By coincidence, the EU referendum coincided with the first day of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity’s (IRiS) 2016 conference - we had academic colleagues coming from across the world and seriously doubted that the outcome would affect us. Most considered the referendum a tick box exercise to give the Prime Minister the mandate he needed to remain in the European Union.
Day one of the conference and everyone was in high spirits – hearing new ideas from across Europe and the world. At the end of day one the IRiS team and conference delegates adopted different strategies to follow the outcome of the vote. Some stayed up all night, others went to bed late or got up early. At around 5am we heard it was likely Remain had won so I grabbed another hour of sleep only to wake and hear that in fact Leave had triumphed, albeit with only 37% of those eligible to vote actually voting for leave. Birmingham had voted Leave by a small margin.
The atmosphere at the conference that day had changed markedly. People crying, astonishment of the outcome and puzzlement at what it actually meant. Many of the UK born delegates, including myself, realised for the first time just how European we felt. The distress and uncertainty voiced by delegates in an impromptu lunch meeting has subsequently grown.
The UK’s universities attract some of the top EU academics – they are key to the success of our universities. Could they stay? Would they choose to stay when the UK had signalled they were not welcome? Would anyone join us from Europe in the future?
Now in 2017/18, some European-born colleagues have already left because they or their families no longer feel welcome in Birmingham. Job vacancies that two years ago would have attracted applications from the brightest and best in Europe, no longer hold an attraction. Some EU consortia which previously considered an EU partner essential to their funding applications do not want to work with us – they are permitted to do so - but they don’t want to because of the anti-EU discourse coming from our politicians and media. Our world is shrinking. After decades of learning from our EU partners, the impact this is likely to have on intellectual endeavours is worrying.
Brexit uncertainty permeates life for many of my European colleagues. Should they buy a house and settle in Birmingham? Should they marry their British partner? Would their children feel more at home if they returned to mainland Europe? Research findings from IRiS’s EU families and Brexit project further highlights the impact of uncertainty and the sense of being unwanted from EU respondents.
Many of the people we have interviewed have lived in Birmingham for over a decade but didn’t apply for UK residency or citizenship because they never felt the need. On that single day in June, their lives were turned upside down. Not only do they now face racism from those who feel empowered by the result but the constant discourse from the Government and right-wing media makes them feel they no longer belong.
We have worked with Somali onward migrants, who gained refugee status in mainland Europe and then moved to Birmingham to join families separated by civil war, tells us that the UK is where they have made their home. Husbands and wives come from different EU countries, some children were born in a third country and some in the UK. Where would they return to? Can their children finish their education? How can they be educated elsewhere when they only speak English? Some family members have already left.
Our work with central and eastern European entrepreneurs also reveals the impact of Brexit uncertainty. Should they invest any further in their business? Can they move their business to the mainland? What will happen to their (mainly British) employees? Our work with Brits who have retired to Spain reveals further concerns. Will they be able to access health and social care services? Will the UK Government rehouse them if they return to the UK?
IRiS’s Eurochildren project highlights the levels of uncertainty felt by EU adults with UK spouses whose children were born in the UK. Where do they go? Will Mummy or Daddy have to leave? Thousands and thousands of Europeans living and working in Birmingham have found their lives in turmoil. Having considered themselves Brummies, they now do not know where they fit. Despite lengthy residence in the city they were unable to vote, but they feel the effect of the vote every day.
Beyond the likely impact on industry and jobs which suggest devastating job losses in Birmingham, Brexit is shattering the social fabric of Birmingham. Like many other cities in the UK, Birmingham and its EU mainland residents wait and worry – whether they stay or go life for them will never be the same again.
Professor Jenny Phillimore is a Professor of Migration and Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham
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