Petr Torák: Hate crimes spiked in the UK after the Brexit referendum, what will the elections bring?
In 2016, after the referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union, citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia living in Peterborough, England experienced fear, outrage, and uncertainty. Voters from the English town with an ancient cathedral had convincingly expressed themselves in favor of Brexit.
According to Peter Torák, a Romani community member from the Czech Republic who lives in Peterborough and who worked on the local police there until 2017, hate crime skyrocketed in the city after the referendum. While the atmosphere has since improved, in his view, the results of today's elections are being anticipated by Czechs and Slovaks in Peterborough with anxiety.
Many of them still hope that Britain will eventually be able to remain in the EU. "Most people perceive Britain as a very tolerant society and now, suddenly, that has changed. Some people take it personally, they believe England wants to leave the European Union because of us, they want to throw us out," he said in an interview with the Czech News Agency (ČTK), describing the feelings of many Czechs and Slovaks who live in Peterborough.
According to statistics, almost 17 000 immigrants arrived to the city of 200 000 between 2004 and 2009, more than 14 000 of whom came from the Member States admitted to the EU in 2004. Of those, according to Torák's estimates, 5 000 - 6 000 came from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
These immigrants are being aided by the charity organization COMPAS, which Torák has led since leaving the police in 2017. Some clients come to the charity's community center on Fitzwilliam Street for advice on how to cope with debt, others to learn how to write a CV.
During ČTK's interview with the director at the center, several people came in seeking advice. Torák mostly works on dealing with applications for what is called "settled status" in the UK, which all EU citizens must request if they want to remain in Britain after Brexit.
To apply for this status, Torák said, is not a complex matter. "It takes 15 or 20 minutes. However, naturally a person who does not know how to use the Internet or a smartphone has no access to it, nor do those who don't speak English properly - or they're just afraid the application might not be accepted, they want it all to be correct ... so they prefer to seek aid from somebody who comprehends it all," he explained.
Torák says he is processing fewer such applications now than he was before. In his view, many local residents have already managed to arrange this status for themselves.
"However, I also believe a couple of people have been waiting to see whether Brexit will even happen, whether it's worth applying for this," he adds. The long-term uncertainty that reigns over Brexit is straining the nerves of EU citizens living in Peterborough, according to Torák.
"There is fear over whether they will be able to remain here, and if they won't, then where will they go back to, what will they do with their children, who no longer know how to speak Czech or Slovak?" Torák explained. Frequently he also has to refute disinformation about Brexit that people have found online.
The atmosphere ahead of today's vote has not been significantly high-tension, according to Torák. During the first half of 2019, in his opinion, the situation was worse.
"Given that Brexit keeps being postponed ... people are concluding that it may not even happen," Torák said. He is of the opinion that Britain will eventually leave the EU, though.
The opposite outcome would not be correct, Torák believes. "It's just clear that British society wants Brexit and I think it would not be fair [to remain in the EU]," he said.
Torák himself, who was given an MBE in 2015 for his work on behalf of the city with the local Romani community as a police officer, is not directly affected by concerns about his personal future after Brexit. After the referendum results in 2016, and after hesitating to do so for years, he and his entire family have applied for British citizenship.
He is viewing the elections as a British voter this time. Mainly, he is anticipating that matters will become clear.
"That would be good not just for the people who are afraid of what will happen, but also for Britain per se, so it will be clear what happens next," he believes. Other residents of Peterborough await the results of the vote with anxiety.
In 2016, more than 60 % of voters in Peterborough expressed themselves in favor of Brexit. Local resident Margaret, who is in her seventies, voted in favor of leaving the EU and spoke to ČTK while she and her husband were looking at the Christmas market on the main square.
"We voted Leave. We'll vote that way again," she told ČTK.
Her vote will go to a local candidate running for the Brexit Party, Mike Greene, who ran for Parliament once already this year. Peterborough chose its representative in the House of Commons in June after the incumbent was removed from office on the basis of a petition; Labour then eked out a narrow victory in the by-elections there.
Lincoln Road is a thoroughfare leading from Peterborough's city center to the north. It is lined with small shops offering groceries from countries in the eastern part of the EU.
The Czech flag is visible on many shop windows there. In addition to convenience stores named after Romanian towns, there is a Polish hairdresser and a firm offering interpretation and translations from the languages of the eastern part of the EU.
Many Czech and Slovak citizens live in the Lincoln Road neighborhood. Adam, a Polish citizen who lives in that part of town and has been working as a laborer in England for several years, is following the elections with concern.
"We're afraid. However, I already have my settled status, so maybe we will be able to remain. If not, we'll go back to Poland," he told ČTK.
Not everybody in Peterborough is terribly on edge as they wait for the results of the vote. "It's stressful. I do my best to stay away from politics. I hope this will all soon be over," a British café worker named Sarah told ČTK.
Unlike thousands of other inhabitants, Sarah has lived in Peterborough since the day she was born. "My great-grandfather came here from Prague, though," she added.
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