Critically acclaimed film producer Camille Gatin had a great 2017. Her film The Girl With All the Gifts was nominated for a BAFTA, and she won a breakthrough award at the British Independent Film Awards.
She also made the decision to leave Britain for good.
The 38-year-old filmmaker first left Paris 20 years ago to make Britain her home – and until the EU referendum she hadn’t looked back. But economic worries, her disgust at what she saw as growing xenophobia after the vote, and an aversion to the form-filling that staying would involve meant she had fallen out of love with the UK.
Last November she and her British husband, James, packed up their stuff and moved back to France, where Gatin hadn’t lived since she left to go to Cambridge University.
Official figures published on Thursday show she is one of 130,000 EU citizens to leave Britain last year, the highest recorded level since 2008. Among the predominantly wealthier EU15 nations, which include Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the number leaving was the highest since records began at 70,000. The number of Romanians and Bulgarians leaving was also at a record high of 20,000.
Though there has been a dramatic increase in European citizens leaving the country, there are still more EU citizens coming to the UK than leaving.
Nicola White, head of international migration statistics at the Office for National Statistics, said: “Looking at the underlying numbers we can see that EU net migration has fallen as fewer EU citizens are arriving, especially those coming to look for work in the UK, and the number leaving has risen… Brexit could well be a factor in people's decision to move to or from the UK, but people’s decision to migrate is complicated and can be influenced by lots of different reasons.”
For Gatin the decision to leave was both emotional and practical. “The day after the referendum I felt like I’d been dumped by a boyfriend who I’d had a happy relationship with,” she says. “I felt utterly heartbroken.” It was when she was in Birmingham filming The Girl With All the Gifts in 2015 that she first realised the depth of anti-European feeling. “I’d only ever been in London and being in Birmingham people had a very different view.
“After the referendum I felt a lot of my friends in London were in denial and saying ‘we’re going to reverse it’. But people in Birmingham felt that way for legitimate reasons and weren’t going to change their minds. I felt people were just really hurt and everything they read in the press points towards immigrants and the EU. I understand why they felt that way.”
Gatin was also mortified by the public xenophobia unearthed by the prospect of leaving Europe. “There were these little comments, even from people who had voted Remain, that I got. It didn’t happen just once or twice, but dozens of times, people saying ‘You’re OK, you’re the right kind of immigrant.’
“There’s no difference between a girl from Romania picking raspberries in Kent and me – we’re just doing a job that Brits aren’t doing. I just felt that suddenly it was OK for this latent imperialist racism to come out publicly and it made me feel uncomfortable.”
The effect of these comments on Europeans living in Britain is toxic, she says. “It makes you feel like you have to justify everything you’re doing, like you’re some sort of criminal or shady, and I’m just living my life and paying my taxes.”
Once Brexit appeared to be an inevitability, Gatin investigated citizenship but found the process depressing and off-putting. “I’m married to a Brit and lived here 20 years and I started looking at the forms for citizenship and it was nuts the things they were asking for. I assume HMRC knows I’ve been here for ages and created hundreds of jobs and paid my taxes. I just felt the form itself felt incredibly demoralising and punitive. There was no acknowledgement that I had contributed to the economy.”
The Girl With All the Gifts, a zombie horror film starring Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, and Glenn Close, was Gatin’s breakthrough moment. As with much of Gatin’s work, it was supported by the BFI, but experience in the last recession made her worried that arts funding like that would be harder to find if the economy nosedived.
“I know that the arts are the first sector to get hit whenever there’s an economic downturn. I found the economic downturn of 2008 incredibly brutal. So many of my friends, including me, lost jobs... and I promised myself if I could see it coming I wouldn’t put myself through it again. After the referendum and Brexit I didn’t want to stay around for that shitshow.”
She says she has found life in Paris a relief. “I listen to the Today programme religiously and read the papers a lot, and both me and my husband felt really exhausted by the noise and the fights. It felt like a country split down the middle. Being in France where nobody talks about Brexit is really calm and soothing.”
Gatin says she is “incredibly happy” in Paris and has “made the best out of a crappy situation” but she misses her friends. “I can’t just text them and go out for a drink. I had this amazing network of people around me for the last 20 years and there’s definitely a bit of bereavement.”
While these latest figures show what happened last year, there is evidence the exodus is continuing. Forums for EU citizens living in the UK are full of comments from people planning to leave who feel their future no longer lies in Britain.
Maike Bohn, founder of the3million, which campaigns on behalf of EU citizens living in Britain, said: “It is a tragedy that so many well-integrated EU citizens are leaving the UK. Many of them are people who have lived in the UK for many years and have decided that they have had enough after 600 days in limbo.
“Despite government assurances it is simply not true that EU citizens' rights have been secured and that is why people are leaving. Never in the modern Western world has such a large group of people been stripped of their existing rights, to be turned into illegal immigrants until they succeed in applying for a new set of lesser rights.”
Heero Miketta, 44, a German citizen who has lived in Manchester since 2010, has cancelled his citizenship application and is planning to relocate his family to the Netherlands after the Brexit vote hit them “like a ton of bricks”. He runs a martial arts business and has a 5-year-old daughter with his partner, who is Chinese and works in IT.
Miketta has previously lived in Finland as well as China and Estonia. The family chose Manchester because they were “looking for the most multicultural, vibrant, and open-minded place” and initially found it “a great place to be”.
He says: “We have business and property here, our daughter was born here, and the aftermath of the Brexit vote hit us like a ton of bricks. Brexit itself, the whole ridiculous, populist idea, is one thing. But the relentless nationalism and xenophobia and a government (and opposition) that pushes the same agenda, that's shocking and so, so frustrating.
“[A] right-wing surge is common in all of Europe. But this has a special quality. My partner is Chinese, grew up in Finland, and for her the experience is even more intense than for me.”
Miketta has found the situation so intolerable that he decided not to go ahead with citizenship. “A while ago I made the decision to cancel my citizenship application – I had been looking forward to becoming British for years, and I always thought that it makes sense to become part of the place where you live. I don't want to pay through the nose for a citizenship I don't want.
“Brexit has turned me from a happy future Brit with German heritage into a proper expat, and I'm sad to say I also have developed the attitude many expats have when living in places that are not really their home. Things that never bothered me – potholes, NHS waiting times, unreliable plumbers and such suddenly really trigger me.”
He says it will take “a few years to sort business and everything else before we can leave”, but their mind is made up.
“We won't stay. We are looking at the Netherlands, but that's not yet a full decision. We are flexible, we both have EU passports. It hurts me to see how many of our British friends don't have the privilege to ‘simply’ go.”
Immigration minister Caroline Nokes said: “We are committed to controlled and sustainable migration – bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands. This means an immigration system that attracts and retains people who come to work and bring significant benefits to the UK but does not offer an open door to those who don’t.
“Net migration remains 29,000 lower than it was a year ago and once we leave the EU we will be able to put in place an immigration system which works in the best interest of the whole of the UK.
“At the same time, we have been clear that we want EU citizens already living here to have certainty about their future and the citizens’ rights agreement reached in December provided that.”
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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