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Frustrated and anxious, Britons head to the polls for landmark EU vote

© Tony Todd / FRANCE 24 I Kundan Bhavan and his wife voted to leave the EU, saying 'immigration has to stop'

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2016-06-23

There was a sense of calm in the multicultural city of Leicester Thursday as voters went to the polls to decide whether their country would remain in, or leave, the European Union.

But the pace was brisk at the city’s polling stations as a steady stream of voters arrived to cast their ballots.

Most people in this hugely multicultural city in the East Midlands (around 50% of people in Leicester are from immigrant backgrounds) were happy to speak. Most had voted Remain.

“Vote remain, it’s the best choice for coloured people,” Suresh Chauhan, handing out flyers at the Muslim Khatri Association Community Centre polling station, told a group of veiled women arriving to vote.

Chauhan, a Hindu Indian who came to England from Kenya in 1968, accused the Leave campaign of raising the spectre of the “dark days of the 1970s when the [far-right] National Front would accuse us immigrants of trying to steal their jobs”.

Yasmina, born in Britain to a Pakistani family, was unconvinced. “My son told me to vote Remain, but I’m still not sure,” she told Chauhan. “My ancestors fought for the British in the War, and still we are still second-class citizens here, many of us unemployed and locked in the poverty cycle. What vote gets us out of that?”

Chauhan blamed poverty on the British government, cuts and austerity. Yasmina wasn’t swayed.

Pensioner Steve King, 85, observed the animated discussion with a wry smile: “Lots of things wrong here, and lots of things wrong in Europe. We’re better sorting it out together aren’t we?” He went to the polling station and voted Remain.

Division and suspicion

Leicester is a largely working class city. Broad support for the opposition Labour party means supporting a Remain campaign championed by Conservative leader David Cameron, who voters view as the architect of punishing austerity, is a tough call.

“I don’t like the fact that this whole business has been forced on us quite irresponsibly by conservatives fighting for dominance of their own party,” Trevor Locke, 67, told FRANCE 24, adding that he had made up his mind just 48 hours before “because it’s the option that will cause the least amount of damage”.

“This referendum has caused me a huge amount of anxiety, and managing the result, whether it’s Remain or Leave, is going to be a complicated and ugly task,” he added. “There is so much division, so much suspicion.”

But Kundan Bhavan, another Indian migrant who had come to Leicester via Kenya in the 1960s, suggested that Vote Leave’s campaign, and its focus on immigration, had made a strong impression, even with non-white voters.

“There are way too many outsiders coming in, from Romania, and one day from Turkey too,” the retired former warehouseman told FRANCE 24. “They are cheap labour, they drive down wages for working families. We are a small country and immigration has to stop.”

‘In, out, or shake it all about’

At the Shama Women's Centre polling station near the city centre, Jenny Turner and her father Anthony had driven 70 miles so that she could vote (she has just finished a teaching degree in Leicester).

She voted Remain, she said, because “I want to teach English abroad and I don’t want any barriers in my way.”

Both she and her father – who said he would try to make up his mind which way to vote on the drive back to Lincolnshire – were annoyed that the referendum did not also ask for a mandate to reform the EU.

“We’re asked if we are in, or out,” said Anthony Turner. “There should have been a third question, should we ‘shake it all about’ and have a really close look at the EU as an institution and see what we can do to make it better.”

“I hope that if we decide to remain in the EU, the government will wake up to the fact that there are many people who are very angry about the lack of information and the lack of transparency,” he said. “The EU has got to change.”

They were joined by writer Julia Wood, who had come to the polling station straight from a pilates class, and insisted that the referendum was a wise idea. She hopes a Remain win would put the brakes on xenophobia and the “irrational fear of immigrants”.

“Immigration will settle down, and I refuse to believe that people can’t get used to each other,” she said in reference to the Leave campaign’s focus on “taking back control” of Britain’s borders and reducing the number of people coming to the UK looking for work.

“Leicester is a multicultural city that for decades has been integrating a vast, and largely non-EU, immigrant community,” she said. “This city proves it can be done.”

Date created : 2016-06-23

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