I visited my family in Wisbech at the weekend - the very same town which "the Baltic Mafia is terrorising" - according to this sensational report in Saturday's Daily Mail. Driving through the town, I passed a coach with a Lithuanian number plate parked outside a factory. A new influx of migrant workers? Or potential drug dealers, as the Mail would have us believe.
I read the story and was shocked by two points: first, the terrible slur on my home town, with a Russian migrant quoted as describing Wisbech as rougher than Moscow; and second, the terrible demise and wasted life of 17 year-old Alisa Dmitrijeva, said to owe £15,000 to a drug dealer. Her badly decomposed body was found on the Queen's Sandringham Estate by a dog walker in woodland near King's Lynn, on New Year's Day.
Latvian-born Miss Dmitrijeva was identified by comparing detail from her palm with records held. She was last seen in King's Lynn, on 31 August, 20 minutes from Wisbech.
With a third of Wisbech's 20,000 population now said to be eastern European, and five reported murders from their community in the last two years, a Wisbech man felt compelled to write to the Daily Mail urging the paper to highlight the "desperate situation" in the town which he claims is being ignored by politicians for fear of being branded as racist. Following its investigation, the Mail claimed that the "Baltic Mafia" was taking over English Fenland towns, terrifying local residents and ensnaring teenage girls, such as Alisa. One woman is quoted is saying she is too afraid to go out after dark as Wisbech "has changed for the worse".
I thought it was sensational drivel, until I spoke to a very well reasoned trader in the town who I respect and asked for his views on the article. To my astonishment, he agreed with it all. Yes, he said, there was an incredibly high number of migrants in the town, and 30% wouldn't be unreasonable. Yes, he said, there was an element of fear in the town and it was driving shoppers away. No, he said, he did not think the Mafia comment was exaggerated as he had seen Mercedes and BMWs with blacked out windows prowling the streets which were new to the town.
I asked the trader, "why Wisbech?" He told me that local gangmasters advertise for workers in eastern Europe, and some go to other towns like Boston, Spalding and King's Lynn for work.
So I asked the trader for his solution. "Stop giving them our benefits. They even get child benefits for their children back home", was the resolute reply from him and others in his store. Is it politically incorrect to say this? Or common sense?
He was also quite definite that many eastern Europeans were decent, hard working people, but there is a hard-core criminal element causing fear which hasn't been nipped in the bud.
Wisbech people remain fiercely loyal to their town, and many have not forgotten the drubbing it was given by the BBC and Evan Davis which claimed that locals blamed migrants for taking their jobs.
I also asked a villager from the nearby village of Outwell, who I met en route to the Fenland town, for his views about the article, and he told me he avoids Wisbech too as it had changed in recent years, preferring to shop in Downham Market instead.
This is a great disservice to the town's small businesses who are struggling to survive in today's economy, but he was adamant that Wisbech, with its fabulous Georgian properties, no longer held any appeal for him.
One other part of the article that surprised told how during a five-day police crackdown on violent crime in the area and drugs raids, £40,000 of cannabis was seized and 25 people arrested for suspected offences ranging from knifings to burglary. Surely this kind of crackdown should be happening every day to stamp out crime! There must also be concerns from the eastern European community about intimidation towards towards them as they fear reprisals from drug and crime gangs if they speak to police .
I guess I will always see Wisbech through rose-tinted spectacles, but clearly our politicians, council officers, police, traders' associations, local people and the eastern European community should be putting their heads together to discuss these issues. Every town has problems, and didn't Wisbech have its fair share before migrants moved in? I would also like to see the media focus on some success stories from hard working eastern Europeans to redress the balance of negative media reports.
Personal safety for all our citizens, and a healthy local economy, are vital for a successful community, and if there are very real concerns that they are at risk, they should be discussed openly.
Let's hope that the announcement this week by Immigration Minister Damian Green will address these issues. The Daily Telegraph reports that he is expected to outline principles behind the government's new 'selective' immigration policy that will give preferential treatment to investors, entrepreneurs and world-class artists, dancers, musicians and academics. Under the planned reforms 'fewer but better' immigrants will be allowed to settle in the UK, with those who lack the skills to help drive economic growth or contribute to UK culture facing greater scrutiny.
In 2007, Chief Constable Julie Spence of Cambridgeshire Police said more officers were needed to cope with complex problems posed by an influx of migrant workers following the expansion of the European Union. She warned it could take as much as three times longer for officers to deal with a crime involving a migrant worker.
Were her concerns heeded?
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