When Brexit is Personal


In this blog, from August 2019, Dr Daniela Sime, Reader/Associate Professor in Education and Social Justice in the School of Social Work & Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde looks at the implications for the rights of children and young people who are European nationals.

As the fast approaching Brexit deadline continues to create anxieties and uncertainty for most of us. I focus in this blog on the implications of Brexit for young people who were born in Europe and are now living in the UK. They are EU nationals who have moved to the UK in early or late childhood, usually due to their parents’ decisions to pursue better employment opportunities. For them, Brexit creates uncertainty not just in terms of their right to stay in the UK to continue with their education, training or employment plans, but also in terms of their everyday experiences and sense of belonging.

Over the last three years, we have conducted UK-wide research with over 1,200 young people aged 12 to 18 who had moved to the UK as young children. The study, led by the University of Strathclyde, found that young people had a strong sense of belonging to their local communities and the UK as a whole, although Brexit has clearly unsettled and upset them. In an online survey, 56% told us they felt ‘uncertain’ over Brexit, while 54% felt ‘angry’ and 27% felt ‘scared’.

Not only had Brexit made them feel anxious about their future, but 3 in 4 said they had experienced racist and xenophobic attacks since the EU Referendum in 2016. For many, these had a direct impact on their sense of security and mental health. These incidents varied from every day aggressions in schools, where young people were called names such as ‘Russian terrorist’ or ‘Polish prostitute’, or teachers telling them they should not be in Britain, to being attacked on the streets for speaking their home language, in parks and public places, or on public transport.

These are some quotes from our participants:

‘At my last school, someone made xenophobic comments about my nationality and tried to burn my hair – last year, in my current school, a group followed me around chanting “UKIP” and that I should f**k off back to my country.’

‘I was bullied from the age of six to the age of 12. I had rocks thrown at me, vile rumour spread about me, my possessions stolen – I was mocked and verbally abused simply because I’m Polish.’

Some complained that their teachers had failed to stop the abuse and bullying they were suffering. Young people told us that sometimes teachers hear racist, sexist and xenophobic comments made by students and choose to ignore them. Many said they don’t report incidents, as reporting mechanisms are not clear and schools don’t seem to treat xenophobic incidents as serious enough to address or investigate.

These findings raise significant concerns for all of us working with children and young people who are EU nationals. In our sample, only 8% of the young people said they had British nationality. As the status of EU nationals becomes very precarious in light of uncertain post-Brexit immigration legislation and plans, we are at risk of creating another Windrush generation, with no secure future rights to education, health provision and civic participation. Currently, EU nationals have full rights to access education and health provision and the Scottish Government has promised to continue to maintain these rights post-Brexit. Most families are, however, anxious and some are preparing to leave or have left already. Others say this is now their home and they have no plans to leave, as moving countries is not easy.

Despite the good intentions of the Scottish Government, immigration is not a devolved matter yet, so many of migrant children’s rights are at risk. As discussions on the incorporation of the UNCRC provisions into Scots Law and youth work are ongoing, it is important to ensure that the rights of migrant youth are also considered, with particular attention given to the groups more likely to become vulnerable.

Currently, EU nationals are asked to apply for ‘settled status’ and register with the Home Office. The scheme is free for applicants, but there are fears many will remain unregistered, unaware of the scheme, unable to apply or weary of the implications of applying. Groups particularly vulnerable are families in poverty and with limited access to information in English, Roma families or families with no permanent employment and stable residence, and children who may be trafficked or living with domestic violence.

Youth workers can encourage EU nationals and their parents to secure their status in the UK by applying for settled status and/or citizenship. They could also support EU nationals emotionally, by assuring them of support from their peers and local communities, and making sure they report incidents of abuse, when they occur. For young people at risk, youth workers could work with social work departments and local authorities to spot vulnerable individuals early and identify support needed.

To read more about the project and download policy and practice briefings, including an anti-bullying pack produced in collaboration with RespectMe, please visit the project website: www.migrantyouth.org

Twitter: @MigrantYouth #heretostay

Dr Daniela Sime is Reader/Associate Professor in Education and Social Justice in the School of Social Work & Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde. She has carried out the research in collaboration with the Universities of Durham and Plymouth and a group of young advisors and with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

After reading this you might be interested in attending YouthLink Scotland’s next Policy Seminar which will encourage input and reflection on the principles of the UNCRC and the role of youth work and any potential impacts as we move towards incorporation.