openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Brexit: Let’s reform the immigration system, not regret lost privileges

Five years on from the Brexit vote, we must fight for the rights of all migrants in the UK – not for EU ‘exceptionalism’

Iris Pase
Iris Pase
23 June 2021, 2.02pm
EU nationals must stand with other migrants to fight for our collective rights in the UK
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Velar Grant / Alamy Stock Photo

Five years to the day that the UK voted to leave the EU, European nationals find themselves at a crossroads. Should we fight to preserve our own exceptionalism – or campaign for a fairer and more humane immigration system for everyone?

In post-Brexit Britain, gone are the days when Germans, Italians or Spaniards could simply board a plane and start their new life in the UK. So much has changed since I first left Italy three years ago, carrying just one suitcase but many ambitions.

As I build my adult life in my new home, Scotland, I often think about the generations of EU nationals who’d like to move to the UK in future. They will be subjected to the merciless gatekeeping of a points-based system, which discriminates in favour of those who can already afford a well-off lifestyle.

And they also face suspicion and hostility, including from the UK Border Force.

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Last month Politico and The Guardian reported that scores of European nationals had been detained in immigration removal centres, including the notorious Yarls Wood centre, for up to seven days. EU nationals can still travel visa-free for 90 days – and those who settled here before 31 December 2020, like me, can apply for pre-settled status and enjoy the same rights to work, live and access healthcare as British citizens for five years. But those suspected of newly entering the UK to seek work must now have a work visa.

The feeling of broken promises persists – as does the problem of a classist and racist immigration system

This year has seen stories of EU citizens being handcuffed at British airports and taken to removal centres by the UK Border Force, where they are denied access to legal advice –as well as their phones and medicines – as Brexit and pandemic travel restrictions created a perfect storm. The detainees included many young women and those arriving to help family friends with childcare, undertake volunteer work, or even to attend interviews.

Amid warnings from European parliamentarians that the UK Border Force’s actions were “grossly disproportionate”, and “concern” from the EU Commission about the duration and conditions of detention, the Home Office was forced to issue a hasty clarification that travel for interviews, at least, was actually permitted in its guidelines. The department subsequently updated its guidance to border officials, saying that overseas nationals including EU nationals who’d been refused entry “should be granted immigration bail, where appropriate” rather than being held in detention centres until they could fly home.

But the feeling of broken promises persists – and so does the wider problem of a tiered, classist and racist immigration system.

As the campaign group for EU nationals, the3million, and others, acknowledge, all these violations of human dignity are nothing new. They mirror the treatment migrants from non-EU countries have long suffered in the United Kingdom.

Writing in The Guardian, Giles Tremlett said: “[..] Britain works on the principle that foreigners are suspect. They must prove they will not do something banned – such as settle, find work, look after friends’ children or do unpaid internships.”

For years, English politicians from across the political spectrum have competed to attack migrants rights, resulting in treatment so bad that it’s repeatedly been challenged both in courts and on the streets, from being housed in unsafe barracks accommodation to forcible deportation flights and dawn raids.

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In 2012, then-prime minister Theresa May committed to making the UK a “hostile environment” for migrants without proper paperwork. Health workers were told to check the immigration status of their patients, landlords of their tenants, and other administrative and bureaucratic hurdles were flung up. According to May in 2013, these measures were necessary to avoid a “situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they're able to access everything they need”.

But until Brexit, EU nationals benefitted from the privileges of a tiered immigration system. Freedom of movement policies are one of the four pillars of EU membership. We were largely spared these kinds of traumatic and humiliating treatments.

The consequences of May’s Hostile Environment have been bitter for many – with migrants struggling to access healthcare, for example. When it emerged that this included those who came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation, at a time when paperwork had not been needed for Commonwealth citizens, it caused a scandal. There were government promises of “sweeping reforms” to the Home Office culture. But these promises have been broken, and the injustices and reportedly toxic culture continues.

It’s clear that few lessons have been learned. This week, long-term EU nationals residing in the UK are being sent warning letters about the hostile environment they face if they miss next week’s deadline to apply for settled status. And meanwhile, home secretary Priti Patel is developing the already classist and racist points-based immigration system even further and talking about the biggest and toughest shake-up of immigration in a generation.

The EU could use its ongoing bargaining power to pressure the UK into developing a fair and humane immigration system

What all this teaches us is that short-term scandals get short-term political fixes. Under international and media pressure, the UK government often resorts to the “good immigrant” narrative. Basic human rights are therefore given in the guise of rewards to ‘good’ enough or ‘deserving’ migrants – be it elderly Caribbean gentlemen or our European “friends and neighbours”.

The core ideology of the UK immigration system is based on “us vs them”, where “they” have fewer rights. But EU nationals have begun to realise that the boundary between "us” and “them” is not as defined as they previously thought it was, and it’s surely not the consequence of any particular virtue or merit.

Only by standing together, EU and non-EU migrants, and fighting for a whole new system, one not based on hierarchies, tiers, and discrimination, will we have a chance of properly protecting migrant rights.

The EU is still the UK’s largest trading partner and could use its significant ongoing bargaining power to pressure the UK into developing a fair and humane immigration system. But there’s not much sign of that happening, yet. We, as EU nationals, need to make use of our citizen rights and put pressure on our political representatives so that they, in turn, can push for migrants’ rights as a group rather than perpetuate EU exceptionalism.

And we can work with migrants’ organisations like Migrant Voice, for example, who give both EU and non-EU nationals a platform to speak up and campaign.

As Daniel Sohege, director of human rights advocacy and support organisation Stand for All, tweeted: “Fighting for migrants has to be about all migrants, otherwise it very rapidly starts to fracture and fragment and becomes about no migrants.”

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