Multi-Layered Uncertainties of Young 'Brexiting' Eastern Europeans in the UK

Image: Aron Van de Pol

Wednesday 30th August, 2017

Aija Lulle and Russell King

In our ongoing work about youth spatial mobilities in Europe, we pay special attention to how young people try to generate positive outcomes for themselves, countries and regions in Europe through their own migration experiences. Uncertainty and risk are fundamental to migration and, crucially, we want to know and share knowledge about how young people take care of themselves and others against various adversities along the migration paths. In light of recent events, one of the most relevant questions therefore is: What do young European migrants in the UK think and do in times of uncertainty brought about by the EU Referendum outcome on 23 June 2016? In this blog we invite readers to think about the diffused nature of uncertainty, its possible forms as well as tactical steps taken to resist certain uncertainties in migrants’ daily lives.

‘The biggest worry is hmm... that we are not wanted here’, Jana (34 years old) from Slovakia said in an interview that took place six months after the EU referendum. Jana is a highly-skilled professional, and has lived in the UK since her late teens. She is one of 65 young-adult eastern Europeans (Latvians, Romanians and Slovaks) whom we interviewed before the referendum as part of our role in the Horizon 2020 ‘YMOBILITY’ project on new European youth mobilities. Jana was also among those 8-10 participants from each national group (27 in all) who were re-interviewed after the EU Referendum.

Being unwanted is a potentially damaging thought, no matter how real or imagined, or discursively imposed this unwantedness is. ‘I cannot recognise the Britain I came to, admired and appreciated’, ‘Now I am confused’ – these were often-mentioned phrases in the post-referendum interviews. Such phrases make us realise how shattered the ontological security of European migrants in the UK has become. Trust in the continuities of certain ways of life, and even in the fundamental parameters of self and identity, now seem blurred in an unknown future.

In a person‘s everyday life the sense of unwantedness has real consequences and begs a caring response, at least by the person herself. Let us listen to Jana’s reflections further on this matter:

‘The main thing is – not to kind of… or get into that mode of thinking that they are after me. Because I easily get into that kind of thinking, like “they don’t want me here and I have an accent, maybe I shouldn’t be here and so on”. So I need to be careful about my mental state. I need to be... you know... I need to be comfortable with who I am. I have the right papers, I have the rights to be here. And even if I didn’t have the papers I think I still have the right to be here because I spend almost half of my life here’.

As we can see from this quote, there is not just one big political cloud of Brexit uncertainty somewhere far above people’s heads; there are many, and very intimate uncertainties. So, what do people do to address these new uncertainties that are so deep that they shake their sense of ontological security? Taking a  Foucauldian perspective that addresses the specific ways of how we care about and govern ourselves, in particular, being attentive to practices and techniques of self-conduct during Brexit uncertainties, we can probe deeper into how the power of uncertainty reaches individuals and what people think, experience and do to care for themselves under such influences.

We distinguish four main domains of overlapping uncertainties, which impede the lives of our research participants. These are: everyday and mainly economic uncertainties, moral convictions, mental states, and the bureaucratic struggles of young European migrants in Brexiting Britain. We argue that, rather than talking about strategising, enterprising, self-reliant agents, we need to recognise how constrained a migrant’s agency is. Throughout the migration experience, and even more so under the new environment of ‘uncertainty’, young people rely more on tactical steps of self-care in their efforts to counter uncertainties and claim their belonging to the UK.

To be more specific, our student and worker participants were often relying on long working and study hours, juggling between short-term contracts and saving in order to maximise opportunities of a good education and future career opportunities seen as more attainable in the UK. Let us read how Karlina, a twenty-two year old graduate from Latvia, describes her devotion to her university studies:

‘There is the idea among Bachelor students that the first year doesn't count.  You should enjoy your new cycle in life and you can catch up later, in 2nd or 3rd grade. But for me, everyday counted! I wanted to be good, as good as I can!’

For lower-skilled workers in particular, the UK became a lesson in survival tactics, especially during the first year of arrival: sharing a room with several other people, not allowing themselves to fall ill longer than a couple of days in order to pay the rent, all these worries were present in many interviews already before the Brexit. The self-conduct of being a ‘hard worker’ is ubiquitous in most of the interviews: ‘I have never claimed benefits’, ‘I am constantly motivating myself’ – such tactics were interpreted as the ethical and moral obligation of a migrant, and not contested in terms of potential exploitation and discrimination by employers.

This leads us to consider the ‘moral convictions’ of being a good worker, and what is the good life that young people envisage through migration. Young Eastern Europeans, despite being a generation that grew up mainly after the breakup of the East-West division, do emphasise that they need to be effective in a constant struggle to prove themselves (as Karlina said) and, as illustrated in Jana’s words – feel comfortable with the basic existential parameters of their social identity. The short spells of free movement (indeed, just a few years in the case of Romanians) had given hope to Eastern Europeans that they can prove themselves as ‘good’ workers and students despite the fact that they came from less advantaged European countries. But these practices of ‘self’ were severely stereotyped and damaged again during the divisive pro-Brexit campaign.

In the quote by Jana, we already demonstrated the relevance of self-conduct in regards to mental states in a time of uncertainty. Increasing social and economic uncertainties among the Millennial generation is a recurring feature of globalisation, but in the case of Brexit and young Eastern Europeans the uncertainties become even more complex. Participants care for their mental wellbeing and make efforts to reassure themselves that they will, hopefully, be alright because they are ‘good workers and students’. Furthermore, we want to emphasise those frustrating uncertainties which derive from and are related to constant self-motivation and efforts to prove one’s worthiness in the face of the ‘cold’ bureaucracies. It is not enough to be a ‘hard worker’; it is not enough to be a morally ‘good’ migrant; and it is not enough to be on top of techniques of mental self-care. A year after the EU Referendum it is not yet known what kind of ‘paper’ identities would be regarded as ‘right’ to remain in the UK, and only tactical steps can be taken against such residential uncertainties by those who have lived in the UK for many years.

The referendum outcome exposes Eastern European migrants to uncertainties which could not be purely calculated, or intellectually and pragmatically resisted. The everyday economic, moral, mental and bureaucratic matters do not exhaust the list of how we can begin to make sense of tactical resistance against the power of uncertainty. However, they do invite us to think further about how history, geographic origin, old and new stereotyping come into play in times of large-scale political changes that affect migrants’ lives and their constitution of the self.  Last, but not least, Foucauldian theories insist that where there is governance and conduct, there is always a counter-conduct. The years to come will reveal what forms of counter-conduct can shape migrants’ lives in the post-Brexit UK, and this is already a matter not only of Eastern Europeans or of all migrants in the UK, but of transnational communities at large, in Britain and beyond its territorial borders.     

Dr Aija Lulle and Prof Russell King are currently working on the Horizon 2020 project ‘Youth Mobility: Maximising Opportunities for individuals, labour markets and regions in Europe’ at the University of Sussex. The work on Eastern Europeans in the UK has been carried out in a close collaboration with Dr Laura Morosanu. Veronika Dvorakova (MA, Sussex) and PhD student Alexandra Bulat (UCL) acted as research assistants and carried out most of the Slovak and Romanian interviews.

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