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Talking about Brexit (3): Who is affected (and how)

European or not, with or without papers, student or worker, Brexit is somehow affecting you. However, what goes around comes around and Britons are not facing a happier ending.


Marcella Via


The United Kingdom has usually been referred to as a ‘melting pot’ of different cultures. According to the Migration Watch UK, “in 2017, just under 9,4 million people living in the country were born abroad, which is 14.3% of the total population.

Among the immigrant community present in the United Kingdom, 5,677 million people are non-EU immigrants, while about 3.6 million are EU citizens”. According to the same organisation, 1,686 million people come from Western Europe (EU14), 1,444 come from the East (EU 8) and 0,474 are Romanian and Bulgarian (EU2).

However, apart from the classic EU/non-EU distinction, there are different categories of immigrant present in the United Kingdom. Indeed, they may be qualified or low skilled, they may have the right to stay or they might be lacking the paperwork necessary; they may be refugees or asylum seekers, students or workers… and the differentiation can continue.

Regardless of their nationality and qualifications, immigrants play an important role in the British economy and a fall in immigration would affect Britain’s economic performance. Still, Brexit will also affect immigrants in a variety of different ways.

At the same time, exiting the EU will also damage the 1,3 million Britons living in the union. Some wise people left the boat before seeing it inexorably sinking by acquiring an EU nationality.

“Illegal” immigrants: a blurred target

The image of a flow of immigrants crossing the European borders has been increasingly used by mass media to create the perception of being “under siege”.

However, as explained by The BBC, it is extremely difficult to estimate how many immigrants are living without the right paperwork in the United Kingdom, as they form part of a hidden community. Attempts to estimate the size of this population have been putting the figure anywhere between 300,000 and more than a million, turning them into a blurred target.

The so-called “illegal immigrants” have been repeatedly scapegoated and criminalised since long before the Brexit campaign.

For example, The Guardian reported that newspapers such as The Daily Express and The Daily Mail have been key in producing negative articles related to refugees seeking asylum in the UK. Indeed, between 2010 and 2016, The Daily Express wrote negatively about migration issues 179 times, while The Daily Mail published 122 articles on the same topic. Consequently, messages of hatred like the one from these British media reinforced anti-migrant attitudes across the population.

In addition to being continuously stigmatized, “illegal” immigrants often face a difficult reality due to the impossibility of getting access to basic services, including healthcare. Indeed, many immigrants are frightened to seek help by going to the doctor.

Also, because of their situation, they are continuously exposed to exploitative working conditions and face discrimination, as people consider them as criminalsor just take advantage of their vulnerable situation. This situation causes an increasing paranoia, aggravated by the fear of being detained or deported, which considerably impacts on their mental health.

Certainly, their fear of being detained is well-founded. Indeed, migrant detention has turned out to be a big business.  The Prisma highlighted the fact that the United Kingdom has become the first European country in outsourcing the management of detention centres, which are responsible for a variety of abuses.

According to The Conversation, some detainees have experienced sexual harassment, indefinite detainment, the use of racist language and mocking of detainees by staff and acts of violence against women of colour, among others.

There are four companies managing immigrant removal centres; within this context the company Mitie runs three detentions centres in the United Kingdom and is responsible for the largest number of immigrants detained in the country.

Immigrants living in the United Kingdom without the right paperwork have already been the subject of a politics of hatred and discrimination for many years. The arrival of Brexit for them implies that the witch-hunt will become more and more intense.

EU immigrants: a collateral damage

There are about 3,6 million EU immigrants living in the UK. In 2017, Migration Watch estimated that, among them, 156,000 were Spanish, 232,000  Italian and 922,000 Polish.

EU nationals seem to be the part of the migrant community of the UK that has been most affected by Brexit. Indeed, this portion of the population is progressively losing its rights day by day, as they will lose the freedom of movement and the right to get access to social services. Essentially, they are now regarded as any other type of immigrants, and not as the European citizens with the rights they used to have.

Also, they are now exposed to new risks, as they might fail to register or struggle to provide sufficient documentation to prove their residency status, according to Business Insider.

And this is confirmed by a report in the Independent that the number of EU nationals being removed from the United Kingdom has been sharply increasing during the last eight years, reaching 4,754 cases in 2016, The Independent reports.

Therefore, Brexit for EU migrants is not just a perception of being unwelcome in a country that used to be “home”.

Many people have already faced the new migration restrictions and decided to go back to their home countries or migrate somewhere else, in order to live in better conditions.

 Non-EU immigrants: the domino effect

That the hostile environment was not only about what politicians and mass media usually refer to as “illegal migrants” became clear this year with the Windrush Crisis.

The scandal broke when it was revealed that some members of the Windrush generation have been threatened with deportation, refused access to healthcare or lost their jobs as a result of the migration restrictions applied by the Home Office. These are Caribbean people who were invited to Britain in 1948 to fill public sector jobs, and are so-called because one of the boats bringing them was the Empire Windrush.

In at least 60 cases people have been wrongly deported and The Guardian reported that nearly 1,000 flights were booked to deport people to the Caribbean.

People affected by the crisis have claimed compensation, however, in mid-July, The Guardian stated that compensations could be capped to ensure that no one will receive “disproportionally high payments from the public purse”.

Apart from the Windrush scandal, with Brexit non-EU immigrants have been exposed to symbolic acts of discrimination. For example, the “right to rent policy”, one of the many attempts to create a “hostile environment” by the Government, has raised many concerns.

Indeed, The Guardian reported that landlords have been ignoring tenancy applications from people with “foreign-sounding” names, from ethnic minorities, and from those without a British passport.

This fact is particular serious, as even immigrants who have the right to live in the country will find it harder to get access to jobs or to housing because of their name, accent or ethnicity.

 Asylum seekers: lost in a limbo 

The latest statistics presented by the Refugee Council reported that this year applications for asylum in the United Kingdom increased slightly, reaching 6,713 cases. According to these statistics, the majority of applications come from Iraq, with 627, followed by Pakistan and Iran, with 581 and 577 requests respectively.

Will Brexit affect asylum seekers? At the moment, there is no clear answer. However, INFO Migrants predicts that regaining full control of UK borders will lead to a further restriction on refugee intake.

Specifically, as reported by the report “Together again”   by Oxfam, the British Government is acting against the basic principles of the Geneva Convention, by not allowing unaccompanied child refugees to bring their closest family members to join them.

Indeed, in 2015 and 2016 the Home Office refused around 40% of the applications for family reunion made by refugees.  For example, Sharif, aged 15, fled Afghanistan and is now trapped in a limbo due to the slow process of dealing with his application. He is living in a refugee camp in Greece while waiting to join his aunt who wishes to take full responsibility of him in case he can get to the United Kingdom.

With regard to refugees, the region of Calais is the one mostly concerned, as migration flows comes mainly from there.

The eventual Brexit settlement may lead to a renegotiation of the bilateral ‘Le Touquet’ agreement between the United Kingdom and France.

This agreement allows the British police to operate in French territory, according to the ‘Hauts-de-France’ submission, as explained by POLITICOThe Guardian also reported that a new ‘Le Touquet’ agreement implies closer cooperation between the two countries in defence and security measures. It will prevent migrants in Calais from crossing the Channel and speed up the asylum process for the ones entitled to claim refuge in the United Kingdom.

Overall, with Brexit, asylum seekers will encounter different practical and legal barriers when trying to reach the United Kingdom.

However, according to Natascha Zaun some of the legal obstacles would disappear. Specifically, by leaving the Dublin Regulation, the United Kingdom will have less control over asylum seekers, while European countries would have an incentive to waive them through to Great Britain.

This is because they will no longer be forced to takee them back if the United Kingdom refuses to accept them. At the same time, the United Kingdom will still benefit from restrictive border policies, such as FRONTEX operations, which are aimed to deter the flow of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

Students: should I stay or should I go?

 Regardless of their nationality, foreign students are also an important group considerably affected by Brexit.

As reported by The Prisma, nearly 500,000 students from all around the world choose to make their university studies in Great Britain each year.

Although foreign students are the migrant group subject to visa control which boosts the UK economy the most, the laws introduced by the Government have actually affected them more than other groups of migrants. For example, it became harder for non-EU students to stay in the country once they have completed their studies.

However, the happy news for EU students starting university in September 2019 is that they will continue to pay the same (hyper-expensive) tuition fees as British students. Therefore, the 135,000 EU nationals studying in the United Kingdom can breathe a sigh of relief, as their status will remain unchanged for at least another year, as reported by The BBC.

British people in the EU: a double-edged weapon

Public attention has been mostly directed towards immigrants in Great Britain, but what about British people living in the EU?

Statistics from the United Nations estimate that in 2017 there were about 1.3 million UK-born people living in the EU. They are going to be affected as well, because freedom of movement will be restricted. For example, Business Insider stated that, under the terms being negotiated, a British resident working in Belgium would not have the automatic right to work in France during the transition period, if they were offered a new job there.

Also, as Brexit begins to bite, more and more British citizens are leaving Spain. Currently, more than 300,000 Britons living there and are particularly worried about the possibility of losing access to healthcare and pensions.

Moreover, as pointed out by Cadenaser, the association “Eurocitizens”, composed by British people who are resident in Spain, has reported that people may also lose the right to work in the country and they will not be able to vote.

As a result of all this, since the 2016 EU referendum, the number of British citizens acquiring EU citizenship in another member state has more than doubled. The Independent reports that 6,555 British nationals took up such citizenship in 2016, up from 2,478 the year before. Germany is the country that has adopted most British nationals, with 2,702, followed by France and Belgium, with respectively, 517 and 506 citizens.

Impacts on the economy: Is Business xeno-racist?

What do big corporations think about Brexit? Interestingly, business is advocating in favour of immigrants.

For example, a report by  Corporate Watch highlights that big business actually wants immigrant workers, and in recent Brexit position papers corporate lobbies such as CBI have called for liberalised immigration controls.

Of course, it is important to remember that big corporations do not like all immigrants, but only the ones that are high skilled and, therefore, favourable to them. However, in May 2018, the Government has been using provisions in the anti-terror laws to expel qualified immigrants.

These measures have affected around 1,000 highly skilled people, including teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and IT professionals, The Guardian described.  The reason why highly skilled immigrants are also facing the threat of deportation is section 322(5) of the Immigration Act. This paragraph is designed to tackle criminals and those judged as threats to national security, although it has been wrongly applied by the Home Office to accuse migrants of financial irregularities.

For instance, the case of Saleem Dadabhoy, a Pakistani citizen who has been accused of fraud and faces the risk of being deported under section 322(5), although three different appeal courts have found no evidence of any irregularities. British citizens would also be directly affected, as his deportation would lead to the loss of 20 jobs and the shutting-down of a British company worth £1.5 millions.

Certainly, the reduction of immigration will have serious impacts on the British economy. The population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in a decade following a 12% drop in 2017.

Moreover, the decrease in immigration could provoke a “brain drain” from vital industries. For instance, the same newspaper reported that there are currently an estimated 90,000 vacancies in the social care sector, and in some part of the country foreign workers make a special contribution.

Next week: Brexit and racism.

(Photos: Pixabay)


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