The never-ending issue of Brexit has divided Britain, and immigration is a particularly touchy subject, despite the documented need for labour in the UK. Globalisation renders migration inevitable, yet we fail to accept it as a normal aspect of contemporary society. Meanwhile, research shows it will not stop, but is likely to accelerate.
According to the ONS, Polish is the most common non-British nationality in the UK; in 2016 the number of Polish nationals resident in the UK reached 1m. As a Polish migrant woman who has lived in the UK for more than a decade, the issues around women migrants from the EU are important to me.
I’ve been researching Polish migration for the last eight years – the results of which are published in my new book. I’m particularly interested in whether my fellow citizens share my worries about our future after Brexit. The current situation of EU migrants’ rights in the UK is still unclear because of the uncertainty surrounding Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. What is clear is that May has been vocally opposed to continuing free movement after Brexit. Both sides have pledged, in the proposed withdrawal agreement, to fully guarantee EU citizens’ rights as long as the commitment is reciprocated. However, these rights would not be guaranteed in a no-deal Brexit scenario.
I carried out interviews with female Polish migrants before and after the Brexit vote. These are the voices of real people who have made their home in the UK. While British people have had the opportunity to have their say on the UK’s membership in the EU, migrant workers from the EU have not. I wanted to give them a voice and an opportunity to be heard.
Exiting after Brexit
I asked these women how they view Brexit, what it means for them, and how their views and experiences changed (if at all) after the Brexit vote. I was also interested in learning about their future plans as well as the wider implications of the migrant experience in relation to the lack of security, and the British paid labour market. I found that Polish migrants to the UK can be divided into three main groups.
There are those who are mainly single and ready to leave the country as soon as they feel like it – such as when it becomes too much trouble to secure paid work. Aniela, for example, was perplexed why others were anxious: “I don’t worry about things I have no control over. I’m not worried. But if I don’t have the right to work in here, then I’ll just leave.”
Then there are those, mostly with families, whose livelihoods cannot be that easily transferred to another place. These women are therefore anxious about Brexit – particularly on how it may affect their children’s future. Ksenia, for example, told me: “I might have to apply for residency or citizenship, which is costly. Now that I started a family here and I have a child here, that’s linked to new worries. Will I have problems accessing the NHS or getting social assistance?”
Then there are those who do not follow the news, have not done anything to secure their stay and prefer to just wait and see what happens. I found women in this group to either be very relaxed about Brexit and not feel any pressure to do anything as of yet – or to be too upset and angry to act. One of my interviewees, Oliwia, claimed:
I never had that feeling of being terrified like some of my friends. I just thought it’s more of the same stuff, just another fad. But the more time passes the more anxious I get. I’m starting to feel insulted. If I think about it, especially my countrymen who are more vulnerable and can’t defend themselves like I can because they don’t speak fluent English or lack confidence, then I just think that it’s a massive insult.
EU citizens living in the UK now live in a state of unpredictability characterised by insecure employment and income. My research indicates that many (if not the majority) of EU migrants feel betrayed that they invested their youth in the UK, paid UK taxes for many years, and now are left unprotected and feel unwanted. Oliwia told me: “I love the UK but it broke my heart and I will leave”.
Oliwia was one of the most well-settled Polish women I spoke to. She is very outgoing, has lots of friends, including many British close contacts and is a regular cinema and theatre goer. She has been living in the UK for almost 15 years and unsurprisingly she is quite angry about how EU migrants have been treated following the Brexit referendum.
On the other hand, those who decided to legally secure their stay (through acquiring permanent residence and citizenship) feel angry that they were somewhat pushed into this decision through Brexit. Many migrants have already returned to their home countries (or moved away), others plan to return to their homeland (or to another country), often with their families. This has worrying implications when it comes to children and their mental health and wellbeing.
The bigger picture
Authorities in the UK and other EU countries should recognise that there is a need for labour in the light of aging societies throughout Europe. Brexit has complicated the lives and futures of EU migrants (and Brits resident in the EU, of course) while the complexity around acquiring the new “settled status” and British citizenship may make them share the misfortune of the Windrush generation.
There is also a disparity between the image of an economic migrant in public debates and the lived experiences of women migrants with their gendered responsibilities, such as caring, that often migrate with them and may make it more difficult for them to secure their stay.
This topic is one close to my heart: until recently I was one of Mrs. May’s “bargaining chips”. I was fortunate enough to secure both permanent residence and UK citizenship (somewhat reluctantly) following the 2016 referendum. That said, officially securing my stay did not change the overwhelming feeling of being unwelcome.