‘An open wound’ – study reveals scars on EU migrants in post-Brexit Britain

A new picture of EU migrants living in post-Brexit Britain reveals the enduring scars that leaving the EU has left on its citizens living in the UK.

In a study carried out by experts at the University of Birmingham and Lancaster University, two thirds of participants say Brexit has significantly and, for most, negatively affected their feelings about Britain.

Brexit has prompted many to question who they are and reconsider their future in the UK. It also prompted a loss of trust towards British institutions and politicians.

The ‘Migration and Citizenship after Brexit’ survey was completed this year by 364 EU/EEA citizens who currently live or have recently lived in the UK. The survey finds that Brexit has had a profound and lasting impact on the lives and sense of identity and belonging of EU citizens living in the UK.

A 64-year-old French-born naturalised British female respondent captures a widespread feeling among participants:

She said: “I will forever remember that Thursday in 2016 when I woke up and saw the result. I cried. I had to go to work. I felt betrayed, unheard, uncared for, left to wonder about my life in the UK and what had been the point.”

Respondents express a strong sense of attachment to the EU, which for many was triggered by the EU referendum and the Brexit negotiations that followed.

The survey shows that this is a largely settled population reporting plans to stay put in the long-term, with evidence of multi-generational settlement and changes to legal status to support long-term settlement in the country of residence.

However, looking to the future, there is some divergence between those from older and newer EU member states in terms of migration plans and attitudes to mobility.

Among all respondents, despite the majority having settled status or British citizenship, legal status and right to residence are still primary concerns – affecting family relations and shaping thinking on future plans, particularly in mixed-status families.

Family and relationships are the main drivers for migration decision-making, both amongst those who have moved on from the UK since Brexit and those who stayed put. They are also the main consideration for those planning to move within the next five years.

COVID-19 impacted on people’s attitudes towards their country of residence, less so towards country of origin and the EU overall. Most EU/EEA citizens living in the UK report that COVID-19 created negative feelings towards the UK (with only a few taking the opposite view) and specifically the Government’s pandemic response. However, respondents praised responses by devolved authorities.

The extensive survey, which included 96 questions, took place between December 2021 and January 2022, a year after the end of the Brexit transition period. It offers insight into a range of issues including migration patterns, residential and nationality status in the country of residence, impacts of Brexit and the pandemic on future plans, family life, political participation in the UK and EU and understanding of identity and belonging.

Report main author Professor Nando Sigona, from the University of Birmingham, said: “While the public narrative suggests that Brexit is done and dusted, for EU citizens Brexit is still an open scar.

“Strong feelings of insecurity, unsettlement and sadness coexist with feelings of home and opportunity, with the former prevailing in England, while more positive feelings are expressed by those living in Scotland and Wales.

“Rebuilding trust is challenging when the ramifications of Brexit still have such profound consequences of the lives of EU citizens in Britain.”

Professor Michaela Benson, from Lancaster University, added: “Six years on from the Brexit Referendum, its impact continues in the lives of EU citizens who have adopted the UK as their home.

“It has gone to the heart of their sense of their place in the world, their feelings of being European, and created new borders and challenges within families. It’s still early days and only time will tell what the longer tail to Brexit might be for the way they live their lives.”

The survey is part of a wider research project ‘Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN)’ (www.migzen.net), led by Professor Sigona and Professor Benson. The project is funded by UKRI Economic and Social Research Council as part of the ‘Governance After Brexit’ programme and explores the long-term impacts of Brexit and Britain’s shifting position on the world stage on migration to and from the UK.

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