BOSTON, England (Reuters) - Polish migrant Sylwia has lived with her family for six years working various jobs in the small English town of Boston which she now calls home.
But after its residents overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union in last week’s referendum, the 45-year old mother of two says she no longer feels welcome.
“We’ve started to hear of Polish people being told by locals to go home,” she said, too anxious to give her surname. “Some were sworn at, even by children. Many people are scared.”
The town in the rural county of Lincolnshire saw the arrival of thousands of eastern European migrants in the last decade, drawn to jobs picking vegetables and packaging food.
According to the Office for National Statistics, Boston had Britain’s fastest increase in the percentage of people who described themselves as white but not British in the last census. A place with virtually no foreigners at all in 2001, it was more than 15 percent foreign-born by 2011, with many of the newcomers from the EU’s poor, former Communist east.
Last week, the natives gave their response. More than 75 percent voted to leave the EU, the biggest margin of victory for “Brexit” in the country, after a campaign focused on calls to curtail immigration.
Now the local Polish community is worried the anti-EU feeling stirred up in the tense campaign is translating into open aggression.
Police in neighbouring Cambridgeshire have said offensive leaflets towards Poles were distributed in the town of Huntingdon. In London, graffiti was sprayed on a Polish cultural center at the weekend. Islamic groups have also noted a rise in incidents against Muslims since Friday.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council noted a 57 percent increase in reports of hate crime incidents to the police online hate crime reporting site, True Vision, in the days following the referendum compared to the same period last month.
In Boston, many of more than a dozen Poles interviewed by Reuters said they had heard of instances of verbal abuse. The front gate of a Polish restaurant had been knocked down on referendum night, though its owners were wary of linking the incident to anti-Polish sentiment.
“People are worried attitudes will change and English people may show more aggression towards Poles,” said Patrycja Walentynowicz, whose Lincs PL business offers translation and other services to Poles.
“One of my friends heard very unpleasant comments when she spoke in Polish outside a school,” she said, although she said she was also reassured by expressions of support from residents.
Her co-founder at the company, Iga Paczkowska, said she had already noticed a change.
“I don’t know why but people...have been expecting that if they voted out, day by day we’re just going to disappear,” she said. “When they woke up on 24 June and realized we are still here, they became a little bit more open about their feelings.”
In a joint statement on Tuesday, Boston Borough council and police said they would take action if any hate crime was reported.
“All law-abiding residents of Boston borough who are here legally should be treated the same – with dignity and respect – whether indigenous or from other parts of the world,” they said.
“The police will not tolerate hate crime and will robustly investigate and prosecute. This is a tolerant community, reflected by no incidents of hate crime reported so far. We appeal for continued calm and understanding.”
Boston, dotted with Polish shops selling pickled cabbage and smoked sausages and restaurants serving pierogi dumplings alongside Lithuanian stores offering their specialities, was named “the least integrated place” in Britain in a January report by right-leaning Policy Exchange.
Last week, Jonathan Noble, local councillor for the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), told Reuters those working and settled “had nothing to fear” after the Brexit vote.
“Our message to them is one of reassurance,” he said. “The people who have come here, most have come here to work and you can understand they want to make a better life for themselves and their families...All it (Brexit) means in the future is that we will be able to control immigration from the EU.”
Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned harassment of foreigners and spoke to Polish counterpart Beata Szydlo to reassure her Poles in Britain would be protected. Most Poles are Catholic, and the leader of Catholics in England and Wales has also spoken out.
“This upsurge of racism, of hatred towards others is something we must not tolerate,” Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols said in a statement. “We have to say this is simply not acceptable in a humane society and it should never be provoked or promoted.”
According to 2014 official figures, there are some 790,000 Poles living in the UK, making it the second-largest overseas-born population in Britain after those from India. Polish is Britain’s most common native language after English, beating Welsh.
“I think that by leaving the European Union, Britain has made a big mistake,” said 31-year-old Pole Slawomir, who works in fields and plants around Boston.
“They are going to be curbing immigration ...it’s not clear what it is going to be like, what the rules of the new prime minister are going to be? Are they going to deport people and leave residents? Will those who are already here stay and those who want to come in face problems? Only time will tell.”
editing by Peter Graff