2016 was the year when national borders, passports and identity became personal for me. Having arrived in Scotland straight from school in Germany in 1988, I had paid little attention to my own national identity until the Brexit referendum campaign started in earnest. On ethnic monitoring forms, I would tick the “White Scottish” box, and I would get mildly irritated when – usually elderly – people thought my accent invited them to ask me where I was born and to tell me about their uncle living in some German city I’ve never set foot in. Xenophobia, discrimination and unfair Home Office practices were terrible things that happened to others.
Ironically, it wasn’t the Brexit referendum which shook me from my complacency. It was volunteering with refugees in Calais, three months before the referendum (and several times since). It was meeting so many warm and generous people, often with terrible injuries from police violence. It was speaking to a man who’d trained as a nurse in the UK but was deported back to a country where killers were after his life and who’d made the dangerous journey to Europe for a second time. A nurse whose work is so desperately needed in this country and who, I fear, may now be surviving on the streets of Paris or the woods of Northern France like thousands of others. And being waived through passport control at Calais thanks to my EU passport, used to decide whose lives are worth respecting and whose are not.
Most EU nationals I know experience Brexit as a terrible aberration within Europe. But having seen a glimpse of the violence and ever-worsening human rights crisis unfolding across Europe (in what is being mis-named a ‘refugee crisis’), Brexit hasn’t felt that exceptional. It has felt uncannily like part of a wider European malaise – yet another border to prevent solidarity and mutual help when it’s most needed.
The Brexit vote seemed not so much as a shock than as the climax of a sinister build-up over many weeks. Depressing as it was, I remained blithely ignorant that my own right to continue living with my husband and teenage children in my home might be in question. Ignorant, that is, until, sometime in the autumn, I made the shocking realisation that being married to a UK citizen, with children who have British passports, didn’t even entitle me to apply for citizenship – and that my chances of getting a Permanent Residence card were at best 50:50, due to a very broken employment record from having looked after our children. I was lucky: Thanks to a Council Tax Officer who went out of his way to dig up old archived records from before the internet age, and thanks to a bank official who retrieved almost 30 years’ worth of bank records for me, I was able to prove 5 years of continuous employment in the 1990s and to get the blue card which will allow me to get a British passport in time for Brexit. Some relief – after the eight most disturbing, anxious and upsetting months of my life. I’ve finally as good as got my right to remain in my home back (since I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for a citizenship application).
What remains lost, however, is the sense of identity I used to take for granted. Questions about my “country of origin” no longer feel innocent, not least because they have multiplied. When Scottish people say that they welcome us EU nationals, what I now hear is “you are not one of us”. On a work trip to Germany this year, I got treated as a foreigner, thanks to my accent – and after some 30 years, it feels like foreign country, too. Politically, I’ve felt isolated as someone feeling 100% European and passionate about the EU’s official values and the European project, but deeply worried about all of Europe’s future. And then there’s the thorny question of privilege. I cannot travel back from Calais without a shameful sense of privilege.
An EU passport still guarantees having one’s human rights respected, at least today. Or so I thought – until May this year. That’s when I started volunteering as an immigration detainee visitor. I had read plenty about the scandal of vulnerable asylum seekers being detained. What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of EU nationals locked up indefinitely because the Home Office deems them not to be “exercising treaty rights”. Back in 2009, 769 EU citizens were detained for “immigration offences”, often after serving prison sentences for serious offences. Last year, 4,699 were detained – some of them just because they’d fallen on hard times and ended up homeless, others because of minor “anti-social behaviour” for which a British citizen would most likely be let off with warning. Thousands of EU nationals are being deported. Increasingly, EU nationals in the UK, too, are suffering some of the brutality and inhumanity to which, previously, only non-EU nationals had been subjected. Brutal abuse in immigration detention was recently exposed by the BBC’s Panorama programme. I have not heard of such abuse at the hands of guards in the detention centre which I visit. But indefinite detention itself is deeply harmful and abusive. It is distressing to witness people’s mental health visibly deteriorate as they move from indignation and shock at being detained towards despondency and depression. Some do not survive: in September alone, two men took their lives in immigration detention. One was Chinese, another Polish. I cannot disclose details of any of the people I visit. But recently I saw a particularly vulnerable young man from an EU country, who had finally got a flat and some of the support he so desperately needed, a chance to turn his life around. Or what would have been a chance, had it not been for the Home Office, which detained him. The last time I saw him, he had been served with a removal notice. He told me that if he got sent back to what was no longer “his” country, he’d be dead within weeks. I have not heard from him again. I worry his fears may have been well-founded.
I don’t fear a mass roundup or expulsion off millions of EU nationals post-Brexit. But I fear there will be more and more heart-breaking cases of vulnerable EU nationals having their human rights violated, like so many non-EU citizens before and today.