While I did not find the increase in the anti-immigrant rhetoric and comments towards ordinary migrants unexpected, I was shaken to read today about the suspected (*if nothing changes until publication of this article. If it is 100% confirmed, this word to be removed*) racist graffiti at my former workplace, the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in London. In the last days, numerous similar incidents with messages against EU migration and Eastern Europeans in particular have been reported on social media. Some of the hostile attitudes towards Eastern Europeans affects people who I know personally.
The vandalised entrance is not just a consequence of the Leave vote and the campaign preceding it. Racist, xenophobic and hostile attitudes to migrants are related to years of negative, rarely challenged public discourse that vilifies Eastern European migrants in the UK, and decades of mystification of the EU.
The Polish Social and Cultural Association is a place that used to sit comfortably in London's multicultural and multi-ethnic mosaic. The centre is a symbolic hub for solidarity: it was founded by Polish people who fought with the UK against Nazism during the Second World War. It is a place for inter-generational exchange between the Polish who arrived after 2004 and those with Polish heritage.
Together with the organisations it hosts, POSK makes a positive contribution to the socio-economic integration of the Polish in the UK, and to other people's understanding of Polish culture. From cultural events, Polish cuisine and training courses, to services that support migrants to access their rights, this is a place where most Polish in the UK feel at home.
This is a place, which welcomes others. When I joined the charity East European Advice Centre (EEAC) which is hosted by POSK, I got a wonderful welcome from the then Polish-only team and chair of trustees. While Romanians and Polish are not as close linguistically or historically as Czechs and Slovaks for example, I felt welcome. For example, when I worked at EEAC I organised the first free information session on employment and labour exploitation, to support Romanians to challenge unfair working conditions and payment under the national minimum wage. This type of support aimed to empower migrants to reject employment that drives down standards and wages for all workers in the UK.
Politicians have been shy in defending or even highlighting the contribution of European migrants in the UK. European migrants, and particularly Eastern Europeans are not a popular cause in the UK. In the past ten years, it has become acceptable to associate over 2 million European workers in the UK to undeserving benefit recipients and to blame them for anything that does not work in the UK: housing shortage, access to jobs and the NHS.
The Labour MP Andy Slaughter and the Conservative MP Greg Hands, whose constituencies are the closest to POSK, have made statements in support of Polish people on Twitter immediately after the graffiti news broke. These statements, while welcome, amount to little, and they come too late. Why didn't they challenge both the establishment and anti-establishment political discourse on migration from the EU, the freedom of movement, which had implicitly referred to Eastern Europeans? Racist comments about Europeans have become normalised.
The first and only time in ten years when I did not feel welcome in the UK was when Nigel Farage mentioned in 2014 that he would be afraid to live next to Romanians, and associated them with crime and human trafficking. On the same day I read about his comments, I could not think about anything else. I felt singled out for my ethnicity. I dreaded going back to my flat in North London, and I was anxious about meeting my neighbours. As I eventually went home and I went up the narrow stairs, I went past a neighbour and I could not look him in the eye. I started thinking: "Do they know I am Romanian? Are they afraid now?". Looking back, I know I was irrational. I had a highly skilled job, I had friends from all over the world who were also equally appalled, and my neighbours were always polite and helpful. But I could not help worrying for days after. I also knew that other people in low skilled or low paid jobs had it much worse - discrimination based on ethnicity/nationality was in the top five employment issues that Eastern European migrants disclosed when using the services of the charity I worked at.
Almost no MP from either the Labour or Conservative party publicly challenged Farage's comment. The only one who was brave enough to say publicly (to my knowledge) that these types of comments are what they are - racist - was David Lammy MP. The only MP who reacted to the emails I sent was Jeremy Corbyn, at the time just a backbencher. Corbyn replied personally to my email because he was "appalled by Farage and his comments and the constant denigration of Romanian people by him and some of the media."
For years European migrants in the UK have been portrayed negatively. There have been decades of misinformation about the European Union membership, ranging from financial and economic aspects to social issues. Coupled with the uncertainty and anxiety already felt by both British people and migrants about the outcome of the Leave vote, the next months and years will be crucial in terms of community relations. Online forums and Facebook groups of EU migrants already bear testimony to the fears that many migrants have in relation to their rights to continue living and working in the UK. There is a need, more than ever, for reassurance and a consensual political and institutional responses to anti-immigrant and racist acts against migrants.
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