Can Europe Make It?

From insecurity to insecurity: Black and Ethnic Minority Europeans in the UK

“If all the Europeans leave, who work so hard and they pay taxes, how are they going to manage to keep the benefit system in the first place?”

Elisavet Tapini Umut Erel
21 April 2017

On the tube. Flickr/ Adrian Brady. Some rights reserved.The recent vote in the House of Commons not to guarantee the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK refreshed concerns among many European citizens who had, perhaps not felt compelled to worry much about their position in UK society before last year’s BREXIT referendum. Yet in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, we have seen xenophobic verbal and physical attacks against those thought to be European citizens, as well as Black and Ethnic Minority British citizens.

This is of course deeply worrying, as any rise in xenophobia and racism undermines democratic forms of sociality. One aspect which has perhaps not caught the public imagination arises from one of the calls of the pro-Brexit campaigners. They have emphasised that in demanding curbs on European migration, they are ‘calling for an end to discrimination in the treatment of people wanting to come here’ (“Fair and Controlled”, 2017). They argue that by controlling EU citizens’ migration to the UK, they are ending discrimination in favour of EU citizens, giving more opportunities to enter the country for non-EU migrants.

Underlying this argument is the assumption that EU citizens are white and ethnically European. This reproduces racialized ideas of what it means to be European, in particular ignoring the ways in which European identity is deeply enmeshed in colonial projects. Such a view problematically equates Europeanness with whiteness. This ignores the presence of people of colour in Europe, whether it be centuries-old Black European communities or those who migrated more recently, often as parts of postcolonial or labour migrations.

Challenging research

Our recent research on the experiences of recent Black and Ethnic Minority migrants from Greece and Spain challenges such an argument that pitches European citizens and Black and minority migrants’ rights against each other.

As practices of counting ethnic minorities or migrants differ nationally, it is not easy to put a number to ethnic minority Europeans. Analysing Eurostat records (Eurostat, 2016), we found that the countries with the highest number of new citizenships were Spain (225, 000; i.e. 23% of the EU28 total), the UK (207, 500; i.e. 21%), Germany (115, 100; i.e. 12%), Italy (100, 700; i.e. 10 %) and France (97, 300; i.e. 10% of the EU28 total). Most new citizenship applications in the EU (89%) were from third country nationals, with the highest numbers coming from citizens of Morocco, followed by citizens of India, Turkey, Colombia, Albania and Ecuador.

Black and Ethnic Minority EU citizens in the UK

Among ethnic minority residents and citizens of European countries, there are also a number who have taken up their rights to free movement within the EU. Among the 3.3 million EU citizens who live in the UK, there are ethnic minority EU citizens. Our recent pilot research has looked at the experiences and motivations of Black, Minority and Ethnic European citizens who have migrated to the UK.

Our research focused on the countries most likely to have become sending states, following the Great Recession in 2008, i.e. Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain and looked in particular at Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans as the ‘New Europeans’ most likely to exercise their newly acquired right of onward migration to the UK.

Looking at the breakdown of these ‘New Europeans’ in 2013, 30,200 Moroccans, 38,900 Colombians and 38,400 Ecuadorians were granted citizenship in Spain, which also has the highest number of new citizenships granted (Eurostat, 2016). Italy has also granted citizenship to 25,400 Moroccans and 13,700 Albanians, whereas Portugal has granted citizenship to 5,100 Brazilians. A large number of Albanians were also granted citizenship in Greece (25,800). Data from the Census in 2011 in England and Wales might assist in understanding some of these onward migrations; nevertheless, it is still quite difficult to provide an estimate of more recent migrations (i.e. post-2011) or migrations of BME ‘New Europeans’ in the UK.

Previous research found that BME Europeans, especially where they were highly educated and skilled, were motivated in their migration to the UK by factors such as joining an existing ethnic community or family members, the relative ease of self employment in the UK, as well as what they perceived to be a more multiculturalist society where ethnic differences were more welcomed than they felt in their European home countries. However, as we spoke with our research participants in spring 2016, the foremost reason why our interview partners had moved to the UK was economic. Our small sample was comprised of migrants from Spain and Greece, who had been born in Latin America or Eastern Europe. Their experiences clearly reflect the impact of the economic crisis in Southern Europe, where they could not make ends meet any more.

Jose, an 18 year old from Colombia, who had attended school in Spain and worked part time on farms and in construction points out how the financial crisis affected the whole family:

It was the crisis in Spain, we couldn’t live there any more. My father lost his job and then we lost the house too. He had bought a house and we got evicted, as we couldn’t pay.

This decision for many came at the end of a prolonged journey of being in insecure employment situations, often without a contract. Our interview partners had often felt settled in their European countries and, until the financial crisis, had not contemplated moving onto a new country. Manjola found it hard to leave her home in Greece, where she felt she had built her whole life. However because of destitution, she was compelled to migrate to the UK:

With no jobs in Greece, I couldn’t keep the house any more, there was no money for the rent. (….) What can I do? Go back to Greece? How? There are no jobs there! Go back to Albania? There are no jobs there either! Let alone that in Albania I’m even more of a stranger than I am in Greece!

While their migration to the UK was strongly motivated by economic factors, accessing more regular and regulated jobs also allowed our participants to spend more time as a family. Laetitia and her husband initially migrated from Bolivia. During their time in Spain, they ‘used to work from Sunday to Sunday, no day off. Every day. And it was really-really hard for us. We did this job for 9 years.’ In the UK she works as a cleaner for two hours a day, ‘5-7 am before my children wake up. And my husband works from 9 am in the morning till 11 pm at night. So, his working schedule is one day double-shift, followed by one day off. So yes, much better balance. And my older daughter now says, oh now I have my family, I have my mother…. ‘

So, while migration to the UK could mean immediate improved everyday life for some of our interview partners, we also heard about exploitation, such as Amelia’s experience in the workplace: ‘I had an experience, working as a waitress and they… didn’t pay me.’  For most, this type of experience was part of their early days in the UK and the more they had access to local knowledge, the better they were able to organise their lives to avoid or challenge such exploitation. However, as we spoke to them right after the vote to leave the EU, the spectre of Brexit cast anxieties and doubts over their future aspirations. 

BREXIT a looming new insecurity

The issue of Brexit came up for most of our interview partners. They are worried about how these political developments will affect them. Ronaldo is a very determined young man from Bolivia, who follows his dream to become a policeman, which he could not realise in Spain:

The main concern is if the UK is going to stay in Europe or not. Because of course, this would affect my plans tremendously. What if I start to train as a policeman here and my dream is cut short for the second time?

Juliana, an Ecuadoria-Spanish woman in her early 50s, brings up the political situation straight away:

‘The main concern is the current political situation, because we only have European citizenship, not British citizenship. We will see what happens.’

While other participants were more preoccupied with personal concerns, all our interview partners were keen to contest the idea that migrants were benefit tourists, an argument they very much associated with debates before the BREXIT vote. Ronaldo in his early 20s, a Bolivian-Spaniard:

The people that I know, no one gets benefits. Especially the young people. They go to work, they work really hard. They wake up at 3  o’clock in the morning, they work until 8 o’clock, they go to English classes after, they usually just get some sleep on the bus So, what I see here is that, everyone makes so many sacrifices, in order to make it. I feel very moved by that, seeing people trying so hard.

Svetlana, in her late forties, who is Russian-Greek feels that the media and politicians

 …didn’t’ tell the truth when they did all this Brexit campaign.They blamed everything on migrants and it is not true. At all. (…) We try to make our own way here, working. If all the Europeans leave, who work so hard and they pay taxes, how are they going to manage to keep the benefit system in the first place?

They clearly worry about their future rights to live and work in the UK. A worry which has not been addressed by the current political climate of ‘Hard Brexit’ as exemplified in recent statements by the Prime Minister which refuse to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.

While all EU citizens living in the UK have to face an uncertain future, those BME Europeans, who arrived in the country post-2011 are more likely to be threatened. As we have found in our study, they are mostly in low-skilled precarious employment positions, so they lack the social and economic capital that characterised earlier, mostly white European migrations. Furthermore, in the current stream of xenophobia and racism, they are marginalised both as Europeans with an insecure outlook and as racial or ethnic Other, stereotyped as benefit or health tourists.

Hence, this ‘minority within a minority’ has experienced one insecurity after another. The recent vote in the House of Commons and Theresa May’s strong views on using EU citizens’ residence rights as a bargaining chip in BREXIT negotiations are deeply worrying for all EU citizens, including this minority within a minority in the UK. Having experienced multiple and successive insecurities already, they should be allowed to plan their futures. This requires addressing racism and xenophobia against EU citizens and Black and Minority Ethnic citizens and migrants not as separate but connected pheonomena before they can further erode the social fabric of our communities, workplaces and cities. 



Ahrens, Jill Melissa Kelly and Ilse van Liempt (2016) Free Movement? The Onward Migration of EU Citizens Born in Somalia, Iran, and Nigeria, Population, Space Place 22, 8498

Bhambra, Gurminder K (2015) The refugee crisis and our connected histories of colonialism and empire.

Eurostat (2016). Statistics Explained: Acquisition of Citizenship Statistics. 

Fair and Controlled Immigration” (2017). In Change Britain.

Gutiérrez Rodríguez, E.; Boatca, M. and S. Costa. 2010. "Introduction: Decolonizing European Sociology: Different paths towards a pending project." In Decolonizing European Sociology: Transdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Gutiérrez Rodríguez, E.; Boatca, M. and S. Costa, 1–13. Farnham, UK: Ashgate

Office of National Statistics (2016): Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, 2016.

Office of National Statistics (2015): 2011 Census Analysis. Population by Country of Birth and Nationality Report. August 2015.

Office of National Statistics (2016). UK Labour Market: Estimates of Employment, Unemployment, Economic Inactivity and other Employment-Related Statistics for the UK. Statistical Bulletin, June 2016.

Office of National Statistics (2016) EMP06: Employment by Country of Birth and Nationality. Dataset: May 2016.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData