Brexit referendum and the result of it came as a shock to many EU citizens. Most of whom were not even able to vote in it as (apart from a few exceptions) EU nationals were not eligible to do so. Three years down the line, majority of EU nationals in NI feel vulnerable and express their disappointment with a complete lack of clarity as to their future and consequences Brexit might bring about.
It is important to highlight that according to the 2011 Census data only around 3% of NI’s population’s first language is other than English. The Census gives us an approximate number of 54000 foreign nationals in NI. Obviously for the past 8 years the migration patterns have changed and we can only assume and estimate by how much.
The Polish Consulate General in Belfast suggests that the number of Polish nationals only in NI could be between 30,000 and 50,000. This juxtaposed with the statistical data from the Census Day 2011, where 17700 nationals identified as Polish and 1.8 per cent (32,400) of the resident population belonged to minority ethnic groups (more than double the proportion in 2001) still gives us not very clear idea of the actual numbers in NI. What is certain is that Northern Ireland remains the least ethnically diverse region in the United Kingdom and thanks to uncertainties of Brexit this is unlikely to change.
Ever since the Brexit Referendum we have seen an increase in racist attitudes across the UK including NI. This is reflected in the PSNI statistical data showing that for the first time in history the police recorded more racist hate crimes than sectarian ones in NI. However, it is not actually reflected in the raw number of reported crimes and incidents. And this is where we should look at the reasons for it. EU nationals, especially Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian nationals living and working in NI all unanimously say that something has indeed changed since the announcement of the Referendum results. People noticed that racist and anti-immigration attitudes in workplaces and educational settings although always present, became normalised. Unfortunately, more than before June 2016 people become worried about the security of jobs and their future in NI. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that people chose not to report issues to avoid further victimisation or potential job losses. Same applied to pupils and students alike. Their parents would also decide not to report and take things further for fear of repercussions from both staff and pupils alike.
Brexit negotiations and insecurity coming from the lack of clarity over the future of NI has made it very difficult for a lot of migrants to plan for the future. The UK government has been repeatedly reassuring EU citizens and their family members that their rights will be protected after Brexit. Their new EU Settlement Scheme which introduced the need for 3 million EU nationals across the UK to apply for confirmation of their status was one step in the direction of securing the rights. Unfortunately, this puts the most vulnerable members of EU communities in a difficult position. One of the vulnerable groups are the Roma community members who quite often lack literacy skills and more importantly official ID documents from their home countries which makes it difficult for them to apply for the new status. Another vulnerable group are victims of domestic violence, who quite often leave their abusive partners without documents. And those are only two examples of many.
Some of the issues with the new immigration system were anticipated from the very start however it became apparent that there will be a group of EU nationals who although legally residing in the UK for 7, 10 or even 15 years might find it difficult to prove their status and ascertain the rights. Those with substantial criminal background might also find it difficult to secure the new settled status or even face deportation.
Those granted the pre-settled status will need to remember to re-apply after 5 years or when they reach 5 years residence (whichever comes first).
Moreover, there are EU nations who simple wait and refuse to make an application until they know if Brexit is actually going to happen.
Yet another consideration for EU nationals is the decision to either come to the UK to make it before Brexit and changes it will bring or leave the UK to return to their home countries.
Brexit made the decisions of hundreds EU nationals easier or quicker to make.
Polish nationals who constitute the largest ethnic minority in NI are leaving the UK and mainly returning to Poland. For a lot of them Brexit just made their decision somewhat easier. Families we have worked with often repeated the same statements saying we are not wanted here anymore, it is better to leave now to get jobs back home, there might be another crisis and we might be losing jobs so why wait.
It is also worth noting that on the opposite Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are coming in much larger numbers with data from the NI Statistics and Research Agency confirming Belfast and the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon districts as those with the highest level of net international inward migration. Although statistical data indicate the highest migration numbers into the NI in 10 years two NI council areas experienced negative net migration of international migrants i.e. Derry City and the Causeway Coast which is in line with the overall trend in the UK.
Unfortunately, the Government’s hostile environment policies, changes in the immigration policies as well as media discourse blaming EU migrants for economic downturn, social issues, unemployment rates, housing shortages, taking over school places and being a strain on underfunded public services including health are all to be blamed for “us vs. them” rhetoric legitimising discrimination and hate crime incidents more than ever before. More than ever before people experienced verbal abuse, bullying and harassment triggered simply by the fact that they were EU citizens or spoke a different language.
The feeling of being unwelcomed and the uncertainty of the legal status and rights after Brexit are the main factors driving the negative net migration of A8 country nationals from the UK. NI, however, has the added complexity of its location and troubled violent history. Many fear the Peace process might be jeopardised if the hard boarder or in fact any border returns to the island of Ireland.
More than ever before services supporting BME nationals including EU migrants across the UK and including NI are focused on making sure EU citizens are aware of the rights and the obligations. Issues that before were more important for those from outside of the EU/EEA.
The Home Office as part of the vulnerability strategy recognising the need to support those who might require help with making applications under the new immigration scheme made £9m available to organisations supporting EU citizens and their family members across the UK. Out of 57 funded organisations Migrant Centre NI has partnered Advice NI in their bid to help those most vulnerable in NI who need additional help when applying for their immigration status through the Home Office EU Settlement Scheme.
As part of the EUSS support services Migrant Centre NI is providing:
This article was written by Agnieszka Luczak.