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Eastern European migrants in the UK face growing hostility

As Brexit becomes ever more a reality, central and eastern European migrants in the UK are facing a growing backlash. One organization noted that xenophobic attacks are on the rise.

As for many of those in favor of the UK remaining in the EU, the result of the June 23 referendum came as a shock to Lina Katutyte, a 30-year-old Lithuanian property manager who has lived in London for seven years. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the atmosphere in the country was so tense that she even hesitated to leave her apartment.

"I didn't want to go outside because I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel," she told DW. "It was quite scary."

The initial apprehension Katutyte felt soon dissipated. She has a comfortable job and lives in a liberal section of the city that voted overwhelmingly in favor of "Remain." When she went to grab a coffee in her neighborhood some time after the referendum, the English people in the coffee shop even apologized to her.

Polen britische Premierministerin Theresa May in Warschau

British PM Theresa May in Warsaw

For other migrants from central and eastern Europe, however, the experience in the UK has been less positive. While the media has put special attention on the plight of Polish nationals, especially in the wake of

the killing of Arkadiusz Jozwik in late August,

migrants from other parts of the region are also feeling considerable strain.

Attacks on the rise

Barbara Drozdowicz, director of the East European Resource Center (EERC) in London, which advises migrants from the region, said that around every second or third person who came to the center for assistance now complained of some form of discrimination.

"The referendum released certain resentments within British society, so some people feel they are free to express their hostility towards non-British residents," Drozdowicz told DW. This hostility didn't necessarily take the form of physical violence, she said. More typically, migrants are the victims of hate speech, such as slurs on the metro or on the bus.

She also said such incidents were hardly unprecedented. "There is a certain level of normalization among eastern Europeans of this kind of unfriendliness towards them. And that started quite a few years ago," Drozdowicz said.

Großbritannien Proteste gegen Brexit in London

Plans to leave the EU are still being debated

Still, racist attacks have clearly been on the rise since the referendum. In a study of hate-related incidents in the media during the period June 24 to July 23, the London-based Institute of Race Relations wrote that "any new hate crime strategy must take into account the fact that eastern European workers are amongst hate's first victims."

A negative atmosphere

Of this group, Poles are easily the most targeted. According to the "Guardian," of the 60 hate crimes reported to European embassies in the UK since the referendum, 31 were lodged with the Polish embassy. But the Lithuanian, Latvian and Romanian embassies have also logged a significant number of xenophobic incidents directed at their citizens, the newspaper said.

The result has been an "atmosphere of anxiety and to a certain extent fear, which I suppose has reduced the quality of life among central and eastern Europeans," Drozdowicz said, noting that many migrants resorted to "survival strategies" to avoid discrimination. Some refuse to speak their language with each other in public, for example, while others choose not to read newspapers in their native language while sitting on the metro.

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She also said that more and more of them were considering returning to the continent . "I would say that this [idea] of coming back to Europe has been more on people's minds," she said. "And more people have been coming to our center and asking specific questions relating to leaving the UK."

Katutyte, who admitted she hasn't been as affected by Brexit, also sensed a change in the atmosphere of the country. "You can feel that," she said, noting that she's also heard from many migrants that they're thinking of returning home.

For those people who came to the UK from eastern and central Europe for the economic opportunities, Katutyte said she felt sorry. "They left their homes and their countries. They came here already really against their will. And now because of all this political change, loads of them are saying they want to go home," she said. "It's not nice, to be honest. Nobody knows what's going to happen."

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