Bureaucratic obstacles sap joy from immigrants’ lives
London Letter: Government attempts to reassure EU citizens are at odds with tough talk on immigration
Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament: The UK government’s reassuring message to EU citizens is at odds with its tough talk on immigration. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Maria was swearing quietly in Spanish as she picked the onions out of her Thai fried rice, banishing them to the edge of the plate as she picked petulantly at the rice. She had been out of sorts since she arrived soaked in rain for Carsten’s birthday and he did nothing to improve her mood when he told her with German directness that he already had the present she gave him.
They met a few years ago at a Tarot card group Maria organises but Carsten’s spiritual path has since taken him away from the esoteric towards the enlightenment of Buddhism. Like most GPs in the National Health Service, he works only part of the week, so he has plenty of time to work towards his goal of 100,000 prostrations, going on week-long retreats and spending entire weekends in the temple.
After two years, he has managed just over 29,000, which I told him was fewer than I would have expected.
“There’s no point in rushing them,” he said.
Maria has lived in London for 15 years, working for London Underground, but she is worried about the future. She has spent £1,700 (€2,000) applying for British citizenship and although she has passed the English language and Life in the UK tests, she is afraid she will be rejected.
I said she had nothing to worry about but wondered why she had not applied for settled status, which allows EU citizens who have lived in Britain for the past five years to remain indefinitely.
“I don’t believe them. I think there will be a hard Brexit in December and a cliff edge and they’ll change the rules,” she said.
Carsten has lived in Britain for more than 20 years, owns a house and has a permanent job in the NHS but he is not applying for citizenship. He plans to apply for settled status but the Home Office app doesn’t work on his phone.
“If they get nasty and change the rules, I don’t want to stay here anyway,” he said.
Carsten’s Austrian friend Anton, who was polishing off multiple portions of sticky rice, said he applied for British citizenship in 2009 because he foresaw Brexit. When he moved to England, he lived first in the northeast and was surprised that the people he met there did not share his sense of belonging to a common European family.
“I thought if these people ever get a chance to choose, they’ll leave,” he said.
Google reported a sharp rise over the past month in the number of people in Britain searching for information about immigration and citizenship after Brexit. The government has attempted to reassure EU citizens that they will be able to remain, but applications are often rejected because of missing documents and Maria’s anxiety is widely shared.
Part of the problem is that the government’s reassuring message to EU citizens is at odds with its tough talk on immigration aimed at pleasing Leave voters who switched from Labour to the Conservatives in last month’s election.
Boris Johnson has promised unlimited visas for top-class scientists from all over the world but he will set tough conditions for workers at the lower end of the pay scale. Migrants from the EU would be subject to the same conditions as those from elsewhere in the world, who must have a job offer with a minimum salary of £30,000 a year.
A report from the Migration Advisory Committee this week suggested the salary requirement should be lowered to £25,600, although it admitted that cutting immigration would hit economic growth.
“No perfect system exists and there are unavoidable, difficult trade-offs,” the committee’s chairman Alan Manning said.
Among the trade-offs is the feelings of people like Maria, Carsten and Anton who have lived in Britain for much of their adult lives and who felt at home here. They feel less so now, and although none has faced personal hostility after Brexit, being put through their bureaucratic paces has sapped some of the joy out of living here.
Maria said if Brexit was not happening, British citizenship could be something to feel happy and even proud about.
“I feel nothing now. It’s voluntary because I’m deciding to do it. But it makes me feel nothing,” she said.