A kick in the teeth - Ciara Leeming reports for The Big Issue North

Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham
Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

The recent scandal over the Windrush generation has focused attention on how the UK can be a hostile climate for those not born here. With Brexit approaching, that includes EU nationals as well, reports Ciara Leeming for The Big Issue North.

Claudia has a metaphor for what Brexit means to her.

“Imagine if someone vomits on you and then says: ‘You clean it up,’” she says. “I know it’s not nice, but that’s how it feels.”

An architect, Claudia moved to Manchester from her native Italy two decades ago, at the age of 16. She and her British husband have a three-year-old daughter.

For most people, Brexit throws up questions of political outlook and economics. But for many European Union nationals in the UK and Britons resident in other member states, the issue is highly emotional. And the toll on their mental wellbeing can be significant.

For Claudia, everything changed on 23 June 2016.

“When I woke up to the result I felt nauseous,” she recalls. “I’m naturally quite an anxious person and even now, nearly two years on, the stress is still there in the background. I’m suffering from insomnia. I’m physically and emotionally shattered, but pretend everything’s okay. Then it occasionally bubbles up to the surface – I’ve had meltdowns where I cry and scream and say I want to leave. I feel hurt and let down by the whole thing.”

Claudia’s trauma is shared by the Windrush generation of UK subjects who arrived in this country more than 50 years ago, but have been threatened with deportation under the Home Office’s “hostile climate” regime, set up when Theresa May was home secretary. May apologised for their treatment last week.

With talks ongoing between the UK government and Brussels, the 3.6 million EU nationals in Britain are still unsure of their rights post-Brexit. Many believe they are being used as bargaining chips in the negotiations.

Although the possibility of no deal for migrants has been mooted, a more likely outcome is the creation of a settled status that EU citizens would have to apply for – but not all would necessarily qualify. For families, legal status will probably differ according to circumstances.

Dr Nando Sigona, from Birmingham University, leads a team that has spent the past year interviewing 100 EU families about the impact of Brexit on their lives. The work will be published over the coming months.

He says the complexity of migrant families will be reflected in their legal status. While some couples originate in the same EU state, others come from different countries and therefore have no obvious place to call home except Britain. Other EU nationals have British partners – or are in relationships with people from outside the EU. These families told researchers of their added fear of what may happen if they can no longer get spousal visas after Brexit.

Interviews with young adults in particular highlighted that Brexit represents more than simply the legal implications for many families. It cuts to their very core – their European identity – while the Britain in which they now nd themselves is a place they no longer recognise.

“It’s really about belonging,” says Sigona. “These people have grown up feeling comfortable with this European identity, and how you can be both British and French, for example. But they’ve suddenly been told this isn’t particularly welcome – there has been a change of landscape. People who haven’t had to think about immigration rules, who have had the right to live here for 20 years, are now seeing the goalposts being moved." "Citizens from newer member states – Eastern Europe for example – may have experienced a much tougher welcome than those from older member states. A German or Swede is unlikely to have been frequently accused of taking people’s jobs, as many Eastern Europeans have. That person therefore is likely to feel the loss of status more acutely. Because of Brexit people are feeling something they may never have felt before.”

Many EU migrants are taking steps to regularise their situation before Britain leaves the union on 29 March next year. Some are marrying their partner in the hope this makes them more secure. Passports are being renewed and many people are applying for permanent residence in the UK with the aim of securing their right to stay. Across the Channel, British expats are taking similar steps in their countries of residence.

Dr Michaela Benson, of Goldsmith’s University, runs Brexit Brits Abroad – a research project which roughly mirrors the work going on in Birmingham. She says:

“Eighty per cent of the British population in the EU is of working age or younger, and many are dual national families, which raises interesting questions. “Some have experienced Brexit as a kick in the teeth. One British mother in France, whose husband is French, told us she felt the country had voted against everything her family represents. For the dual national families I talked to this sense was very pronounced – it is an existential thing: ‘Britain doesn’t want us anymore.’ It becomes about where they feel they belong and how they identify. There’s a lot of anger and hurt.”

In the run-up to the referendum, European voices were largely absent from the Brexit debate – and EU citizens were unable to take part in the vote. In the wake of the shock result, several groups have emerged to give them a voice in negotiations with the government. Groups have also taken to the streets to protest and lively online forums have emerged, in which EU citizens help each other work out their options and reaf rm their European identity at a time when Britain feels an increasingly hostile place in which to live.

Anne-Laure Donskoy, founding co- chair of campaign group The3million, says: “People who weren’t that interested in politics before now started becoming more active. There are different shades of activism – some people went to marches and joined groups. Brexit has definitely changed people’s lives. People’s rights are being used as bargaining chips and we still don’t know what’s happening in the future.

“We were living in a country that seemed to be tolerant and open but where has that country gone? Many people felt they were part of the fabric of UK society but Brexit has suddely turned them
into ‘the other’. They were someone’s neighbour or colleague but now they’re simply ‘the foreigner.’”

One organisation has even formed a counselling service for people suffering from psychological issues as a result of Brexit. New Europeans has forged a partnership with psychotherapy centre the Existential Academy to offer sessions with volunteer counsellors to help them work through the impact of the vote and its aftermath.

The organisation, founded in 2013, advocates for EU nationals living in the UK at the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the Home Affairs Select Committee and frames the current limbo as a violation of human rights.

It is currently pushing the idea of a Green Card for Europe – which would guarantee EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU all the rights they enjoyed prior to Brexit. The proposal is being looked at by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

New Europeans is also part of a consultation group run by the Home Office to work out plans for the new settled status scheme, which would be introduced if an agreement is reached with Brussels. They have been assured the application process would be simpler.

“We need this matter resolved now – we can’t wait until the negotiations are complete. Many people are suffering economic uncertainty and emotional stress – anxiety about the future is eating away at people.”

Even when people try to get their paperwork in order, the process is costly and time consuming. Those with incomplete documentation, language dif culties and gaps in their employment history will struggle. Campaigners are concerned that vulnerable groups such as carers, the disabled, domestic violence survivors and Roma may fall through these bureaucratic gaps, even for the settled status scheme.

Chief executive Roger Casale says:

“We want unilateral guarantees. People have been living in limbo for two years now and the matter is still not resolved. We think the UK government is interfering with people’s right to family and private life under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights and would love to bring a test case to court.

Those who have applied for residence or for documents from their own country nd things tend to happen slowly because the entire system is overloaded.

After months of feeling anxious, Claudia decided to take action. She is applying for permanent residence – now essential for those hoping to secure British citizenship – while her husband and daughter are applying for Italian citizenship. If all goes to plan, the entire family will become dual nationals.

Even doing something positive brought an added layer of stress. Every document needed to be translated and certfied at a cost of £30 a pop. And the UK’s single Italian consulate – bogged down by Brexit-related cases – took 13 excruciating months to process her child’s paperwork. During that time all her phone calls and emails went unanswered.

She says:

“At first I didn’t want to deal with any of this, but through being involved in groups like The3million I realised that I’m lucky my life is quite straightforward – I’ve got a job, I can prove I’ve worked for ve years and my life is here. “I have realised that I am one of the lucky ones because I happen to have married a British person. Not everyone is able to do this though. I’ve calculated that sorting all our paperwork is going to cost about £3,000. It’s all stuff I’d rather not have to do.”


This article was originally published in The Big Issue North on 23 April 2018 and is reproduced here with thanks.



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