If there is a single road that sums up how dramatically Britain has changed over the last decade, it is probably West Street in the Lincolnshire market town of Boston. Once home to sleepy shoe shops and hair salons, the street now boasts a bustling Lithuanian supermarket, a Polish restaurant, a Lithuanian cake shop, a Polish pub and several European-labelled stores.
There is even an information centre offering translation, travel bookings and benefits advice to new arrivals from around Europe.
Next week marks 10 years since Poland and seven other relatively poor eastern European countries joined the European Union, opening up the opportunity to work across the continent.
An abundance of agricultural and factory work in Boston attracted migrants in droves. Now the small town has the highest proportion of eastern European residents of any in Britain, with more than one in 10 coming from countries which joined the EU in 2004. In the decade from 2001, the number of Polish residents recorded in Boston jumped from 40 to 3,000, and the number of Eastern Europeans went from less than 1,500 to more than 8,000.
Daiva Razguniene, 34, opened Diva’s Cakes on West Street last September. She has been living in Boston for the last nine years, carefully saving money until she could start her own business.
In her home city of Vilnius, Lithuania, she had been a project manager for an advertising firm. But when she first arrived in the town with her husband Tomas, she took what work she could find, starting out on the production lines of a flower factory.
“The main reason we left Lithuania was because we wanted to earn quickly,” she recalls. “Our idea was to go here for a couple of years and earn money and go back, but we’re still here. I came from a small village originally and my parents were farmers so I don’t mind hard work.”
Now she and Tomas have a daughter, Gabriella, who will be four next week and is about to start school. “When we go on holiday to Lithuania and it’s time to go back we say ‘we’re going home’. This is our home now.”
A five-minute walk away in the town’s Central Park, Bogoslav Grzyb (below right), 56, is sitting on a bench with two friends demolishing a carrier bag full of super-strength lager. It is lunchtime but the three are already drunk. “My woman tells me to fuck off,” Mr Grzyb says when asked how he came to be homeless. Originally from Poland, he says he struggles to find regular work now and has been sleeping on the street for a week.
He is one of dozens of homeless migrant workers in the town who came for work but are now struggling to survive. At Centrepoint, a homeless charity, the front room is packed with migrants enjoying a hot drink and cake. The centre is currently helping 57 homeless people, more than 80 per cent of whom are migrants.
Viktor, 41, warms his hands on a cup of tea. He says he has been homeless on and off for about four years now after coming to Britain from Latvia almost nine years ago to work in flower factories.
“Now in England it’s very difficult to find work. Many agencies only take people at busy times for one or two weeks and then that’s it. I won’t go back to Latvia. Here it’s better because you can live if you can’t find work,” says Viktor.
The high number of homeless and under-employed men drinking in the park is stoking tensions in the town. One of its side-effects is a rise in human excrement being found in public places, an issue that has provoked the ire of local residents.
Gary Joynes (below), a neighbourhood beat sergeant for Lincolnshire Police, says it is a constant source of complaint. Gesturing down a side street, he says: “The biggest issue that gets people most is people peeing and defecating in the street. This alley is notorious for it. I think it’s a complication of homelessness and a lack of toilet facilities.”
There are also signs of more serious tensions. The town has now become notorious for its strained relations with migrants, a notoriety which Sgt Joynes jokes has replaced its previous claim to infamy: “We were the fattest town in England but the Eastern European ladies don’t tend to be a large build, so that’s brought it right down.”
Dean Everitt is not laughing about immigration, however. The local resident has now organised three anti-immigration protests in the town and is planning more. Mr Everitt, who works in plastic recycling, says: “The town is a horrible place to live now. Ten years ago you’d know everyone and now the town is a stranger’s town and you don’t hear English.”
He adds: “It’s supposed to be called integration but there’s no integration. We have Latvian shops, Polish and Lithuanian shops and it’s all in their own language. They don’t shop in our shops and we don’t shop in theirs.”
Speaking about violence between English and Eastern European residents, Mr Everitt (above) says: “It’s a tit for tat thing. We know about English lads beaten up by car loads of foreigners and we know about foreigners beaten up by car loads of English lads.”
Sebastian Jagielo (below), 28, who runs Sezam Polish shop, had never noticed any problems with community tensions until the protests started. Speaking about the most recent demonstration, he recalls: “They didn’t touch us but people were scared. On that day the foreign shops took 30 per cent of the profit they normally take. People were scared to go out.”
Race-related crimes in Lincolnshire jumped by 38 per cent last year, though police say this may be down to better reporting of incidents. “You hear people moaning, saying it’s raining and I can’t park the car because of all the foreigners but it’s very rare to get hate crime,” says Sgt Joynes. “People moan but it’s not a tinder box.”
Tinder box or not, the town is rapidly threatening to become a Ukip stronghold. Boston and Skegness, currently a Conservative seat held by Mark Simmonds, was so attractive to the party that at one stage Nigel Farage was rumoured to be considering it for the next election.
Off the road between Boston and Skegness is Staples Vegetables, one of the biggest employers of migrants in the area. The 10,000-acre farm and packing site has up to 1,000 workers on its books at any time and most came from overseas.
In one field, a group of Eastern European labourers are hurriedly harvesting cabbages, chopping their stems and loading them onto a conveyor belt which takes them to a lorry where a group of women pack them into boxes covered in Union Jacks.
Vernon Read, the company’s director, says a supply of labour from the east of the EU is essential to the business. “Without immigrant workers we wouldn’t be able to grow our crops in the UK. When we advertise locally we have hardly any applicants in the UK. Those English people who do come here don’t stay long because it’s hard work... In the intake last year we had 10 English people who started and within the first week seven out of the 10 had dropped out. I think it’s just because it’s hard work.”
Mr Read believes immigrant workers are filling jobs English people will not take. “They’re not interested in benefits. They’re hard-working, polite and very pleased to be employed rather than feeling they have a right to an income.”
In contrast, he says, English job-seekers rarely seem willing to take the work. “We have a lot of problems with local people who can receive benefits. We have people who ring up and say ‘I’m ringing up because I’ve got to’ and you get the impression they’re at the job centre and they’ll tell you when they’re applying that they’re only doing it because they have to.”
Ben Semeniuk (above), 31, has been working at Staples ever since he left Poland for Britain in June 2004, a month after the borders opened. He had just finished school and took a job with them picking vegetables.
He worked his way up to the pack room, to the print room and, most recently, in the office. He met his fiancée Agnieszka working at Staples and having sold property in Poland they are now looking to buy a house together near the farm. Mr Semeniuk believes that Lincolnshire is his home for the foreseeable future.
Speaking with a slight Skegness accent, he says: “I thought I would come for six months to earn some money but I never went back.”
All pictures courtesy of Andrew FoxReuse content