Polish workers, Indian students and Italian politicians voice fears over Brexit effect on British culture

Following the Tory conference, many European nationals fear they will be forced to leave. We look at how this concern is now affecting the UK’s image overseas

Two young Polish women on the train from Gatwick into London are chattering away, bags at their feet. Off the flight from Kraków after five days at home with family, they followed the news, and the speeches, from Britain all week. “You have to – so as to get an idea of how long before we will be driven out of England. I’m sure it will happen,” said Angela, who is the manager of a gastropub near Oxford.

“It’s sad this is the way things are going because I was pleased to have a woman prime minister, but my boss said to me it will be bad. He’s angry because he wants to choose staff for how good they are, not their nationality. He says it will be hard to replace me, which is nice to hear,” she said.

Angela and her friend, Martina, are among the 600,000 people who will not have been in the UK for five years – giving, under present rules, permanent residency rights – by the time the UK leaves the EU in 2019. Now she and her friend are alarmed by the tone of the rhetoric that emerged from last week’s Tory conference. They are among thousands across Europe and beyond who fear that life for people hoping to settle in Britain may be about to become more difficult.

Of the 2.1 million EU nationals employed in the UK, Poles are the biggest group. Of EU nationals in the UK, Poles number 916,000, Irish 332,000, Romanians 233,000 and Portuguese 219,000, according to latest figures from the Office of National Statistics.

“My cousin is a priest here, he would rather be in Poland, close to his old mother, but he came where there is a shortage [of priests] and to be where he is needed. Britain does need workers,” Angela said. “In Poland people are worried, shocked. They say Britain is now dangerous and tell stories in the newspaper of race attacks and murders. People are scared if their children are living here,” she added.

After a week in which opposition parties labelled comments on immigration and foreign workers’ rights in speeches at the Tory conference as “toxic”, reaction around the world has been swift. There has been shock at what an Italian senator, Francesco Palermo, called “populist hysteria” in a continent grown nervous over the migration crisis.

“Brexit was aimed at marking the distance between the UK and Europe,” Palermo told the Observer. “This conference seems, however, to prove the contrary: growing populist hysteria is becoming a common denominator between the UK and Europe.”

“I just hope this statement does not fall under the latest prohibition for foreigners to comment on Brexit,” he added.

One of Italy’s leading columnists, Gianni Riotta, said: “Some Italians saluted Brexit as a liberation from the heavy European saddle. Now they realise the nasty undertone poisoning Brexit. The lists of foreigners, the ethnic cleansing of doctors and nurses from British hospitals. They now worry. Many Italians work in the UK, to find a job Italy is not offering them.

EU nationals picking lettuce on a UK farm
There are 2.1 million EU nationals employed in the UK. Photograph: Tim Scrivener/REX/Shutterstock

“They worry, some are already packing. Brace yourself for some nasty payback should the Conservatives insist on this jingoism,” he said. In Greece, at the coalface of the refugee crisis, the government deplored the rise of what it described as dangerous language. “Ukip, it seems, has contaminated the Tories with its … xenophobia. This is a very sad development for Britain and Europe,” deputy minister for European affairs Nikos Xydakis told the Observer.

“We are seeing the extreme right pushing the mainstream agenda with its discourse and practices, its speech of hate, racism and fear,” he added. “That is the core problem of Europe. It is a danger for peace and democracy and it is knocking at our door.”

An estimated 22,000 Greek students are in higher education in the UK, their parents often making huge sacrifices for the privilege. Greece also has a huge contingent of academics ensconced in teaching and research positions at British universities. Attracting foreign students – and foreign expertise in teaching and research – is a key source of revenue for British universities.

Another well-beaten trail into British institutions comes from India, where people are now thinking twice about going to the UK, said Falguni Laheru, a solicitor at immigration law firm SmartMove4Visas. “[Indians] have come to expect immigration updates with a mixture of unease and distress,” she said.

Jibes at foreigners have already cost Britain jobs, she said, pointing to two of her own clients who have just opted to set up new offices in the Netherlands and Germany respectively, as a direct result of visa restrictions there being unlikely to change.

“All the qualified workers now prefer migrating to Canada, Australia and New Zealand,” she said. “The feeling of our highly skilled clients is that while the UK needs our skills, we do not feel wanted.”

In 2013, when then prime minister David Cameron led a trade delegation to India, he gave a TV interview saying the UK would be “incredibly welcoming” to Indians who wanted to study in the UK. The interview was interpreted as Cameron suggesting conscientious, hardworking Indians were the right kind of immigrant for the UK.

Rahul Chatterjee, who has now decided to apply to US universities for his postgraduate degree, said Britain needs highly skilled immigrant labour from India. “If I were a blue-collar worker, and I saw other people, foreigners, getting jobs, and I wasn’t getting one, I’d be pretty ticked off too. If that is the case. But obviously some people lack the kind of education to understand the economic benefits immigrants bring.

“The US allows students to work anywhere in the country for one year after completing an undergrad degree. So you can see why many students prefer that. Politicians like Amber Rudd and Theresa May know economically that they need foreign guys to drive down prices, but the stuff they say is to appeal to public sentiment.”

Ashmita Lucktoo, editor of NRI World, a magazine for expat Indians, said people felt hurt by the rising anti-immigrant talk. “The UK used to be the golden bird of the world, they used to rule India, and now they’re not on top any more, so there’s an inferiority complex, especially with regard to brown skin,” she said.

“Even if you have a degree or skills, you’re forced into menial jobs like working at Burger King or Starbucks. Indians are now under enormous pressure to succeed; if you’re going to the UK, either you have to succeed and make it really big, or you may as well come home and have some dignity.”


Tracy McVeigh, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Helena Smith and Vidhi Doshi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Theresa May is trapped between a rock and a hard Brexit
The prime minister’s simultaneous promises to exit the EU and look after the interests of Remainers simply cannot be given credence

William Keegan

15, Jan, 2017 @6:59 AM

Article image
A hasty election before Britain sees the hard truth of Brexit
Of all the reasons for Theresa May to go for an immediate vote, the clearest is that the future prospects for Britain are darkening all the time

William Keegan

23, Apr, 2017 @5:59 AM

Article image
EU immigration offer could lead to Brexit reversal, claims Adonis
Labour ex-minister says border control offer could open way to staying in the single market

Toby Helm

09, Sep, 2017 @9:30 PM

Article image
Biggest Brexit donor urges May to guarantee EU nationals' rights
Senior Leave backers express concern over approach to immigration and say students should be free to come to UK

Michael Savage Observer policy editor

07, May, 2017 @9:56 AM

Article image
EU citizens living in the UK could face legal limbo after Brexit
Leaked document reveals fears in Brussels that Home Office does not have systems in place to select who has right to stay

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

18, Feb, 2017 @10:00 PM

Article image
UK industry chief says business needs more from 'thin' Brexit deal
Carolyn Fairbairn of CBI says her ‘really big disappointment’ was the lack of help for British services in the potential deal

Michael Savage Policy editor

01, Nov, 2020 @5:45 AM

Article image
Brexit is truly daunting: this is the biggest crisis I have known
Bafflement abroad, political paralysis at home: the vote to leave the EU has taken us from having the best of both worlds to the worst

William Keegan

04, Sep, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
The kindness of baffled strangers won’t save us from Brexit
Mark Carney warned months ago about the difficulty of financing Britain’s deficit when confidence in us is collapsing. He was right

William Keegan

16, Oct, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Brexit blow: exports to Japan slump after ‘landmark’ free trade deal
First such accord after leaving EU was predicted to bring £15bn boost but UK now lags rivals

Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Michael Savage

26, Nov, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
MPs demand vote on hard Brexit plans for UK to leave single market
Cross-party alliance says it should be consulted over future trade decisions, saying referendum was on EU membership; not single market

Toby Helm Political editor

08, Oct, 2016 @11:38 PM