What does Brexit mean for migrants?

We could face a turbo-charged version of racist migration policy: free movement for the few and a hostile environment for the many. By Ana Oppenheim and Alena Ivanova.

January 21, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography (Flickr)

Two and a half years since the momentous referendum, we are no closer to knowing the end result. Hard Brexit, customs union, Norway plus, a second referendum; all options have their advocates and staunch opponents, with each side waiting for the others to blink.

Unlike two or three years ago, today’s debates are dominated by questions of trade and electoral strategy. Discussion of Britain’s immigration policy, at the forefront of the referendum campaign, has taken a back seat. For many of us, it’s a relief: we remember all too well the sheer nastiness of 2016, with Vote Leave posters mirroring Nazi propaganda and anti-migrant newspaper headlines translating into a wave of hate crime.

However, while the rhetoric may have cooled down, the potential consequences of Brexiteer policies haven’t changed. Millions of migrants are holding our breath, still waiting to find out if, and to what extent, Britain will raise its borders.

If everything goes to Theresa May’s plan and a deal is approved that respects her “red lines,” freedom of movement will end. The system set to replace it, as outlined in the Immigration White Paper, amounts to a levelling down of rights. The headline policy is a salary threshold of £30.000 for prospective immigrants from the EU – which already applies to non-European migrants who come to the UK on a “skilled workers” visa.

It’s hard to find a rational justification for this proposal. The government’s own MAC report showed that the impact of immigration on jobs and wages has been minimal, and the effect of public services largely positive. It can only be explained as pandering to xenophobia and discriminatory ideas about “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants – at the expense of us all.

The restriction would exclude teachers, care workers and countless other migrant workers who keep essential services running. Moreover, the threshold would mean free movement for a wealthier few and a hostile environment for the many. Disproportionately affected would be BAME migrants, statistically paid less than their white counterparts – such as the many Latin American workers who arrive in the UK on Spanish and Portuguese passports.

Contrary to the popular argument, including on the left, that a skills-based immigration system could be fairer for migrants from outside the EU, the Government’s white paper insists on highly racialised distinctions between ‘safe’ (that is, predominantly white) and ‘unsafe’ countries in terms of potential for mass migration. Rather than an attempt to balance the UK’s treatment of predominantly BAME people from outside the EU, what this policy proposal does is facilitate the movement of wealthy and white people.

While the White Paper has generated plenty of opposition, it is telling that the focus has been on the unreasonably high income threshold for skilled workers and not on the appalling conditions outlined for ‘unskilled’ ones. Currently, one in five social care workers is born outside the UK, and in London that figure is three in five. Sectors where pay is low and conditions allow exploitation, would see workers on the most restrictive visa regime, making them third-class citizens without much chance for workplace organising within the a year allowed by the proposed scheme.

Contrary to May’s empty promises that nothing would change for those already here, ending free movement would inevitably have implications for Europeans who built their lives in the UK. The planned “settled status” scheme for EU nationals sounds like a recipe for another immigration scandal.

As the system will need to process around 3.7 million people in a short period of time, the government has decided on an almost completely digital route. Naturally, this creates problems for the most vulnerable among migrants: the elderly, the poor, the disabled, those with little digital skills or sufficient knowledge of English. Even those who manage to procure an Android phone to download the app, go through the process and pay the required £65, wouldn’t have their status guaranteed. Grandparents who have moved to the UK to provide childcare support and have therefore never needed to seek employment, precariously employed workers who get paid cash in hand and those without proper rental contracts are among migrants most likely to have their applications rejected.

Officially, the Government says it expects a 100% success rate in terms of app registrations (whether it has a target for people being denied their applications remains unknown.) However, recent examples of similar schemes – the US Deferred Action for Childhood and the 2005 foreign workers registration amnesty in Spain – have achieved a rate of between 50 and 75 percent. If the same happens in the UK, it can mean hundreds of thousands of EU migrants becoming “illegal” overnight. Knowing the system was designed by the same government responsible for Windrush and thousands of unlawful benefit sanctions doesn’t fill us with confidence.

An alternative outcome of the Brexit process, championed by Owen Jones among others, would be a version of soft Brexit, known as a Norway or “Norway plus” deal. In this scenario, freedom of movement with Europe would be kept in return for membership of the single market. However, a this kind of arrangement would allow Britain to introduce controls in a situation of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.”

A soft Brexit would be significantly less damaging than leaving the single market: it would preserve the rights of migrants living in the UK and, in normal circumstances, leave the borders open to Europeans regardless of income. However, this option would make Britain a rule taker – bound by most of the EU’s laws but with little say over them. For those of us with a vision to transform Europe, including tearing down its external borders, democratic representation and the ability to work with progressives within the EU is not something to give up lightly.

Finally, a possible scenario is Brexit not happening at all. A public vote with an option to remain wouldn’t come without risks. Some legitimately fear that a fresh referendum campaign would give fuel and platforms to the darkest of forces unleashed in 2016. The left would have to be ready for a serious fightback.

It certainly doesn’t help that many leading People’s Vote campaigners avoid talking about immigration altogether, or discuss it purely in economic terms. Some, like Femi Oluwole, have even called for a stricter application of the EU’s rules which technically guarantee free movement for those who exercise their treaty rights: work or study in their country of destination. This approach is a dead end: deporting unemployed people will neither reverse the damage done by decades of neoliberalism, nor help combat the xenophobia that fuelled the Leave vote.

If a new referendum happens, the Remain campaign needs to be unashamedly pro-migrant. Staying in the EU wouldn’t, by itself, undo the hostile environment, stop deportation charter flights or close down detention centres. However, a successful campaign to stay in Europe, with anti-racist and anti-border politics at its heart, could shift attitudes and give momentum to more progressive reforms.

It’s disappointing that migrant voices have largely been left out of the conversation, including on the left. Watching the Brexit debate taking place within Labour, primarily focused on electoral calculation, one can easily forget the people whose rights are at stake. Conceding on free movement means accepting migrants as collateral damage in the pursuit of power.

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