The last few days of 2018 have been quite a ride for EU citizens at home in the UK, as have been the first few days of 2019. I am not sure why I am surprised about this. After all, it really is just a continuation of what we have already experienced for hundreds of days. Maybe what surprised me was the speed of developments and their timing around Christmas and the New Year.
Our ride began with the now infamous clip about settled status released by the Home Office in the middle of the Christmas holidays. In that clip, photos of young smiling people — stock photographs, not actual EU citizens — are used to promote settled status. This is the status EU citizens have to apply for if they want to stay in the UK.
The outrage about the clip was immediate. I was glad to see that. But, if I am honest, the outrage also made me angry. Why? Because while the Home Office clip is insensitive and misjudged, what the clip said is not actually news. So I could not help myself thinking: why did it take stock photographs for there to be outrage? Citizens’ rights campaigners, including myself, have been raising the alarm bells in relation to settled status for well over a year.
More critically, why has the much more serious revelation that came out at the same time because of a freedom of information request — namely that settled status will serve as means of immigration control — not caused the same outrage?
One reason why the outrage we did see came now is perhaps that Brexit is becoming increasingly real for more and more people. No-deal planning and the simple fact of nearing Brexit day do focus the mind.
But of course therein lies another characteristic of our story as EU citizens: this is not a new experience for us. Our minds, and those of Britons who live in another EU country, have been focused for hundreds of days already. We never had a choice about that: Brexit became our daily life on 24 June 2016.
That fact explains something else — the most devastating development of all — the impact the uncertainty has already had on the well-being and mental health of EU citizens. As we learned from press coverage, and as I know from messages and more personal interactions with fellow EU citizens, the number of EU citizens in the UK being seriously affected by the uncertainty Brexit has caused is growing. And this includes people who have suicidal thoughts because they can no longer cope with the stress and anxiety this state of limbo is causing.
While that is a tragedy, and while it is inexcusable and unforgivable that people were ever put into this position, I am glad that this very serious problem is finally being discussed more widely. The human cost of Brexit is already far too high.
But we already know that it will increase further — and this is no longer an abstract assumption. Far from attitudes having improved since 24 June 2016, for example, we learnt that they have hardened. That is why, for instance, we hear of nurses being told to ‘go home’ by the patients they were treating. Far from government words providing certainty, we also learnt of the failure to achieve that, with EU citizens already being discriminated by some landlords because they view their legal status as unclear, and hence, are starting to decide not to rent to EU citizens.
In light of such developments, all triggers of exactly the kind of uncertainty that can impact on a person’s well-being and mental health, it is shameful that some Brexit supporters do not stop even at this.
What I saw yesterday — chef and food writer Kerstin Rodgers calling EU citizens, those who are anxious about their future and are contemplating suicide as a result, “wimps”, also telling them to “chill” — sent a real shiver down my spine. Such an attitude is not just shameful, it is also profoundly irresponsible.
Rodgers’s tweet really shook me. Not just because I cannot comprehend the lack of empathy and the casualness with which suicide was dismissed. Not just because it reminded me of a recent conversation I had — for hours in the middle of the night — with a complete stranger: one of those EU citizens Ms Rodgers thinks is a “wimp”. No. I think this shook me so much because it reveals the lengths to which Brexit supporters are prepared to go to avoid owning the fallout from the cause they support. They seek absolution of the consequences of Brexit, a result they so frequently tell us they won. And, as this example makes clear, they are seeking that absolution no matter the cost.
Meanwhile, EU citizens remain in the place they have always been in since 2016: right at the centre of the storm, but with no representation and no shelter in sight. This must stop. But we cannot make this stop on our own. So with only precious few days left for our home to stand up for us, the only question I have left is this: will the UK finally do so … or are we just dismissible “wimps” to all of you?