Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Brexit referendum we have seen reports of a sudden increase in hate crime and anxieties amongst EU migrants regarding their future in the UK. As researchers who have been specifically exploring the experiences and aspirations of migrants from Eastern Europe to Scotland over the last 3 years through an ESRC-funded project, we feel it important to highlight some of the likely impacts on migrants’ lives and plans for the future. We also suggest some areas where local initiatives can make a positive difference.
2 years ago, in the run up to Scotland’s Independence referendum, many East European migrants were concerned about the possible consequences in terms of EU membership. They were worried that a decision in favour of Scottish independence would result in Scotland leaving the EU putting them in a precarious position as EU citizens and potentially jeopardising their rights to live, work and access certain social entitlements here. One of the Polish families we spoke to as part of our research project felt so insecure about the potential impacts on their legal status, that they had already developed a clear plan of action: to move to England in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote. On that occasion, they had the right to participate in the vote, in the Brexit referendum, they did not. Following the results of that referendum, as Scotland voted to remain in the EU, but the UK as a whole decided to leave, it seemed as though history had played a cruel trick on them and thousands of other EU migrants left deeply worried about their future here.
Of course, migrants are not the only people left worried in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The lack of clarity about the economic, legal and wider social and political implications of Brexit has created new uncertainties and potential insecurities for the whole country. These are compounded through the deep divisions revealed by the relatively narrow victory, following on from the negativity and scaremongering of campaigning on both sides. However, the success of a leave campaign which specifically targeted EU migration as a major threat to the UK has placed migrants in a particularly vulnerable position. During the campaign EU migrants have often been described as ‘benefit scroungers’ who are, at the same time, ‘taking jobs away from native workers’. Leaving aside the sheer impossibility of ‘living on benefits’ and holding a job simultaneously, neither of these claims is based on facts. The facts are that EU migrants have contributed significantly to the UK economy taking hard-to-fill vacancies and are far less likely to claim benefits than the native population.
Over the last two years our research with migrants from Central and East European countries has revealed the painstaking processes by which individuals and families have built up a sense of security in Scotland. Hard work, in often low paid and low skilled employment sectors has, for many, formed the basis of a longer term future here. Moving from temporary or agency-based employment to more permanent contracts, gaining access to social housing and being able to bring over other family members has allowed many of those we spoke with to begin to feel ‘at home’. These foundations have now been called into question by the uncertainties of their legal position, as well as fears of wider social repercussions resulting from their scapegoating in media portrayals and political rhetoric.
EU migrants who have built a life for themselves in the UK are indeed very worried about the legal implications of the country leaving the EU. Will we be able to continue living and working here? Will we be asked to leave? What will happen to us now? – These are the questions being asked most often on social media sites of EU nationals living in the UK at the moment. It is not only maintaining the right to live and work in the UK that is an issue of great concern. It is also the implications for wider family life – the prospects for family reunification and/or receiving visits from family members and friends. Immediately following the 2004 Enlargement, workers from the ‘new’ EU countries were given full access to the British labour market and actively encouraged by both employers and the British Government to fill vacancies. Subsequently, the free movement enjoyed as a result of shared EU membership enabled these EU workers to build their family life in this country as well, an opportunity that many have gladly taken. As a result, many EU migrants are now very much settled in the UK, contributing to the social and cultural vibrancy of local communities, including those with little previous history of migration.
Settlement is not easy, it is a process which takes time and effort. Not only do you need to find a job, accommodation and find your way in a different system but you also have to work at making friends, learning the language, helping the children to settle, becoming part of the community. Having done all this, especially when your children have been born in the UK and/or go to school here and have developed a strong sense of belonging to this country, going back is not always an option.
Many EU migrants want to stay in the UK and continue contributing to the country. A political climate where they are being scapegoated and blamed for the difficult situation of disadvantaged British citizens is not only unjust but also extremely harmful. Over the last couple of days already an increase in hate crime against EU citizens has been noted. This is precisely why right now we need initiatives that make people feel welcome in their communities and build bridges rather than strengthen divisions. Migrants have told us that they’re concerned about the negative way in which they have been portrayed over the last few years and feel helpless to counter this. This compounds a sense of isolation, especially in some of the rural communities we’ve been working with. And this is precisely why – especially at this point in time – we need initiatives which would bring people together rather than further divide them.
Over the coming months, SSAMIS will be developing initiatives in areas where there is a lack of opportunities for communities to come together. In Arbroath, we are working together with local stakeholders towards opening a community café which will provide a space for skills-sharing, setting up interest groups and simply socialising and forming meaningful links between the newer and more established communities. In Peterhead, we will be running a week of community development workshops leading up to an exhibition created in collaboration with EU citizens living locally, and strengthening links between different community groups, 3rd sector partners, and the local authority. The exhibition will provide them with an opportunity to present themselves the way they wish to and give other communities an insight into their everyday lives in Scotland. In Aberdeen we will be involved in developing a network of ESOL cafés across the city, where EU citizens can learn English in an informal setting, build a circle of friends, and thus overcome isolation and improve their skills at the same time.