After Britain voted for Brexit on June 23, 2016, the result brought a feeling of uncertainty about the conditions under which almost three million EU nationals will be going to live, and brought questions and concerns.
The idea of freedom of movement within the EU was originally designed to allow people from different countries to mix, to prevent conflict between European countries and to promote social integration.
It allowed EU citizens to assess their priorities and go where they thought they would be met.
The main reason why EU nationals come to the UK is to find work.
According to the last report from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, EU nationals are more likely to work (80 per cent) than UK nationals (75 per cent) and that 5 per cent of the UK population are EU nationals.
However, immigration from the EU has had bad press during the Brexit campaign. Comparing those figures with the estimates made later in 2015, there was significant increase in the EU population, from 2.9 million to 3.2 million.
The largest group are the Polish, followed by the Irish and the German, according to ONS.
“The clear message from the referendum is this: we must be able to control immigration,” said David Davies at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham in October. Theresa May also said that “We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration.”
While Brexit negotiations take place, the government must not ‘reveal its hand’ before concluding them, said May. She said she was willing to give EU citizens certainty, but it depended on Britons living in the EU receiving the same rights.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart said that would be “deeply offensive” to deny the right to stay to millions of people, and that they could not be used as “bargaining chips.”
“British people saw [Brexit] as an opportunity to express how they really feel about migrants without being accused of discrimination.”
However, a report from the House of Lords published in December said that there is “little, if any, effective protection” for EU citizens.
Artefact spoke to people from Poland, Ireland, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Greece, Austria and Bulgaria.
Most were young and have lived in London for at least three years. They came to Britain in search of work or to do a university degree. Some of them asked not to be named so that their employment prospects would not be affected or attract discrimination by expressing their ideas freely.
Although they said they don’t have plans to leave the country immediately, they expressed varying degrees of concern about their personal situations post-Brexit.
The Leave campaign focused on portraying immigration as a problem that has to be controlled, giving less importance to the economic costs that the country will have to face when leaving the EU.
French citizen Laurent Couvelard said the decision to leave the EU “was not a rational vote based on facts.”
“The campaign”, said an Austrian woman, was based on “fears about immigration and blaming ‘others’ for the financial issues the UK is in.”
“British people saw [Brexit] as an opportunity to express how they really feel about migrants without being accused of discrimination,” said a Bulgarian woman.
Now EU citizens wait for the resolution of the Brexit negotiations. “There is uncertainty because of the lack of information about the following steps,” according to Rosa Mallol, a Spanish citizen working in the UK.
French citizen Laurent Covelard said that the transition would give him time to re-organise in case he has to leave the UK.
Others are more positive: “I work, I pay taxes and never got benefits. I think things will work out in a positive and non discriminative way,” said a Hungarian woman.
“I can’t hear any voices for immigration,” said Polish citizen Lukasz Konieczka, who is working for a charity in the UK. “Nobody seems to remember that a lot of old fragile British people have retired in Italy, France and Spain causing a burden in health services there, and Britain gets hard working committed people through immigration,” he added.
Following the Referendum hate crimes have increased by 41 per cent, according to the Home Office statistics.
In June, xenophobic graffiti was found in the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith. In August, Polish citizen Arek Jóźwik was killed in Essex.
“It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in newspapers, online and even among politicians”
Lukasz Konieczka, said that he is still “in a deep shock” since the attacks on his community happened.
A Polish woman working in the UK said that she was “a bit scared at the beginning but now things went back to normal”. She said this is because she lives in London.
“It is not the same as before though, I feel very different to how I felt before the referendum,” she added.
Poland asked the British government to launch an educational campaign in the UK to inform the public of the rights of EU citizens in September.
The government has a clear agenda when it comes to the control of immigration. Back in 2013 there were proposals from the Home Office to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants.
“What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need,” said Theresa May, who was Home Secretary at the time.
Last year, there were proposals found in leaked documents to use schools to make immigration checks on pupils. Labour frontbencher Angela Rayner recently told the BBC that is “not a British value that we have.”
UK law states that every person under the age of 16 has the right to an education, regardless of their parents’ status.
“It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in newspapers, online and even among politicians,” said Christian Ahlund, the chair of The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in The Guardian.
The last report from the ECRI said that the authorities should be careful “when developing and explaining policies, to ensure that the message sent to society as a whole is not one likely to foment or foster intolerance,” and reminded newspapers about “the importance of responsible reporting” to prevent harm done “to targeted persons or vulnerable groups.”
One German woman, who works in the medical sector, said that despite being in London, which voted to remain, it now it feels like there are “negative underlying feeling towards Europeans in the UK.”
She also said that even though she does not fit the profile of migrants the government is targeting as unskilled, she is “as European as a Polish worker.”
“After the Brexit results, I think twice before speaking in Spanish on the phone when I’m on a train,”
A Spanish citizen working in sports, Manuel Peña Garces, said he felt immigration is divided in different types. “Some people accept me but, they don’t accept others,” he said, referring to Polish workers. He said that feeling welcome depends on [a person] having “a pretty strong stomach.”
In the light of how some EU nationals were treated and the rising number of crimes related to race or nationality, we asked them if they still feel welcome, and most said they did.
“I don’t feel I belong here any less since the vote to leave,” said an Irish woman who arrived to the UK three years ago and works in the health sector. “I personally don’t feel too much pressure because of the geographical and political ties both the UK and Ireland,” she added.
A software developer from Romania said she never met people who judged her on where she is coming from, while Italian citizen Lorena Zuliani told us: “I feel very valued in my workplace. In science there aren’t a lot of British and they bring people from abroad.”
Some said they felt more welcome in London, but they did not know how welcome they would feel in the rest of England. A Spanish citizen, Alberto Redondo, said that he could foresee the results of the referendum when he visited rural areas.
“Sometimes there is a concern about whether to say that you are not from here because you don’t know what the reaction of the other person will be,” said Lorena Zuliani.
“After the Brexit results, I think twice before speaking in Spanish on the phone when I’m on a train,” said Rosa Mallol.
“If they don’t want us, we can leave. They will want us back. They don’t know how much they need us”
Two white EU citizens, who asked not to be named, said that if they were more ethnic looking they think they would be treated differently.
An Italian woman studying a Masters degree, Carolina Cal Angrisani, said she was given opportunities on the basis of being an ethnic minority, so the organisation she belongs to looks more “international and diverse.”
Angrisani also said that everyday little things remind her that she is a foreigner, like being asked where she is from, what she is doing here or if she is planning to stay. She said it feels that in a conversation “everything will go around that. Some people seem surprised that I can speak good English.”
Although most of the 25 people interviewed did not have any racist comments directed at them after the results of the referendum, a Spanish woman said she had to make a formal complaint to the NHS about this.
When asking for an alternative treatment to the general practitioner in her local surgery, she was told “If you are not happy, you can go to the doctor in your country.”
“If they don’t want us, we can leave. They will want us back. They don’t know how much they need us,” said a French woman who is working in the UK. As one in ten NHS professionals are from the EU, which means the future of the NHS is also uncertain.
Anna Veli, a Greek woman working for the NHS, said that it is “an extra help having staff that can speak languages other than English,” and understand different cultures. She said it can help some patients to “feel more comfortable” when receiving treatment in hospital.
“I wouldn’t want my kids growing learning from others to be closed minded and racist.”
When asked if Brexit changed their plans in any way, most of them said their lives were not changed significantly. Their concerns had to do more with the economy.
“The economic repercussions are the most devastating for this country,” said Italian citizen Lorena Zuliani.
A Spanish woman working for a multinational with its centre in London said: “The company has activated the protocol to relocate in another country in Europe. At the moment I don’t know where my workplace will be. I thought about buying a home but I stopped the process.”
“As it stands at the moment I definitely won’t have children here,” said an Italian woman. “I can’t imagine them having a decent quality of life,” she added, referring to the changes in the economy. She also said: “I wouldn’t want my kids growing learning from others to be closed minded and racist.”
“Why would I fight to be in a place that does not want me or just wants me as an exotic element?,” said Italian citizen Carolina Cal Angrisani. “I don’t want to be in a place where I will always be the immigrant. I don’t want my kids to be kids of immigrants.”
“It is obvious that I am a foreigner,” said a Greek man working in the health sector. When speaking about his children he said they “will be fine. No one can tell where they are coming from.”
When asked if they considered applying for the British Citizenship, most of them said they wouldn’t.
“I will be applying for British passport, just in case. I need some security,” said a Polish woman doing a PhD, who asked not to be named.
Alberto Redondo, from Spain, said he “will stay for now”, but he does not feel as safe as he did before.
Most of them said they are planning to stay for a few years or on a long-term basis. Returning to the country where they were born, some of them said, is a desire. However, it may not be as easy as it once seemed to them, due to the work stability they can find here and not there.
Nationalism is now strong in the UK. Other factors that may add to the will to leave the EU might be cultural and identity issues. How to restrict free movement is something to be solved.
In the meantime, “considerable intolerant political discourse in the UK” is something that needs to be addressed, according to ECRI.
Image courtesy of Freestocks on FlickrCC