Brexit Uncertainty and EU Migrants

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Teared paper with EU flag and UK flag behind it. UK brexit concept.


By Dr Kelly Hall, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Professor Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Superdiversity
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

Brexit has undoubtedly created a huge amount of anxiety and uncertainty for EU migrants, with their rights to reside, run a business or access welfare placed under threat. Brexit uncertainty effects approximately three million EU nationals living in the UK and a million British nationals permanently residing in other EU countries. After a series of delays and years of uncertainty, the UK formally left the EU on the 31st January 2020, entering a new ‘transition’ phase where negotiations are ongoing and issues are left unresolved. The Withdrawal Agreement that came into force on the 1st February 2020 has now set out EU citizen’s rights once the transition period ends, however the future for EU migrants remains uncertain as they are forced to contemplate everyday activities and rights formerly taken for granted. Migrants are faced with new vulnerabilities and social risks as individuals and families experience a sense of life suspended. Our recently published research explores how Brexit uncertainty has impacted on the lives of three different groups of migrants: ‘EU entrepreneurs’ from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania who were living and running businesses in the UK; ‘Somali EU migrants’ who had resettled in the UK after obtaining refugee status in mainland Europe; and ‘British retirees’ living in Spain.

We found that despite their different migration journeys and socio-cultural backgrounds, their experiences of and responses to uncertainty were similar in many ways. EU migrants spoke of their personal anxiety about Brexit, which was often connected to a loss of control and changing sense of identity. This was particularly prominent amongst the British in Spain, who felt an immense loss of their identity as EU citizens. For the EU migrants living in the UK, Brexit created a sense of rejection and a loss of familiarity with, and trust in, the communities within which they had previously felt fully embedded. Uncertainty also centred on concerns around the potential for more tangible losses. Potential losses included the loss of legal rights to reside and to access welfare including ongoing access to health services for the British retirees in Spain and the loss of rights to access University as domestic students for the Somali-EU migrants. The entrepreneurs worried about the future sustainability of their businesses.

What happens now?
As we end near the end of the transition period, EU migrants should at least have a greater sense of what comes next than they did when we undertook our research. However, with less than twenty days to go, Brexit negotiations rumble on and uncertainty remains. Trade negotiations continue with a no-deal scenario becoming more likely by the day, leaving EU entrepreneurs facing uncertain futures. EU Somali migrants may be able to remain in the UK and retain access welfare, but their family members living in other EU countries may not be able to join them at a later date. British retirees already resident in Spain or other EU countries can continue to access healthcare and other welfare provision for as long as they remain resident in that country, but those not formally resident are likely to face difficulties. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of state safety nets and the need for everyone to access healthcare, welfare and business support during times of crisis. Lockdowns and travel bans have further illustrated how the loss of mobility could separate families and negatively impact on businesses. Thus, pandemic conditions may further exacerbate Brexit uncertainty for EU migrants leaving them worried about their future and unable to get on with their lives.

The above draws on the authors’ published work (with Aleksandra Grzymala-Kazlowska, Natalia Vershinina, Özlem Ögtem-Young & Catherine Harris) in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

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