“I’m devastated and everyone who works for our organisation is,” said Alicja Kaczmarek, who runs PEA, the Polish Expats Association, in Erdington, Birmingham.
“We are EU citizens and it’s very shocking news for us. I don’t think we’ve been prepared. There is a mixture of anxiety, fear and shock that Britain voted and xenophobia and populism won above the community of values. Obviously, no one knows what is going to happen next. We have to wait and see but we all feel today that we have suddenly been told we are unwelcome.”
Kaczmarek, 38, came to the UK from Poland more than a decade ago and has worked hard to make it her home. “I’ve been here for 11 years: I’ve got a son, my partner is English, I have my roots here, I built up this non-profit organisation. We are contributing and now I feel unwelcome and I don’t know what to do. If I didn’t have commitments, I would probably be thinking of moving very quickly to somewhere else.”
Across the UK, migrant workers have expressed similar dismay at the Brexit vote. While some have been reassured by the Leave camp’s insistence that those living here will be allowed to remain, many now see their adopted country in a different light.
Kaczmarek detected the winds of change even before a vote was cast in the referendum by listening to the radio in the West Midlands. “There were no voices for Remain. People were saying, ‘We will be able to get rid of criminals, the UK is over-populated, we will be able to get better access to education, better jobs.’ It’s quite shocking to us that people aren’t able to see the bigger picture, that there was a recession, the government’s role.
“There are so many different aspects to consider when considering why someone cannot find a job. People dismiss any positive contribution to society. So much of the NHS workforce comes from abroad. People don’t notice the brilliant scientists who make contributions to UK academic life. People dismiss it. They chose to accuse migrants of affecting everyone’s every day lives. People think it will be a quick fix.”
Her organisation is now being inundated with requests for advice from Polish workers. “People are asking us a lot of questions and on social media. Definitely, there is a fear as we enter the period of uncertainty. The Polish embassy and the government are trying to reassure people that there is going to be a long negotiation period and that things will not change very quickly, but it’s very hard to make long-term plans. We know many, many people chose to apply for British citizenship before the referendum because they were not sure whether they might leave it too late if Britain leaves the UK.”
Other, younger, eastern Europeans living in the UK took to social media to make their unhappiness clear.
A tweet from Anna Gát, from Hungary, was shared on Hungarian news websites. “I first came to understand what democracy was when I was 16. It happened during the Austrian parliamentary elections (yes, you can elect a Nazi). Today at 32 I’ve learnt democracy also means the English rural pensioner gets to decide over the only A++ city in Europe (incl. economy, brain drain, technology, trade). Yay? (Funnily, they will not be here to experience results.)”
But while eastern Europeans feel particularly exposed, migrants from other countries are also upset.
Cynthia Kennedy, a Canadian who holds dual citizenship and lives in the UK, told CTV news that things were “raw at the moment” and “it’s going to take a little while for things to calm down”. As a dual citizen with British citizenship, she said she felt “unwelcome in this country at the moment, and that is unspeakably sad”.
Amid the anxiety, politicians and community leaders have sought to reassure migrant communities that they are welcome.
The bishop of St Albans, the Right Rev Alan Smith, said that it was “vital for us to offer friendship and reassurance to those who might fear that this result will be exploited by factions peddling hatred and division”.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan used his Facebook page to say: “I want to send a clear message to every European resident living in London – you are very welcome here. As a city, we are grateful for the enormous contribution you make, and that will not change as a result of this referendum.”
But Kaczmarek did not share his optimism. “The country I moved to years ago is gone. I came here because of the diversity, because Britain was such a tolerant open country. It’s very disappointing, it’s very sad.”