By Alecsandra Dragoi
LONDON (Reuters) – A few months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Maria was waiting to see a doctor at a London hospital when an elderly English woman told her to go back to her native Romania.
“You are a foreigner,” Maria, who was heavily pregnant at the time, recalls the woman saying. “Your place is not here.”
Maria was stunned. Until that moment, she had never faced direct abuse over her nationality in her 10 years in the country.
But ever since the 2016 Brexit campaign – when some Leave supporters said they wanted Britain to take more control of immigration – Maria said hostility towards EU nationals such as her has come into the open.
The 31-year-old, who asked to use just her first name, said she was now preparing to leave Britain later this year with her husband and two children, fed up with what she described as xenophobia, as well as the rising cost of living in London.
“After Brexit we could all feel the obvious feeling that we are not wanted here,” Maria said. “I don’t want my kids to grow up in this sort of environment.”
She worries about her children being bullied at school. Last year her Romanian nanny and two-year-old daughter were playing in a park when a woman publicly accused them of being thieves.
Huge uncertainty still hangs over Brexit – with politicians torn between a range of options, including calling the whole thing off. But many Europeans are already voting with their feet and choosing to move.
In the year to the end of June last year, 145,000 EU nationals quit Britain, an 18 percent increase on the previous year, while the number of people arriving has slowed.
Politicians from across the political spectrum regularly say they are proud of Britain’s diverse makeup. And the government has passed legislation to let EU citizens living in the UK apply to stay after the split.
But many EU immigrants, particularly those from the poorer eastern member states such as Poland and Romania, complain they are still made to feel unwelcome.
They say they find themselves accused of stealing jobs from Britons and driving down wages, even though unemployment is at a four-decade low, or of overburdening health services.
Official figures show hate crime in Britain surged to a record level last year, up by almost a fifth, with the Brexit vote cited as a significant factor.Maria came to Britain in 2008 to work in a care home and was hoping she would earn enough buy a car. She initially planned to stay for a year but then met her Romanian husband and decided to stay longer.
On a good month from their work at a removal company, they can save about 500 pounds, enough for them to buy a house back home in Romania. They live frugally in a tiny studio apartment in Hampstead, London, with their two daughters.
They share with their elder daughter a large double bed which takes up most of the flat. There is a small table in the corner of the room where they eat their meals.
“It is very difficult because if one of the children is crying they will wake up the other one,” she said. “You can’t socialise with many people because it is very small.”
Maria said she was initially following all the news about Brexit, but now finds it perplexing.
“I think Brexit is madness,” she said. “I don’t think they needed to come out of the EU. It is very sad that Brexit is destroying the UK.
“We have been affected by this uncertainty. There is so much uncertainty and we just wanted to go home.”
(Writing by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Stephen Addison and Andrew Heavens)