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(27 Oct 2016) 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.
“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 was among hundreds of thousands of Poles who seized the opportunity when the EU expanded into eastern Europe in 2004 to move to Britain, regarded as a welcoming country with a flexible labour 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 that said things like, “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 bloc – after a “leave” campaign that urged people to “take back control” – is in part a renunciation of that borderless ideal.
The support for leaving the EU was swelled by citizens who felt the presence of so many people from other EU countries was making Britain less “British” and making it harder for Britons to find jobs, housing, and medical care.
One campaign poster featured a long line of migrants beside the slogan “breaking point.”
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 derogatory,” said Suresh Grover of the Monitoring Group, a charity that works with victims of hate crime.
“People who have racist views have become emboldened and they now keep on saying things that were seen to be unacceptable,” he adds.
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 offences 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 centre; 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 parlour in Harlow, about 20 miles (32 kilometres) north of London. The 40-year-old was felled by a single punch, hit his head and died in hospital two days later.
“The hospitality of British society was very famous, and we appreciate it,” he said.
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