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How Brexit is making young Eastern Europeans in the UK fear for their future

It is hard for me to identify as both British and Romanian because people make me feel as if you can’t be both – as if being foreign is a permanent thing and can’t be changed no matter how long you’ve spent in a country or what you consider to be “home”. I consider the UK to be my home.

Like Romanian teenager Ioana, whose words above articulate her painful reality, 15-year-old Alicja moved to Britain from Bulgaria when she was a young child. On the night of the EU referendum, her family gathered around the TV to watch the result. Her mother said she saw it coming; having listened to comments at work about Eastern Europeans taking local jobs in their small fishing town, she realised that anti-immigration feelings were running deep. For Alicja, who had grown up in Scotland, “Brexit had me in tears – it has changed everything”.

In the months since, her family’s economic security and plans to stay in the UK are up in the air. They don’t have the money to apply for citizenship (currently £1,330 per person) and they don’t even know if they would qualify, with Alicja’s mother in part-time work. But what is clear is the impact that Brexit has had on young people’s sense of belonging in Britain.

No future?

Young Europeans living in the UK have been considerably affected by the decision to leave the European Union, underscored by the rise in applications for British citizenship from EU citizens and the recorded increase in migration of EU citizens from the UK since the referendum.

Our research project is the largest study of Eastern European young people aged 12 to 18 living in the UK, since the EU referendum. Like Alicja, the majority of the survey participants said they felt “uncertain” (56%), and “worried” (54%), while just over a quarter (27%) said they were “scared” about their future.

Although most had lived in the UK for more than five years, only 8% had British or dual nationality. While the UK government has promised to make applications for settled status straightforward for EU nationals, there is evidence that many groups – including children in vulnerable families, children in care or those with parents in insecure work, are at risk of becoming undocumented. Young people in our study had an acute sense of insecurity about their future. As Polish-born Renata, 15, said:

I will need to get citizenship in the UK to stay. I’m still not sure what my parents will do, we definitely can’t afford for all of us to get citizenship, so they might have to move back, while I’ll need to live by myself here.

Like the children of the Windrush generation, young Eastern Europeans arrived in the UK mainly because of their parents’ desire for a more secure future. But for many, growing up in “austerity Britain” has meant an increasing sense of feeling unwelcome, given the growing hostile attitude to immigration.

Prejudice and pride

Such an environment affects the everyday lives of young Eastern Europeans living in the UK and does not help integration. More than three quarters (77%) of our participants said they have experienced racism and xenophobia, and for one in five, these experiences happened “often” in school. A third also thought that their neighbours had some level of prejudice against Eastern Europeans, which made some feel unsafe and worried they might be attacked. Many said they adopted “blending in” tactics, like not speaking their own language in public or putting on a local accent.

So how do you develop a sense of belonging in a place where you generally feel unwanted? And what effect does it have on your sense of identity, especially in these formative years?

As many had strong links to Europe through birthplace and regular visits, it is unsurprising that 92% said they felt European. They had a strong sense of connection and belonging to Europe, with many saying that a European identity would always be part of who they were and how they saw their place in the world.

Some Eastern European youngsters living in the UK say they feel less welcome since Brexit​ Shutterstock

Anchoring themselves in a European identity seemed to offer security during insecure times in Britain. However, the majority (83%) felt they belonged in the UK, and this feeling became stronger the longer young people had lived here. Less than half (41%) said they felt British. Navigating these identities – in addition to other dimensions such as gender, class and religion – is clearly a complex and emotionally charged process for many. As Polish-born Emilia, 16, put it:

I may live in the UK, but I’ve been brought up in a Polish house. There’s still a part of me that doesn’t feel fully connected. I also feel like a fake Pole – like I’m not really part of that culture either. I’m stuck in the middle, just doing my best to fit in with whoever will let me.

Three quarters said they are likely to stay, many with plans to continue their education, volunteering or work, while others consider leaving and planning a future elsewhere. Many of them are clear there is no “going back” to the country of their birth, but rather envisage their future elsewhere. Latvia-born Michael, 18, said:

I feel very connected to Europe and European culture. There has been some concern whether I want to stay here due to the political changes. I might move to the EU after finishing university, despite the fact that I enjoy living in this country.

Many EU-born young people who arrived in Britain when their parents migrated are clearly emotionally bruised by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, which for many was like “a kick in the teeth”. Educated in Britain, they are now at the point of making decisions about their own futures – but here or elsewhere? For most, Britain is their home, with connections to family, friends, places and memories.

Migrating elsewhere will not be easy and while some will stay, others are increasingly looking beyond Britain for their future. For employers, educators and policy makers, one of the key questions now is what this country needs to do to encourage young Europeans to stay.

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