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This English Town Backed Brexit. Now the Poles Are Leaving

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 13/12/2017 Stephanie Baker
© Bloomberg

 “Have you been drinking?” shouts policewoman Amy Lucas to a group of mostly Polish migrants hanging out on the street on a cold afternoon in December. They swear they haven’t—and dart down an alleyway. Lucas follows them to a parking lot, where she confiscates a large bottle of beer and lets them go after hearing they’re homeless, sleeping in a tent in a nearby forest.

It’s not an unusual event in Thetford, a small town two hours northeast of London, where complaints about the rise of street drinking have become synonymous with grumbles that too many east European migrants have settled in the area. The streets have just as many inebriated English people though they’re often mistaken for migrants because many swill cheap, extra strong Polish beer bought for a pound in local east European shops.

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Policewoman Amy Lucas confiscates a bottle of beer from a street drinker in Thetford.

“Public perception is that all the street drinkers are east European, but they’re not,” said Lucas, who on an afternoon’s patrol showed she knew almost all of them by name.  

Before releasing the drinkers in the parking lot, Lucas tried to counsel one of them, Monika Kolodziej, a 35-year-old Polish woman. She’s with Ty Edwards, her British boyfriend, who spends so much time drinking with Poles on the street that he speaks English with a slight Polish accent. Kolodziej, wearing an army green jacket, leggings and smoking a cigarette, explained that she came here from Poland nine years ago, working in a bacon factory and then a chicken processing facility, before losing her job three years ago and going on welfare. 

“I’m drinking,” she said in broken English. “I have depression.”

Thetford is a microcosm of the divisions that led to the Brexit vote, and a harbinger of how leaving the EU could hit communities across the country. Like many towns in the area, it has undergone a rapid demographic transformation over the past decade as migrants from the European Union flocked to the region to work on farms and meat factories. Many of the east Europeans in Thetford work nearby at Traditional Norfolk Poultry, one of the companies Bloomberg is tracking through the Brexit process.

Now many of those migrants are starting to pack their bags for home or the continent, fed up with the weak pound that dilutes the earnings they send home and with the overall anti-foreigner atmosphere post-Brexit.  That’s unlikely to change even after U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May last week finally clinched a preliminary Brexit divorce deal that protects the roughly 3.5 million EU citizens in the U.K.

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Mayor Denis Crawford poses in his robes.

In the past 15 years, as many as 8,000 east Europeans have moved into Thetford, swelling the town’s population to roughly 27,000 and changing the fabric of everyday life, said Mayor Denis Crawford, a member of the U.K. Independence Party who led the vote for Brexit in the town.

“If you walk down the street, you don’t hear English very much,” Crawford said. “One of my main concerns was that immigration was happening too fast.”

In 2016, the district of Breckland, which includes Thetford, voted by 64 percent to leave the EU. Everyone from the police chief to the mayor to local residents said perceptions about immigration helped propel the Leave campaign.

“People think we’re overcrowded,” said chief inspector Paul Wheatley. “It’s not creating hate crime but it’s difficult to get doctor’s appointments and hospitals are full.”

Thetford is in many ways the model of a picturesque English town. It has a golf course, the ruins of a 12th century monastery and two museums. One celebrates the 19th-century history of a local manufacturer of steam engines and another Dad’s Army, an iconic 1970s British television show filmed in the town about the British Home Guard during World War II.

It also hosts no fewer than eight Polish and Lithuanian food stores, most of which advertise their European goods with the circle of 12 yellow stars that adorn the EU’s flag. It’s a jarring sight in a town that overwhelmingly voted to leave the bloc.

Hiwa Osman, a 39 year-old Iraqi Kurd, is the unlikely owner of a store selling exclusively Polish and Lithuanian food. He bought his shop from a fellow Iraqi in July. He said Lithuanians own two east European shops in town, but the rest are owned by Iraqi Kurds, a sign of Britain’s multicultural hodgepodge. He thought he’d cornered a lucrative market. Now, sales are down, he said.

“Brexit has hurt business,” Osman said. “I know some families who have gone back. People come in and spend 8-10 pounds. Before it was more like 25 pounds. People are scared because they don’t know what will happen.”

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Polish Mama’s Kitchen sells delicacies like pierogi and krokiety.

Across the street at Polish Mama’s Kitchen, which sells pierogi, Polish dumplings, and krokiety, Polish crepes, owner Kaya Wasila-Bingham is downbeat. A dozen of her friends with their families have already gone back to Poland.

“Many, many are planning to leave after the New Year or after the school year ends,” she said.  “Everyone says you can find a better life in another country. The exchange rate is better and they’re closer to home.”

Thetford was the birthplace of Thomas Paine, the American founding father who penned “The Rights of Man,” which argued for revolution when governments fail to protect their people. In the 1960s, the town grew rapidly under a government plan to clear out London’s East End, moving residents from slums to newly-built houses in the area. Even today, many Thetford residents speak with a Cockney accent, revealing their East End heritage.

In the 1990s the first wave of EU migrants was the Portuguese who came to work on farms and factories. Roughly 5,000 Portuguese remain in Thetford, according to the mayor, with a shop, a butcher and a café. Some even resent the east Europeans who have followed them.

Watch: EU warns UK about reneging on its Brexit commitments

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“I think there are too many east Europeans,” said Jorge Martins, a 51-year-old Portuguese sipping coffee at O Cabaz, a Portuguese cafe. He came to the U.K. 28 years ago and now works in a convenience food packaging factory nearby. “When I came, there was no one.”

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Rob Butler

Rob Butler, chairman of a local neighborhood housing association, is trying to knit together the more than 4,000 residents who live in his area.

As he drives along narrow roads lined by manicured lawns and dotted with red and yellow brick homes on the outskirts of town, he explains that the community is a patchwork of English families and east Europeans who often live side by side but don’t interact much. To help, he’s translated the association’s flyer into five languages, advertising it as a forum for resolving disputes or accessing funding for community projects.  

Even though Butler, a 66 year-old retired electronics executive, voted for Brexit, he doesn’t want the migrants to leave. 

“I just wish we could get more integration,” he said. “They tend to close up into their own enclaves and they don’t mix very much.”

Instead, Polish residents have organized Polish lessons after school and on Saturdays for about 120 kids in a local community center. 

One Saturday afternoon, hundreds were gathered with their kids for a Christmas party, with a Polish St. Nicholas handing out presents. While the school-age kids all speak fluent English, many of their parents struggle with the language, some even after living in the U.K. for more than a decade.  

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A Polish St. Nicholas hands out presents.

“It’s a big issue,” said Iwona Paciorkowska, the operations manager at the Polish language school, who works as a translator. “Many people work shifts and have a family, so they don’t have time to learn English.”

If east Europeans decide to leave the U.K. in large numbers, local businesses will suffer badly, said Victor Lukaniuk, a county councillor from the neighboring region who heads a Polish community association.  The unemployment rate in the Breckland district, 3.4 percent, is lower than the national average. That doesn’t give businesses in the area much scope to find workers.

“Cheap Polish labor has maintained this country for years,” he said, leaning on a desk in the classroom of the Polish language school. “The foreigners have taken up the slack. If you get rid of them, who will pull up all your vegetables?  Brexit is the biggest mistake this country has ever made.”

NOW SEE: Why Britain has so few regrets over Brexit

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