Isolated, intimidated and undermined: the immigrants building a new life in the Fens

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The Independent Online

Shahid Rafique had not heard of "fozzie bashing" until the evening when a baying mob of 25 teenagers entered his internet café in Wisbech and tried to smash the computers before setting upon him and his Polish colleague. As kicks and punches rained down, the attackers shouted "fuck off home" and "Paki".

Mr Rafique was left bleeding on the doorstep of the business in the Cambridgeshire Fens that he spent his £25,000 life savings setting up. The gang's parting shot was to smash a window protected with wooden slats adorned with a painting of the Union Flag.

Mr Rafique, 32, a father-of-three, whose face is scarred from the assault seven months ago and whose voice still cracks with emotion when he talks about, said: "I put up the flag to show how proud I was to be in Britain, how happy I was to have set up my shop and to raise my children as British citizens.

"But this gang was like a pack of animals. Both boys and girls. I asked them if they had come to use the computers. But they just laughed and started shouting abuse and trying to destroy the equipment. They had no respect for their flag.

"I had a Polish employee who tried to stop them. They knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head. When I tried to help him I got the same treatment. I remember lying there bleeding as they shouted things like 'Fuck you fozzie' and 'Fucking Poles'. I did not sleep for a month afterwards."

In the week that Cambridgeshire's chief constable, Julie Spence, made headlines by highlighting the strain put on her force by the arrival of 83,000 migrant workers in East Anglia since 2004 and suggesting that foreign nationals were responsible for a sharp rise in some criminal offences, Mr Rafique, who is half Portuguese and half Pakistani, is proof that the problem cuts both ways.

"Fozzie" or foreigner is a word that features often these days in Wisbech. Once a wealthy market town east of Peterborough awash with handsome Georgian architecture, it is now a hub for the thousands of East Europeans needed to work in the farms, orchards and processing plants that stretch across the surrounding Fens.

The influx over the last three years of Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Russian and Latvians, who join a long-established community of Portuguese workers, has proved a boon for local employers and landlords looking to rent out crowded accommodation to foreign tenants.

But it has also brought with it suspicion, intolerance and violence. Many immigrants who have set up home in the town say they are scared of going into pubs or walking in the town centre late at night.

There is growing evidence that the increase in Cambridgeshire's population – predicted to grow by 94,000 by 2016, with nearly two thirds of that figure coming from abroad – has created tensions in once placid rural and urban communities. Racially aggravated crime in Cambridgeshire rose by nine per cent last year to 351 incidents of violent assault and criminal damage.

In July ten Wisbech teenagers, aged between 15 and 17, were sentenced to detention orders of between four and ten months for a "brutal and ferocious" attack on two Polish men after a Christmas party in the town centre.

Such was the intensity of the assault the police said it was pure good fortune that Pawel Gliniecki or Karol Downar were not killed. One officer said: "One of the victims had his head kicked against a concrete wall – it's lucky it wasn't murder."

The two victims were so frightened of recriminations that they refused to press charges but CCTV footage of the attack in the town's Market Square allowed police to track down the gang. Defence lawyers said the youths had been "sucked into a maelstrom of violence".

But the case hinted at a more sinister malaise in the town and further afield whereby beating up migrant workers has become a past time.

Magistrates insisted the attack was not racist. But the attack was linked to a police investigation to a website called Friday Night Fighters, on which youths from Wisbech and the nearby town of King's Lynn discuss attacking foreigners. The phrase "fozzie bashing" featured prominently on the website.

Both the attacks on the two Polish men and Mr Rafique's internet café on a corner of the town's ring road happened on a Friday night. It is not clear whether either was directly connected with the website but Cambridgeshire Police said the attack on Mr Rafique on 2 February this year was "racially motivated". What was clear yesterday, however, was the anxiety felt by the young men and women from Warsaw to Kiev who were sending emails home from behind the cracked-glass window of Mr Rafique's café.

Sasha Poborscwa, 27, a Polish teacher who has been working in a vegetable processing plant for the last two years, said: "My girlfriend says we must not go out on a Friday or weekend night. In my country it is important to welcome visitors but here some stupid people think there is a sport of attacking them."

In the cubicle next to him, Robert, a Lithuanian crop picker in his 40s, was philosophical. He said: "It is an ancient story isn't it? Outsiders come and they are resented or detested by those they live amongst."

It is not a perception shared by many native to Wisbech, which has a population of 20,000. David Oliver, the mayor of the town, said: "As far as I am concerned, there is no evidence of any racial tension."

But for Mr Rafique, any sense of equality remains a distant dream. He said: "The abuse continues, my front door gets kicked and there are shouts and screams. I pay my taxes and my rent. But now I find myself wondering if should do what those thugs said – go to Pakistan. At least I would not be in fear of my life."

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