Ever since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, European Union citizens in the UK have felt increasingly unwelcome. Harrassment is on the rise and the government itself has fed the hate.
Whenever Agnieszka Pasieczna opens the curtains of her children’s bedroom, she finds herself facing four electronic eyes staring at her. The cameras, each around the size of a fist, are mounted on a gray wall around eight meters away, like silent witnesses for the prosecution. “I see you, I see everything,” her English neighbor once shouted over at her. Since then Agnieszka has kept her curtains closed even during the day.
The 39-year-old Polish woman lives with her husband and five children in Great Yarmouth, a town on England’s eastern periphery. It has 40,000 residents and a gaudy strip of amusement park rides along the beach front, referred to with no small degree of hyperbole as “The Golden Mile.” A character in the Charles Dickens classic “David Copperfield” once described the town as “the finest place in the universe.” But that was over 150 years ago.
The Pasieczna family moved to Great Yarmouth 12 years ago from their hometown of Wroclaw. There were jobs here, with the rural hinterlands dotted with farms, feed lots and meat processing plants. The Polish newcomers felt welcome and settled in quickly. They painted their living room mint green, hung deer antlers on the wall and bought two Yorkshire terriers. When Agnieszka gave birth to a daughter, she named her Diana, “like the princess.” Life was good – until the summer of 2016.
It started with little things. “This is England, speak English,” said one woman to Agnieszka as she was speaking Polish with her children. “Go back to your own country,” Diana was told in school. Then, this spring, her neighbor mounted the first of the cameras on the wall and said: “I’m going to take care of this damn Polish problem!” After several instances of intimidation, Agnzieszka called the police. She was told: “If you don’t like the cameras, maybe you should move away.”
It’s been like this for the past 18 months – and not just for the Pasiecznas, and not just in Great Yarmouth, where almost three out of four voters backed Brexit in June 2016, almost the highest result in the country. Since the Brexit referendum, there has been a significant rise in reports of abuse, threats and harassment against EU citizens. Some of them have been bizarre, some shocking. And others simply ridiculous.
In Stockport, a car dealership wouldn’t let a German who had lived in the town for 20 years to test drive a car, arguing that the man’s driver’s license was no longer valid due to Brexit. Universities are refraining from hiring professors from Spain or the Netherlands in anticipation of Brexit. Banks are refusing loans, landlords are illegally demanding to see British passports. Across the country, people with Romanian, Lithuanian or other accents have had their windows smashed.
The number of documented “hate crimes” against foreigners, or those who look like they might be, has spiked. It is almost as if those who promised that Brexit would mark Britain’s return to greatness have unleashed a poison that is now spreading across the country.
And the British government is doing nothing to stop that spread. Since the start of the Brexit negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet have used the 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain as bargaining chips.
“We want them to stay,” the prime minister said in her landmark Florence speech in September. But no one knows under what conditions. And who will guarantee them? How long will they be valid? The answers to those questions will depend on whether Brexit negotiations even make it to the next phase. There was supposed to be an agreement on the remaining issues on Monday but then May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were forced to announce they were still lacking a deal after the intervention of the Northern Irish unionist party, the DUP.
And clarity on the issue of EU citizens has not been forthcoming. Instead, there have been countless cases of the British interior ministry, the Home Office, harassing respectable EU citizens or demanding that they leave. Every single one of those instances, the Home Office insists, has been the result of a regrettable “error.” But neither those affected nor the European Parliament, which has now launched an investigation, believe such claims.
“Many of us are very unsettled,” says Maike Bohn, a German education expert. “When we moved here, we all had a lot of trust in this fair, funny, intelligent people. That, though, has now vanished.”
Bohn, a lively 49-year-old, moved to Oxford in the early 1990s, fell in love and stayed. She’s the spokesperson for an initiative representing EU citizens called the3million, formed after the Brexit vote once it became clear that the once so cosmopolitan kingdom was no longer quite so welcoming.
“The uncertainty grows with every passing day,” Bohn says.
And that seems to be intentional. Indeed, the tone is coming directly from Downing Street. Theresa May, in her previous role as interior minister, made it abundantly clear that she intended to reduce net immigration to “below 100,000.” And she was willing to use any means necessary to achieve that, those close to her said, adding that it seemed to be the only issue she was really passionate about.
May announced back then that she wanted to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. The residency permit application form was bloated from 12 to 85 complicated pages and the process was made more expensive. In 2013, she sent out billboard vans onto the streets of Britain reading: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest!” It was the same tune that the Brexiteers played three years later: Foreigners, whether they were from Brussels or Bratislava, made things in the UK worse than they should be. In future it should be Britain First.
At first, EU citizens in the UK assumed such campaigns had nothing to do with them. As long as the UK was still an EU member, their rights would be just as protected as the 1.2 million Britons living in the other 27 EU member states. Then, in the autumn of 2016, cabinet members held speeches at the Conservative Party conference that sounded like declarations of war. Among many measures mentioned was a move to force companies to provide lists of foreign employees. “That’s when we realized that things were getting serious,” Maike Bohn says.
When May again refused to guarantee that EU citizens would be allowed to continue living in the country after Brexit took hold in 2019, their anger turned to fear. And the question regarding the rights of EU citizens already living in Britain still has not been resolved. Instead, harassment continues to increase.
‘This Is Our Country’
When representatives from the3million went to Westminster to lobby parliamentarians there, a Conservative MP said: “Why don’t you put pressure on your own countries.” Their answer was: “This is our country.” Or at least it was.
Many EU citizens seeking certainty have been applying for residency permits since 2016. UK law holds that such an application should be a mere formality for those who have lived in the country for more than five years. In practice, however, things look quite a bit different – as can be seen in the case of Klaudia Orska, a Polish woman who has remained remarkably cheerful despite the bureaucratic odyssey she’s been forced to go through.
The 45-year-old has lived for 11 years in the UK. She works for an apartment realtor, pays her taxes and speaks perfect English. In May, she sent off her application for a residency permit to the Home Office. It consisted of hundreds of pages, including notarized documents, photographs, spreadsheets – an entire life reduced to 3 kilograms of paper.
The package arrived and the application fee was deducted from her account. Then nothing happened. Radio silence. After three months, she was sent back all the documents along with a rejection notice and was told to prepare to leave the country. The justification cited for the rejection was her alleged failure to send passport photographs. Even though the photographs were attached to the pile of papers – a pile that seemed to not have been touched.
Orska sent the package back with a complaint, and reapplied. Three weeks later, she was rejected again, this time because her bank account details were allegedly missing and it was not possible to deduct the fee. “It’s like Monty Python,” she says and even manages to laugh about it. Who knows for how much longer, though. She now finds herself threatened with deportation to Poland. “We left the country back then because we wanted to escape the narrow-mindedness of the politicians there.”
It is cases like this that prompted a group of European parliamentarians to write letters to Theresa May and the Home Office several months ago. “It’s obvious that the authorities have been instructed to reject as many applications as possible,” said one of the authors of the letter, Sophia in ‘t Veld, from the Netherlands. “The British government is deliberately instilling fear in people. What have these people done? Where does this hatred come from? It’s a mystery to me.” She doesn’t feel much the wiser after May’s vague response.
It isn’t the only question on which the prime minister has waffled. Thus far, she has sought to placate the Brexit hardliners in her own party, who refuse to budge an inch. If EU citizens are allowed to hold on to all their rights, arch-conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued, then they’d have more rights than Britons. “That would give them the status of colonial occupiers.”
As such, the government has said it intends to give EU citizens in the UK the same access to the education and social system as British citizens. But they must apply for that access individually and would lose all further rights they once held as EU citizens. It is a horror scenario for those affected, and not just because of the “errors” the British authorities have made thus far.
It would mean that the 3 million EU citizens would only have recourse to British law, which the government can change any time it likes. There would be countless hardship cases created, with no way of appealing to a supranational court.
Would an Italian woman who grew up in Great Britain be allowed back into the country if she had to go to Italy for two years to care for her sick mother? What about a German academic in Cambridge who takes a two-year posting in France? And will everyone who forgets to include their passport photographs really be deported? These are the kinds of existential questions facing many people who have lived in Britain for many years and who feel British even if they don’t hold a British passport.
May sought to calm their nerves recently in a letter sent out to 100,000 people. “We want people to stay and we want families to stay together,” she wrote. She told her negotiating partners in the EU this summer that there was no need to concerned: “No one is being deported.”
Except, that’s not actually true. Eastern European governments in particular have been complaining that Great Britain is increasingly deporting their citizens in contravention of EU law. According to research carried out by the British non-profit Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), around 5,300 EU citizens were expelled between July 2016 and June 2017, often as the result of a court order and without being allowed to appeal. Those deported were disproportionally from Poland and other Eastern European countries.
‘Turned My Life Upside Down’
That is a clear violation of EU law, but it appears to be the only way the British have found to reduce the number of foreigners in their midst. In response to a request for comment, the Home Office claimed that only “criminals” who posed a “serious and ongoing” threat were being deported. Those who obeyed the law had nothing to fear.
A government that is systematically creating a hostile environment. Citizens who believe the Brexit vote has given them carte blanche for hate and discrimination. Bogged down negotiations in Brussels. For many EU citizens, that has been enough to prompt them to turn their backs on a country they had thought would be their permanent home. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 120,000 left in 2016 and the trend has continued this year.
One of those is Murielle Stentzel, who lived in Kent for eight years before returning to France in September. “Brexit turned my life upside down,” she says.
Stentzel, who is in her late 40s, worked for an auditing center that had to cut jobs because it lost two big contracts after Brexit. Shortly afterwards, she was sitting in a bus in Herne Bay where she lived and asked another passenger to close the window.
Instead, says Stentzel, the man turned around and barked at her: “You know what you slut, if you don’t like it here you can go back to frog land!” When the local paper, the Kentish Gazette, reported on the incident, the comments started coming in by the minute. One reader wrote: “I’ll even help pay to get you out of my country.” “Go find her then?” another wrote.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Stentzel says. “Brexit opened a door for these people.”
Before long, she couldn’t take it anymore. Leaving her daughter and grandchild behind, she moved to La Rochelle in northern France, to a country she barely knew any longer after all these years. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do there, and she secretly hopes that the British will come to their senses. She says: “Every day I miss England – but not the England of 2017.”