- Jack Taylor / Getty
- EU citizens living in the UK speak out about the uncertainty they’ve faced since Brexit.
- Campaigners say May’s refusal to guarantee rights of EU citizens has caused a spike in hate crime.
- They report facing new levels of discrimination when applying for jobs.
- Labour and trade unions call on the government to unilaterally allow EU citizens to stay.
LONDON – In the aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union in June last year, Theresa May was urged by the Labour party and others to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
The prime minister chose not to, leaving many of the 3 million EU citizens that currently live and work in the UK feeling uncertain and, in some cases, fearful for their future.
And for some of those campaigning on the issue, this decision, has even put EU citizens in physical danger.
Speaking to Business Insider, Nicolas Hatton, the founder of “the3million,” a pressure group, said the prime minister’s decision had “created the perfect conditions for the rise in hate crime.”
“Following the referendum, they should have guaranteed our rights straight away on the 24th June 2016. That wasn’t done, and as a result, there is no clear signal on whether we are here to stay,” Hatton told BI.
“That created the perfect conditions for the rise in hate crimes, which is really really regrettable. This was the one opportunity that was missed.”
Hate crimes based on race or religion peaked after the EU referendum, and the Home Office admitted that the statistics reflected “a genuine rise in hate crime around the time of the EU referendum.”
Some EU citizens believe the blame lies at the door of the Home Office and Downing Street.
Dalia, a 22-year-old Polish citizen told BI that Brexit has meant “so many people’s rights and therefore lives have been suddenly threatened.”
“When so many people’s rights and therefore lives are suddenly threatened, the kind of exploitation recently attested to by maltreated employees, as well as the hostile attitudes of the Home Office towards those who have contributed to this country for years, are a natural consequence of the unclear stance of the current political leadership on this issue,” she said.
- Thomas Lohnes / Getty
Some EU citizens now say they feel discriminated against when applying for jobs and housing.
A report published by the3million in August documented evidence that EU jobseekers are now being asked for proof of British or Irish citizenship before being considered as potential employees or tenants.
Blomfield said: “I think that the uncertainty has added to the discrimination against EU nationals. When we saw the evidence of discrimination, it was in many cases because those responsible were uncertain what rights EU nationals had.”
Trade union leader and general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, told BI: “It’s a big worry that so many of them say they are starting to feel unwelcome. There is no excuse for the government to leave them living in limbo, not knowing with any certainty on what terms they will be able to stay in the place they have made home.
“Nearly a million Brits living and working in the rest of Europe need the same certainty.”
The opposition agree. Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield told BI that the government has used EU citizens as “bargaining chips and leverage” in negotiations.
“They have been fairly clear that they saw the negotiations over citizens rights as providing them with bargaining chips and leverage. Ministers have said as much. We obviously thought that was wrong, we successfully move a motion in the House of Commons last July saying that we should give unilateral and unconditional rights to those who are already here, and we were confident that that would lead to reciprocity for the rights of the 1.2 million Brits in Europe.”
O’Grady, in particular, is clear of the impact of EU nationals on the UK: “EU workers are an important part of Britain’s workforce. They make a tremendous contribution to public services like the NHS, and to many firms, from our larger corporations down to family businesses.
“Beyond the human disruption and upset, it will damage our economy and public services if we lose these valued friends, colleagues and neighbours.”
Citizens’ rights is one of the three key issues the EU has insisted must be at least partially resolved before Brexit negotiations, alongside Northern Ireland and the financial settlement.
May and her government have sought to reassure EU citizens that their rights will not be affected, with the prime minister writing an open letter to all three million in October declaring “I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay.”
However, the government has still stopped short of unilaterally declaring that EU citizens will continue to have the same rights, which has meant the confusion over the direction of immigration policy has continued.
- REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
In July 2016, two weeks after the UK voted to leave the EU, the House of Commons overwhelmingly passed a Labour motion that called on the government to guarantee rights for European citizens in Britain.
Labour shadow minister Emily Thornberry called the government’s inaction on citizens’ rights “outrage in moral terms” and that it had cast a “shadow over the futures of millions.”
Five Conservative MPs voted with the opposition on the motion, including Boris Johnson, yet no action was taken, and Theresa May, then the home secretary, was absent from the debate.
16 months on from the referendum, and there still has not been a guarantee from the government. Hatton said: “I think they’ve started really badly.
“Following the referendum, they should have guaranteed our rights straight away on the 24th June 2016. That wasn’t done, and as a result, there is no clear signal on whether we are here to stay.”
He added: “That created the perfect conditions for the rise in hate crimes, which is really really regrettable. This was the one opportunity that was missed.”
We don’t trust the Home Office
In August the Home Office mistakenly sent more than 100 letters to EU citizens living in the UK, telling them to leave the country or face possible deportation.
May called it an “unfortunate error” and the Home Office apologised.
“We are contacting everyone who received this letter to clarify that they can disregard it. We are absolutely clear that the rights of EU nationals living in the UK remain unchanged,” a spokesperson said.
In September, proposals to drastically reduce immigration after Brexit were leaked, with the plans suggesting EU nationals might be forced to use work permits and get ID cards in order to stay in Britain.
When asked whether he trusts the Home Office, Hatton is blunt: “At the moment, the answer is no.”
“I think that they have proven in the past that they cannot really be trusted with the lives of people. And the 99% of law-abiding citizens should not be fearing the rules of the Home Office.”
Dalia said the Home Office has a “hostile attitude” towards “those who have contributed to this country for years.”
Since the Brexit referendum EU citizens have felt in danger of having their rights changed or being told to leave, and the government are just adding to our confusion.
Blomfield told BI: “The government see EU nationals here essentially as a burden, as people who are fortunate to be here, who should be grateful for what they should get.”
What’s the answer?
- Jack Taylor / Getty
Labour believe that a unilateral guarantee for EU citizens should have been made long ago, but would also have an impact if made now.
Blomfield said this is: “On the grounds that was the right thing to do. Both for the 3 million here, but also for the 1.2 million Brits in Europe.
O’Grady agrees: “The solution is simple. The government should do the right thing and give them a clear promise that they can stay with full citizens’ rights, regardless of the course of Brexit negotiations.”
Hatton said the3million want a “very strong bilateral agreement” on citizens’ rights, that “can’t be undone by laws.”
He added: “We’d like the British government to become more serious about the rights of EU citizens and engage with us in open dialogue. We have proposals, very solid policy that we think would work for every single EU citizen here. “
Brexit Secretary David Davis has not met with the group, neither have junior government ministers, yet the organisation has been allowed to discuss their issues with Labour’s shadow Brexit team and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Hatton said: “It’s for the government to take the offer to speak to us. Like them, we’ve got the same objective, to break the deadlock. If only they would speak to us and listen to our proposals, maybe they would then find a way out of the current deadlock and progress to phase 2 of negotiations.”