Brexit begins to feel too real for high-skill EU citizens in Britain

While Britain is generally in favor of letting non-British residents with high-end skills stay after Brexit, its increasingly hostile rhetoric is making exactly those people question the wisdom of remaining.

Frank Augstein/AP/File
People queue as they wait at the St. Pancras international train station terminal in London, in July 2015.

Joanna Bagniewska, a zoologist at University of Reading, has spent her entire academic career in Britain and never felt bullied or belittled because of her Polish birth. But with the shift in rhetoric from the Conservative-led government, as it begins to chart the monumental choice of Britons to leave the EU, she says she fears her future here is jeopardized, both as a foreigner and a scientist. “From a scientific perspective, Brexit is an absolute disaster.”

For Ewelina, an Oxford graduate working at a large aerospace company, Brexit itself was a shock. But the recent declarations of Prime Minister Theresa May, staking a hard line on migration, have marked the real turning point. “I have started questioning whether the UK is where I want to build my future and whether I'm wanted here,” she says.

And Ewa, a Polish teacher in London, says that what she is seeing today, after 17 years in Britain, is “divide and conquer from the government,” she says. “That’s what it is.”

It is no surprise that Brexit was fueled in large part by anti-migrant sentiment. Nigel Farage, one of leading Brexiteers as head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, hung up a campaign poster on the eve of the vote showing a huddled mass of apparent refugees and the words, “Breaking Point.”

But much of the hostility seemed to be directed at foreigners outside the European Union, especially Muslims and low-skilled EU nationals who compete with low-skilled Brits on the job market. Higher-skilled foreigners, in turn, felt somewhat buffered from the political shock of Brexit, as polls showed overwhelming British support in favor of their staying.

But as Ms. May's government has begun to define what it wants from Brexit, EU nationals are feeling targeted, and are reconsidering their place in Britain over the long haul – just the opposite of what Britons and their government wanted.

“Even if the vast majority [of foreigners] in white-collar jobs will be able to stay, their lives will change in a variety of ways and not necessarily for the better, and this will begin to have a significant impact both on migration and on the economy before Brexit actually happens,” says Jonathan Portes, a research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. “We have shifted from a sort of pollyannaish uncertainty, a ‘let’s bury our heads in the sand to this and hope it will go away,’ to a much more negative sort of uncertainty that, actually, we are not going to know how this pans out for quite a while, but it is not looking very good.”

Increased hostility

Just 10 percent of people in a Hope Not Hate survey taken after the Brexit vote said they wanted all immigration stopped, and many make a clear distinction between types of immigration they will tolerate. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said just “skilled immigrants who help the economy” should be allowed in, while 33 percent supported both skilled and unskilled migration. A full eight out of 10 said they support EU nationals staying in Britain.

But last week – when May said she would invoke Article 50 by March, triggering the two-year exit process from the EU, and signaled she would prioritize controlling migration – foreigners here woke up to a new sense of what their futures may hold.

Because European leaders have said Britain cannot limit movement into Britain from the EU if it expects access to the single market, observers say May is pointing toward a so-called “hard Brexit.” The perceptions of a hard-line stance grew after Interior Minister Amber Rudd said she might make it harder for British companies to employ those from outside Britain, while some academics from the London School of Economics said they were told their counsel on Brexit, as foreigners, was no longer wanted.

Britons and many immigrants worry that the referendum has unleashed a latent stream of racism. Hate crime figures released by the Home Office Thursday for 2015-2016 show an increase of 19 percent, compared with 2014-2015. While some of this has been attributed to more reporting of crimes, a clear surge came after the Brexit vote, with racially or religiously aggravated offenses spiking by 41 percent in July of this year, compared with July of last.

The Hope Not Hate campaign says that while racist acts have increased, it believes racism has not, and the group sees an opportunity to have a national talk about immigration to try and set realistic expectations. They note that before the referendum, 13 percent of their respondents in a poll wanted all immigration stopped, falling to 10 percent after the vote.

Elizabeth Kardynał, a Pole who lives in Walsall, England, and is a teacher and trustee of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, says that amid the uncertainty for foreigners in Britain right now, her priority is on staying “composed and lucid. There's no reason to panic, but to take better care of our interest.”

That is why she has decided that, after 12 years as a teacher, she will, as of next month, start working with migrants, Polish and others, to protect their rights in a changing society. “There is a worry about it now, as history unfolds in front of our eyes,” she says. “It's a historical moment. We cannot keep quiet.”

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.

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