Support shown for international community

Campaigners rally together as Brexit vote raises race-hate fears: Report by Adjoa Wiredu and James Cracknell

Sophie Bolt

Sophie Bolt, a Stand Up To Racism local branch organiser, in Walthamstow High Street

The international community in Waltham Forest is bracing itself for ‘Brexit’ as campaigners and community leaders rally together in support.

Nearly one-in-ten borough residents are European Union (EU) citizens from outside the UK, with the 2011 Census showing Waltham Forest has the second largest proportion of central and eastern European-born residents in the capital.

A rise in race hate crimes has been reported nationally since the country voted for British exit from the European Union (Brexit) in June, but Waltham Forest Council issued a statement claiming the trend had not been reflected here. The Metropolitan Police said it was still too soon to know.

In July a Stand Up To Racism rally was held in Walthamstow as a direct response to the Brexit vote. Organiser Sophie Bolt, a local resident and campaign coordinator for a local branch of the campaign, told the Echo: “People are reporting that they’ve been abused in shops or just walking down the street, on buses, on trains, and having their car smashed into.”

Sophie said the Brexit campaign and its result has led to many feeling unsafe and insecure about their future in Waltham Forest: “There are lots of people who feel very frightened that they are going to be asked to leave their country and lose their jobs and people feeling like they’re not welcome when they contribute so significantly to this country.”

Sophie also believes the EU referendum distracted people from real issues affecting the country. “Ultimately this comes down to this genuine and understandable fear and insecurity that people feel because of the impact of austerity,” she explained. “People’s living standards have massively reduced. People are losing their jobs, benefits are being cut, people are really hurting because of austerity.”

Stand Up To Racism rally

Children hold an “everyone is welcome” banner at the Stand Up To Racism rally in Walthamstow

She thinks immigrants have been used as “scapegoats” and said: “The cuts policy [has] got nothing to do with immigrants and that’s what they’ve been doing, blaming the immigrants to take the focus away from where it should be, the government.”

The Stand Up To Racism rally in Walthamstow Town Square was attended by Councillor Irfan Akhtar and Pushcart Khan, chairman of Walthamstow Migrant Action Group, as well as dozens of local people.

A council statement emphasised that the local authority would be “building upon work to strengthen our diverse and tolerant community”. Councillor Liaquat Ali, cabinet member for community safety and cohesion, added: “Our sense of community and of belonging, and the need to always treat others with respect, helps to make Waltham Forest such a great place to call home.

“We’ve been shocked and saddened to see the various news reports that have emerged in the aftermath of the EU Referendum result, indicating a rise in incidents of hate crime in some areas. This is not a trend we’ve experienced in Waltham Forest, but we remain vigilant and continue to actively promote community cohesion, signpost support services and work with local partners, including police, to ensure our streets are safe for all who live, work and visit here.”

While the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU by 17.4 million votes (51.9 percent) to 16.1 million (48.1 percent), Waltham Forest voted to remain by 64,156 votes (59.1 percent) to 44,395 (40.9 percent).

Dutch national Charlotte Vellinga moved to the borough from the Netherlands seven years ago but was unable to vote in the referendum because she is not a British citizen, even though she pays taxes here. Had she been able to, Charlotte would have voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

She told the Echo: “I could easily get British citizenship if I wanted but I’ve always found that a bit weird because I’m Dutch and I’m happy being Dutch, living here or anywhere in Europe.”

Charlotte added that the main reason to feel uncertain about living here is the same reason as before the Brexit vote; London is an expensive city.

“It hasn’t changed anything except maybe a mindset,” she said. “Before I was just a European living in a European country. I take part in English culture, I have English friends and watch English TV and had jobs with English companies, so I considered myself one of them, but for the first time there’s been a sudden split where I am not, I am suddenly the ‘foreigner’. It is just not something that was ever an issue before.”