Mitko Holub went to his local shop in Luton, in southern England, when the impact of Brexit touched his life.
“As I was walking home, a group of young men, about my age, surrounded me. They told me ‘we voted leave, now get out’ and ‘we don’t want you gyppos here’.”
He ran and managed to escape before the situation escalated into violence, but was shaken by the experience.
Holub, 29, moved to the UK from his native Slovakia in 2006, two years after the country was one of eight Eastern European countries to be admitted out the European Union. As part of the Romani gypsy minority, he and his family had faced significant discrimination in Slovakia, and hoped for a better life in the United Kingdom.
“This verbal abuse brought back very bad memories for me because I had been badly beaten by a group of skinheads in Slovakia when I returned for a holiday a few years before. Everyone in the community is very afraid about what will happen to us now,” Holub told Al Jazeera.
On June 23, Britain voted by a small majority to leave the European Union, putting the future of all EU migrants resident in the UK into question. The referendum campaign was dominated by divisive rhetoric and scare stories about immigration. One notorious poster unveiled by UKIP showed a queue of dark-skinned migrants under the caption “Breaking Point”.
In the aftermath of the vote, xenophobic and racist hate crimes surged by 57 percent, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council saying it was the worst spike in British history. Eastern European migrants have been a particular target of such xenophobia. Polish community centres and shops have been vandalised, while stories of verbal abuse proliferate.
“Roma migrants tend to have the double whammy: they’re not just Eastern European migrants, they’re also Roma Eastern European migrants,” says Shay Clipson, an advocate with the National Alliance of Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma Women.
“They may be Czech Roma, or Slovak Roma, but the other Czechs and Slovaks don’t particularly like them either. Many are here because they are escaping persecution in their countries of origin. They are not just here to make a living, they are here so that they can live,” says Clipson.
The Roma are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe, with a population of about 12 million living mostly in Eastern Europe, often in extreme poverty and subject to discrimination and segregation. A significant number moved to the UK after their countries of origin joined the EU in 2004.
While the British government was keen to downplay the numbers, even refusing to drawn up a comprehensive integration plan for the European Commission, a 2013 study by the University of Salford estimated that there were at least 200,000 Roma migrants in the UK. Many were attracted by the relatively low levels of discrimination and better job opportunities.
Yet even in the UK, this is a marginalised group. Tabloid headlines and television shows regularly give a one-sided view of Roma criminality and the supposed strain they place on state resources.
During the referendum campaign, The Sun newspaper published a story under the headline “Exiting EU may be the only way Britain can dump gypsy gangsters building lavish mansions with YOUR cash”. After the result, the Daily Mail followed up with “Romanians who built mansions back home with money earned in UK vow to STAY here”.
Given this hostile media and political climate, there has been profound anxiety among the UK’s Roma migrant community following the Brexit vote. “Advice and advocacy workers have been inundated with people asking if there is a likelihood of deportation,” says Andy Shallice, information and policy officer at the Roma Support Group.
Petr Torak is a Czech Roma migrant who lives in Peterborough, England.
“I’ve been here years and I know they’re not going to deport me, but it is very stressful to think about the unknown. People are panicked, they are under extra stress and discomfort and many have already experienced and witnessed hate crimes.
“I have felt the same anxiety: the British population don’t want us. It is a perception, but people in the community say they feel very unwelcome now, because a majority of the society said ‘leave’.” He is working to establish a mental health helpline to support Roma families concerned about their future in Britain.
Although Roma migrants are frequently portrayed as a sap on welfare, the British economy is dependent on migrants for low-skilled work. “There’s a demand for Roma work in Britain and yet they are seen socially and culturally as the last in the pecking order of people regarded as ‘deserving’ migrants in Britain,” says Shallice. “At a time when the climate is already anti-migrant, the Roma are towards the bottom.”
While those who have been in the UK for more than five years are eligible to apply for permanent residence, intense anxiety about what the future holds remains.
“Obviously there’s a fear, not for themselves but for their children,” says Torak. “Many have been here five, seven, 10 years, and their children are more English now than Czech or Slovak.”