Andrzej Rygielski, a Polish retail manager, filmed adolescents throwing objects at his house. He says it’s not the first time he’s been targeted since he came to the UK in 2005. It is estimated that hate crimes against Poles in Britain have increased tenfold in the last decade.
Andrzej Rygielski described his experience of racism in the UK: “It’s getting worse and worse. This year I’ve been attacked at the beginning of the year in the shop because I’m Polish. People are shouting on the street after me, and also some customers, after realising that I came from Poland, ask me when will I go home.”
Tommy Tomescu is a Romanian dentist who has been working in London since 2010. He says the current political climate has paved the way for scaremongering tactics – blaming Eastern Europeans for taking jobs or exploiting Britain’s welfare system. Earlier this year Tomescu set up the Alliance Against Romanian and Bulgarian Discrimination.
He explained: “In one year, from 2013 to 2014, the number of racial attacks against Eastern Europeans has doubled. In some areas even quadrupled and this has happened because of the political agenda and because of what has been in the media, because the number of Romanians and Bulgarians or Polish didn’t double. So why did this number in racial hate attacks increase?”
Part of the answer could lie in the sheer number of Eastern European migrants who have come to the UK since joining the European Union. For Poland alone, it’s estimated there are more than half a million Poles working and living in Britain.
In Southampton, it is estimated that around one out of ten of the city’s 250,000 residents is Polish. Many people agree that EU migrants have revived and transformed Southampton with new shops, companies and jobs. But others claim they’ve put a strain on public benefits such as housing and health services.
Tomasz Dyl was thirteen years old when he came to Southampton with his parents and sister ten years ago. Today he has his own marketing company and was voted Southampton’s young entrepreneur of the year. He also hosts a weekly radio show in Polish.
For Tomasz, the idea that Eastern Europeans exploit Britain’s benefits system is false: “If you look at the statistics, Eastern European citizens have actually put more money into the government than they’ve taken out. And it’s the migrants from non-EU countries that are actually claiming more benefits. And to a lot of companies, Eastern Europeans are saviours because they’re the ones who are actually doing the work. And if you look at hotels, restaurants, cleaners and everything most of them will be of Eastern European nationality.”
But despite this contribution, EU migration has become a growing concern for a majority of British people. While some see the advantages, others worry Britain’s benefit system is at a breaking point.
In the UK there seems to be a widespread feeling that there is something wrong, and a sense that immigration can no longer be controlled. It’s a message several British tabloids have hammered home over the past two years: that the only way to stop Romanians, Bulgarians or other EU migrants from taking jobs or using Britain’s overburdened welfare system is to leave the European Union.
This message that is political music to UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), which has campaigned on one issue only: leave the EU to regain control.
And Mark Reckless is UKIP’s man of the hour. He UKIP’s second MP after defecting from David Cameron’s Conservative party and being re-elected to the same seat as a UKIP candidate.
He has been criticized for saying an EU exit could lead to the deportation of some EU migrants but claims his comments were taken out of context: “Many of the people here are making a huge contribution to the country and I wouldn’t want to single out any nationality. It’s a question of overall numbers and at the last elections the Conservatives said they would cut immigration from hundreds and thousands a year to tens of thousands a year on a net basis. It’s now gone back up to the levels we saw under labour. But we want to be fair and treat people with a commonwealth heritage, people from outside the EU, on the same basis as people from inside the EU.
Reckless was the guest of honour at a Bruges Group conference – a group lobbying for EU reforms and raising doubts that Cameron can renegotiate the UK’s EU membership with Brussels.
Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard defends Cameron, but concedes that if there is no UK-EU compromise, Britain’s relationship with Brussels could be settled by a UK referendum: “Clearly EU migration brings economic and social benefits to Britain but the majority of people see huge pressures on public services, on housing, on GP surgeries, on hospitals and schools and they’re saying enough is enough. So we need to reconfigure, realign our relationship with Europe. If Brussels rebuffs the prime minister then I think the British people will probably vote to leave in December of 2017.”
There is little doubt the pressure is on David Cameron. A recent opinion poll said that over 70 percent of British would like to see a reduction in immigration numbers. But an even larger majority of 80 percent believe he won’t be able to reduce the number of EU immigrants coming to Britain.
Freedom of movement of peoples and goods is a fundamental EU right and non-negotiable.
For Rafael Behr, a political columnist with left-wing UK daily The Guardian, says increasing the period new arrivals in the UK must wait before being able to claim benefits is one measure Cameron could offer to both voters at home and his European counterparts: “There is this very very tiny area that he’s concentrating on right now which is benefits claimed by European migrants. And it does appear that you can adjust some of the regulations around that without changing European treaties. And that’s exactly why David Cameron is zeroing in on that. Because he thinks that is something he can achieve where he can on one face turn to the British public and say, you’re angry about these foreigners coming and taking benefits, I’m going to crack down on that. And then he can turn to his European partners and say, this is something we can actually do without dismantling European treaties which none of them want to do. And that is why that has become really where it’s now focused.”
But meanwhile back at Southampton’s unity radio station, using immigration as a political tool is nothing new. Ram Kalyan, the manager at Unity 101 Radio Station, said: “Immigration has been an issue from day one and it really is political ping-pong being played leading up to the general elections. I think if you listen to the people on the street, they say we have wonderful friends from Lithuania, Poland, Pakistan India, Africa and it’s great. But at the same time, there are always going to be some people, wherever they come from, who will abuse the system, who will take advantage of the system but that’s the way human beings work.”