In cities like Peterborough, a recent surge in immigration by mainly East European workers is giving momentum to “Brexiters” in the campaign ahead of Britain’s referendum on EU membership in June.
“The EU won’t stop all the immigrants coming in and we can’t cope,” said John Fovargue, a resident of the city of 184,500 people in eastern England — one of the country’s most eurosceptic areas.
Ginge Tuttlebee, out shopping on a rainy day in the town centre, told AFP that the new arrivals “don’t have the same values that we once were able to have”.
“They don’t seem to want to integrate too much — they’ve got their own shops, they speak their own language,” the pensioner said, echoing complaints in many towns that have seen a sharp increase in arrivals.
Almost half of British voters, and nearly three-quarters of those who want to leave the European Union, identify immigration as the single most important factor in making their decision, according to a recent poll by Opinium.
Peterborough has a history of immigration stretching back decades but it recorded its highest ever level in the decade from 2001 to 2011, with 24,166 newcomers arriving.
The town’s Lincoln Road has been the focal point of immigration by Italians, Poles, South Asians and the Irish since World War II, and now hosts Polish station Radio Star, nestled among Eastern European supermarkets.
Gosia Prochal, a DJ at the station, told AFP there were “lots of Polish people” integrated into British society who had “obvious concerns” about a British departure from the EU ahead of the June 23 referendum.
“British people are generally positive about individual immigrants, but when it comes to the idea of immigration as a whole, they would rather reduce it,” said Prochal, who moved to Britain three years ago from Krakow in southern Poland.
– ‘Darker side’ of EU membership –
Net migration into Britain — the difference between those coming in and those leaving the country — has reached 336,000 people a year.
London School of Economics academic Joseph Downing said concerns about strains on public services were “legitimate” but that this should be more than balanced out by the taxes paid by EU migrants.
“We’ve had a lot of migration from Eastern Europe, and those people have contributed quite a lot in terms of tax receipts,” he said. “We’ve been bad at turning that into infrastructure investment.”
That has led to resentment in communities like Peterborough, where local MP Stewart Jackson is among the Conservative lawmakers who have rebelled against Prime Minister David Cameron to support a British departure from the EU, or “Brexit”.
“It’s the pace of change that’s concerned so many people and the impact on public services,” he said.
Pete Reeve, a local councillor for the anti-EU UK Independence Party, told AFP that residents “really experience the darker side of being in the EU”.
– ‘One big melting pot’ –
The picture is different in east London, where comparably high levels of immigration have not resulted in anything like the same anti-EU backlash.
Clapton FC, a lowly local football club, in the London borough of Newham has been rejuvenated with the help of the local immigrant population.
Toiling away in the 17th level of English football, the 138-year old club were recently playing in front of “one man and a dog” at their home ground, according to club chief Vince McBean.
Home matches now attract hundreds of fans and reverberate to pro-refugee chants, Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao” and bawdy hymns celebrating Polish lager Tyskie.
At a recent game against Romania FC — a team comprising Eastern European expats — fans held a banners reading: “Welcome Romania and Bulgaria”.
“They are all unified together in one big melting pot,” said McBean. “It brings a refreshing aspect to our club.”
An Italian fan said: “You have Italians, Spanish, Polish, English; it doesn’t matter where you are from, it matters what you think. It 100 percent reflects the local area.”