When Ziedonis Barbaks arrived in Boston, England, to work at a meat-packing plant nine years ago, the city was a pretty lonely place for someone from Latvia. Almost nobody came from his home country or from just about anywhere else outside of Britain.
Today there are not only hundreds of Latvians in Boston but thousands of immigrants from across Eastern Europe. These new arrivals have changed the face of Boston like no other city in Britain and put the community at the centre of a growing debate over this country's future in the European Union. "In that time, you can really see the difference," Mr. Barbaks said from Boston's Latvian community centre.
Tucked away amid the rich farmland of the East Midlands, Boston isn't the kind of place that gets much national attention. It has only about 65,000 residents and the economy is built around farming and food processing. But ever since Poland and nine other countries joined the EU in 2004, giving their citizens the right to work in Britain and other EU countries, Boston has become a magnet for Poles and other East Europeans eager to find work. Most find jobs in local packing plants, or get seasonal stints picking vegetables on farms – just the types of jobs employers find hard to fill and new immigrants, even those who can barely speak English, find easy to get. Boston a has one of the highest openings for this kind of low-skill employment.
Since 2001, the number of Poles in Boston has jumped from 40 to 3,000, according to recently released 2011 census figures. And the total number of people born in Eastern Europe has gone from less than 1,500 to more than 8,000. Boston now has one of the biggest Polish populations of any city in England. And the influence can be seen almost anywhere, along the city's downtown streets where traditional English pubs sit beside the Sezam Polish Shop and the U Ani Polish Restaurant and in the main square where several languages could be heard among the crowds on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Not all the immigrants have been welcomed and tensions have risen among local residents who feel overwhelmed by the influx. Similar cries have been going up across Britain as the country launches into a reassessment of its membership in the EU and a possible referendum in 2017. The debate has been fuelled by those census figures, which also show that "white Britons" no longer make up the majority of the population in London and Polish is now the second-most-common language in England, with English in first place.
Last week, Rachel Bull, a mother of two from Boston, made headlines when she challenged a Cambridge University professor about immigration during a panel discussion on a BBC TV show. "Boston is at breaking point. All the locals can't cope any more," Ms. Bull said from the audience after Prof. Mary Beard played down suggestions immigration had hurt the city. "Nothing is being done. There are hardly any locals there any more because they are all moving away. You go down to Boston High Street and it's just like you are in a foreign country. It has got to stop."
Others in town voice similar concerns. "I would like to see some type of border control to stop the mass influx of them," said Christiaan Lowe, who runs a local shop. He was among 200 people at a rally last November to protest against the number of immigrants. Like many in Boston, Mr. Lowe blames immigrants for taking jobs from local people, driving up rents and overcrowding schools and hospitals.
Boston politicians have been grappling with the issue for months, and the borough council recently issued a report outlining the many challenges facing the city. Among its recommendations were calls on the British government to prevent citizens from new EU members from moving into the United Kingdom. That is already a concern as immigration controls on Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, expire at the end of this year. There are estimates that as many as 250,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will move to Britain over the next five years, although the British government has called those figures exaggerations.
Immigration "is a tricky issue particularly in a small town like Boston, which for a considerable number of years tended to be fairly mono-ethnic," said Boston councillor Mike Gilbert. "Of course, it causes tensions among some local people."
"There are so many myths about immigration and the impacts of immigration," said Gary Craig, a professor of social justice at the University of Hull. Prof. Craig said myths such as unemployment, overcrowding and a drain on welfare due to immigration are groundless and that while Boston has seen plenty of change because of the migration, "most of it has actually been quite positive."
Mr. Barbaks is trying to change attitudes too. He has helped form Boston Stronger Together, which includes Poles and other Eastern Europeans. The group has been holding regular meeting with politicians and people from across the city to help bridge some of the differences.
"I feel a little bit of tension," Mr. Barbaks said, referring to the attitude of many residents in town toward immigrants. "But I hope it's going to get better."