappy. In last week’s EU referendum their feelings were clear, with 75.6 percent voting to leave – the highest percentage in the UK.

Like in many places across the country, the decisive issue here was immigration.

“We can’t sustain the amount of people we’ve got here,” says Nick, a 61-year-old night porter at the New England Hotel who voted to leave and gives only his first name.

“Everywhere you go, public services are being cut and yet the number of migrants is increasing. The amount of alcohol consumed in the town is probably five times what it was 10 years ago. They drink on the streets, they urinate up the walls, up the trees, in corners, they defecate in the bushes in the park. It might be good for their country but we’re a civilised country and it doesn’t go down well,” he said.

Local Labour councillor Paul Gleeson is one of few opposition voices in Boston, which recorded the highest vote in the UK to leave the EU [Philip Kleinfeld/ Al Jazeera]

Jonathan Noble, a 62-year-old local councillor with the far-right, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), says his group had an “overwhelming degree of public support” during months of campaigning in the town.

“There is competition for jobs which has had the effect of depressing wages in a low-wage area,” he says, sitting in a tweed jacket, shirt and tie outside Boston’s White Hart Hotel.

“There’s too much pressure on local schools, tremendous pressure on GP surgeries, pressure on housing. People that want to get on the council housing list are competing with foreign nationals,” Noble says. “All these things combine.”

Immigration or exploitation?

Not everyone thinks that immigration is to blame for the town’s problems, however. In a richly decorated council chamber at Boston Town Hall, local Labour councillor Paul Gleeson says migration has massively benefited the area despite the large vote to leave.

“We now have many more people working here, our shops aren’t empty and our schools are achieving well,” he says. “The only problem we have is that these people are foreign, and locals don’t like that.”

I hope the government doesn't start treating us like second-class citizens. That was my first feeling after the referendum. It was a loud signal that we are not welcome any more.

Karol Sokolowski

While Gleeson admits there are problems, he says population change has been badly managed by the local authority and businesses have been free to exploit migrant workers and depress wages.

Gleeson thinks that “the failure of authorities to react quickly enough to the change in population meant that local communities were hurt.

“But that was nothing to do with the EU and nothing to do with where the workers came from. 

“They were needed because we had the work for them. It isn’t immigration, it’s exploitation of new workers that has affected people in this town.”

At Swojskie Jadlo, a family-owned Polish restaurant near West Street, 30-year-old Karol Sokolowski says he doesn’t understand why Leave voters have such a problem with the Polish community.

Before opening the restaurant, Sokolowski says he toiled in local factories where many of his friends are still employed.

“Me and my family and most of my friends are working really hard,” he says from behind the counter.

“Most don’t take benefits. If somebody says we as Polish people are stealing jobs or taking benefits they should look around and see that we are working.”

Lithuanian community leader Jurate Matulioniene, right, sits next to her daughter Egle Matulionyte [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera] 

Increase in racist attacks

Lithuanian community leader Jurate Matulioniene says that the media is partly to blame for Boston’s large percentage of Leave voters. Matulioniene arrived in the UK with her daughter six years ago and set up the Boston Lithuanian Community, which puts on events and meets with other local groups. But she says their work receives little attention.

“It was about newspapers and the media,” she says, sitting under the shadow of St Botolph’s Church, one the largest parish churches in the UK, and pulling nervously on the drawstring of a sweatshirt.

“We have been working hard for integration. We try to organise events together. We always ask the English community. We’ve done lots of good things but not so many articles have been published,” Matulioniene says.

Since last week’s result, a surge in street harassment has been reported across the UK.

In Hammersmith, west London, racist graffiti was daubed on a Polish community centre and in Huntington, near Cambridge, leaflets saying “Leave the EU/No More Polish Vermin” were posted to the houses of Polish residents.

READ MORE: Tears, joy and a resignation as UK votes for Brexit

Finding similar stories in Boston isn’t hard.

According to a despairing Gleeson, Boston post-Brexit is now more fragmented than ever.

“We have let the genie out of the bottle,” Gleeson says. “They right now feel that they have this sort of carte blanche to be foul and obnoxious to people.”

At Swojskie Jadlo, Sokolowski says a number of his friends working in the town’s food-processing factories have faced hostility since the referendum.

“Nobody has been racist to me personally but I’ve heard things from a few of my customers who work in the factories like ‘After the referendum you can pack up and go home’.”

John Wakefield, janitor at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Boston, said he is saddened by the racial tension [Philip Kleinfeld/ Al Jazeera]

Standing by the bar, one of Sokolowski’s customers, a 34-year-old Polish factory worker who gives his name as Patrick, says his wife was accosted on the street on the day of the referendum.

“A man told her to stop using a foreign language,” he says. “I’m afraid about the English people attacking. People are becoming aggressive for no reason. I am worried about my future and my family’s future.”

What happens to the legal status of EU migrants already living and working in the UK is now unclear. UKIP councillor Jonathan Noble says fear of repatriation is “nonsense” but like others across the country, Boston’s diverse migrant community is now deeply uncertain.

“I’m not sure what is going to happen,” says Sokolowski.

“I hope the government doesn’t start treating us like second-class citizens. That was my first feeling after the referendum. It was a loud signal that we are not welcome any more.”

“It’s very hard to say right now how things are going to change,” adds Jurate Matulioniene’s 19-year-old daughter, Egle Matulionyte.

“There was no post-Brexit plan set up. As an individual you want to know about your future, especially if you have lived here for five years and have paid taxes. But there is no stability and at the moment you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

Father Stanislaw Kowalski, chaplain to the Polish community in Boston, hopes the community finds peace [Philip Kleinfeld/Al Jazeera]

At evening mass on Wednesday at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, John Wakefield, a 60-year-old caretaker, prepares for a service led by Polish priest Stanislaw Kowalski.

One of Boston’s few residents who voted to remain in the EU, Wakefield says the Polish community, who helped to revive this once empty church, has been badly affected.

“We had a mass in Polish on Friday night, the day after the referendum,” he says. “They were all very emotional and just bewildered, not because anything legal had changed but they were feeling that England was saying you are not welcome. You could see that was hurting them badly. Some of the women were in tears.

“To be an immigrant is not an easy situation,” adds Kowalski, sitting on a church pew as the first of the congregation begins to arrive.

He hopes that the wider Boston community finds “peace, cooperation and respecting differences”, he says before walking towards the altar, kneeling down on both knees and folding his hands in prayer.

Source : Al Jazeera


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