For Spanish teacher Vanessa, the decision to leave Britain was simple. As she puts it: “Why would I want to invest more years of my life in a country that’s going down the loo?”
Vanessa, 33, came to Britain from Spain 10 years ago and until recently had been happily settled, teaching and living in a small Somerset village with her British husband Simon and their 2-year-old daughter Nuria.
Then the European Union referendum happened.
“We don’t see a future in the UK now,” Vanessa says. “During the referendum campaign my husband was supporting Remain and someone stood up in the pub and said that if he wasn’t willing to support patriotism in the UK he should fuck off back to Spain… People in the village would talk about immigration like I wasn’t there.”
This summer the family will pack up their things and start a new life in Spain.
Vanessa is one of thousands of Europeans saying goodbye to Britain long before it formally exits the EU. BuzzFeed News spoke to some of them as they prepared to wind up their life in the UK.
Most spoke using only their first names – or anonymously. Many are worried about being singled out for xenophobic abuse, while others are in the delicate process of moving jobs.
Vanessa’s motivation to leave is not born from visa worries. She has permanent residency in Britain and is expecting her British passport to arrive before she leaves.
But after their neighbours were among those voting for Britain to leave the EU, the family no longer feel committed to staying in the country. As with many others, a combination of feeling unwelcome and worries about a post-Brexit economy has driven them out.
“Brexit is swallowing communities,” Vanessa says. “In a village of 200 people, four are Europeans and none of us are takers. When people in the village talk about immigrants they don’t notice that.”
She adds: “Yesterday we went to our local pub and they said, ‘Are you going to have to goodbye party?’ and we said no, we’re not interested. Why should we have a goodbye party when people here voted for us to leave?”
Vanessa teaches Spanish in primary and secondary schools but originally worked in Spain as an English teacher, a career which she hopes to restart when she returns later this summer.
“Brexit is swallowing communities”
“My daughter will start school in Spain in September [children start at 3 in Spain],” she says. “We don’t want to be worrying day in, day out about Brexit. My husband is self-employed in construction and we wonder if we are going to be able to afford the mortgage. In Spain my parents have a house we can live in rent-free.
“We may have to come back if my husband can’t find work in Spain but I’m hoping that we finish our commitments here because I feel fearful for my child. Her name, Nuria, is very Spanish. What happens in secondary school? Will she be bullied because she’s foreign, even though she’s British too?”
In the four months after the referendum there was a sharp increase in Europeans leaving Britain, according to the latest official migration data. The number of people from eastern Europe leaving the UK rose by nearly a third, to 39,000. It is not known exactly how many have left since then, but there is anecdotal evidence that more still are leaving ahead of Britain’s formal exit from the EU.
Rob McNeil, a researcher at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, tells BuzzFeed News that while it is too early to confirm whether more Europeans have left since the latest data was published, economics and xenophobia are both factors that might be making the UK less attractive to EU citizens.
“If you’re a Polish worker in the UK and sending money home,” he said, “currently, even if your pay is the same or has gone up, you’re going to get 15% less [when you send money home] because of the exchange rate. It’s easier for millionaires to come here because it’s less expensive.
“We do know that people did begin to leave [after the referendum]. It may be that’s linked to feeling unwelcome, and the measurable increase in attacks – but also the pound fell off a cliff, which means people earning in pounds and sending money to countries dealing in euros [are affected].”
Three years ago, shortly after Sergio qualified as a nurse in Sicily, he was enticed to Britain by NHS recruiters. “They came directly to the university and hospital saying, ‘We need nurses in the NHS, do you want to come?’” he recalls.
Sergio settled in Blackburn when he arrived in the UK in spring 2014. At first it seemed a good opportunity to try another country and make some money. But as anti-immigrant rhetoric grew, he began to have doubts.
“I was in Blackpool for a visit three years ago when everyone started to speak about European immigration. I was talking to someone else in my language and a woman shouted at me, ‘You steal our jobs, you’re here to claim benefits.’
“Now I can see that people speak about the EU like it’s something that’s not good. People say you’re not welcome. When people in Britain know that you’re from outside their country they look at you strangely.”
Sergio, who is now 33, owns a house in Peterborough that he is renting out while he works as an agency nurse in London. “It was something I really wanted, to get a house and pay a mortgage,” he says. “Without the referendum I would never have thought to leave.”
But now exiting the EU is a certainty, Sergio says the thought of the likely cost and bureaucracy involved in staying on in post-Brexit Britain is a serious deterrent. “If I have to apply for a costly visa to get permanent residency, I’ll need to stay for five years and fill out a form that’s 86 pages long and then get five years of bank statements, payslips, and P60s. I know people who’ve sent 11 or 12 kilos of documents to the Home Office. It would cost me a lot. Why should I do that if I can freely move in 27 other countries?
“I like the freedom to move and settle where I want, which is something that brought me here. Not having to have a costly visa or a Kafkaesque procedure of applying for residency.”
“When people in Britain know that you’re from outside their country they look at you strangely.”
Sergio has had job offers to work as a nurse in Germany and Sweden with significantly better pay than the NHS. “In Sweden they’re offering me 4,000 euros a month and in Germany they’re offering 2,200 a month and they’ve got much better working conditions. And if you can’t work they give you better benefits. As a nurse in the NHS the wages are roughly £1,600 [around 1,850 euros] a month.
“At the minute I think I’m going to go for Germany because also with Brexit, Germany is going to be one of the countries that benefits. In Germany I’ll get a free language course and the welfare is better, so if something happens and I can’t work for a month, in Germany your rent and bills are paid so you don’t risk being on the street.”
Once he decides on the job to take he won’t be sticking around. “I’m single so I’ll just give notice, pack my two cases, and go.”
It is not just hospitals that are already losing EU workers ahead of Brexit. Care homes are also finding it a challenge to recruit and hold on to staff from mainland Europe, who many businesses depend on.
Matthew Manning-Smith, who runs the Manor Care Home, a specialist care home for adults with learning disabilities in West Sussex, struggled to control his emotions when speaking to a committee of MPs last week about the impact of Brexit on his workforce.
His voice cracking, Manning-Smith warned that specialist care homes like his would become economically unviable without EU staff. Without them, he said, homes like his would close and more people would be pushed into the care of the kinds of large, impersonal institutions that Britain tried to move away from in the 1980s.
“We’ve had a couple of EU staff move on already since the referendum,” he tells BuzzFeed News. “The difficulty is getting people to come now, because since Brexit there’s an underlying current that people aren’t wanted so much in the UK. It’s becoming much harder to recruit EU workers.”
Gary Clarke, a construction company manager in London, says that as well as losing many of his existing workers to other European countries, he has noticed that fresh job applications from EU citizens have disappeared too.
“For the first time ever in four and a half years I’ve not had eastern Europeans on my training courses,” he says.
“There’s an underlying current that people aren’t wanted so much in the UK.”
“It started with the Brexit vote. A lot have left in the last three or four months. Some have gone to Spain, some to Holland. Rent was going up and pay was going down in real terms, so they didn’t see the point of staying.”
He says xenophobia may have played a role in how welcome his workers from mainland Europe felt: “Quite a few people felt since the referendum they were being treated like shit by others on sites. If you’ve got eastern European guys they wouldn’t get the parking spaces. I’d be getting on the phone to subcontractors saying, ‘Treat them fairly.’”
Stephanie is a leading anthropologist from Austria who has worked for many of Britain’s top universities researching homelessness. Now 37, she has been living in Britain for most of the last eight years – but in a fortnight she is returning to Vienna, where she grew up.
As she packs her bags in Bristol, she says: “I decided in January, shortly after they announced that they wanted to leave the customs union and the single market. That was the moment for me.
“I can’t get permanent residency because there was a break when I was outside Britain for a few months. I’m a career academic so contracts are anything from six months to three years. If I stayed, every time a contract ran out it would be hanging over me that they could deport me.”
Her reasons are not just practical, though – they are also about a less tangible feeling of being unwanted. “Since I came here in 2008, the mood has definitely changed. The looks when people saw me speaking German on the phone started after the referendum. Before that people talked amongst themselves, but now people feel entitled to bring that xenophobia out in public.”
Stephanie will carry on working remotely for her current university until the contract runs out in January. Early indications are that she is not alone in becoming sceptical of the future of academia in Britain. Non-British EU academics make up a fifth of teaching and research posts in Britain’s top tier of universities, and many are wondering whether they should stay. “If we all go then British academia is facing a big problem,” Stephanie says.
In science, the loss of EU talent and funding is already causing damage.
“The mood has definitely changed”
For a long time Britain has been the best place for Jonas* to live. The 45-year-old geneticist from Germany has a senior role for a science firm in Cambridge and has lived in Britain for 18 years. He and his wife – who works in a similar field – are both German and have two children of primary school age.
“I think we’ll leave by the end of the year,” he says. “The atmosphere has changed.
“I don’t see any aspect of my life that would be improved or make it worth my trouble to stay here. Of all my friends, at least half are thinking of leaving now. Recruiting is harder – we’ve already had people from mainland Europe turn down job offers because of Brexit – and it’s much harder to get EU grants for projects based in the UK.”
Jonas has applied for two jobs in Germany and one in Spain, and his wife is applying for jobs too. He believes that very soon Britain will lose its reputation as one of the best places in the world for genetics – and he doesn’t want to be here when that happens.
“The field of genetics is very competitive; it’s like Formula One,” he says. “You have established teams that for years are number one and then something changes by 10%, like a loss of funding, and so 10% fewer people come. You can very quickly go from number one to the middle of the pack. I see Britain in the middle of the pack in five years.”
For many the decision to leave comes down to a gut feeling.
José* is a vet who came to Britain from southern Spain 16 years ago after falling in love with his English girlfriend, now wife, Rebecca*. The couple live in Blackpool with their two daughters, aged 8 and 10, and say they would have already left if they hadn’t had a whole family to relocate.
“To me the saddest thing is I’ve got neighbours who say ‘you’re alright, you’ve been here all this time, you’re practically English’,” José says. “But I’ve got no security. It makes it worse when people say ‘don’t worry’ – of course I’m worrying.”
José is applying for veterinary surgeon jobs in Spain while they work on repairing their house in Britain. “My wife feels deeply hurt by the outcome of the referendum. She told me that she would give her nationality if she had to in order to move to Spain.”
The decision to uproot his family has not been taken lightly. “I consider the UK a massive part of my life,” he says. “My daughters were born here, I’m pretty integrated, I go to an art class with old people and belong to a cycling club. Leaving would mean starting again.”
But the referendum – and the attitudes it has unearthed – has made life in Britain seem untenable, particularly in the area he lives, where almost 70% voted Leave.
It is not a question of being unable to stay. “I think I’m eligible to stay, but it’s about whether we want to stay with this mentality,” José says.
“We have the feeling of being unwelcome, and that we might not want our children to grow in a isolationist Britain. To me what’s really painful is the fact that throughout the whole process we’ve had no voice. It affects not just me but my British family. I feel completely disgusted.”
He has experienced xenophobia, but before the vote he always shrugged it off. “I have come across some discrimination, like at work when the odd person only wanted to see an English vet and someone shouted ‘English’ when I was talking in Spanish to my girls. But generally the majority of people have been fantastic.”
He sees the advantages in the fact that his family are EU citizens: “The main attractions are the opportunities. I think it will open more doors for my daughters. But it is a jump into uncertainty.”
“To me what’s really painful is the fact that throughout the whole process we’ve had no voice.”
A feeling of being unwanted is also part of Elizabetta’s motivation for going. The 42-year-old, who works in London in retail marketing for a major multinational company, is planning to return to Italy by the end of the year.
“I’ve already started looking for jobs in my home country,” she says, “but even if I don’t find a job I’ll move because I just feel I don’t really want to invest in this country any more. I don’t see a future here.
“London has lost its vibrant culture and attitude, which I felt it had before. [It was] a place where anything can happen and there are a lot of life opportunities. But it feels narrower now. It doesn’t feel like a cool place to be anymore. It feels very insular and backward, so why should someone with opportunities elsewhere stay?”
Her friends are similarly rethinking their life in England, she says: “I’ve got many friends here who are Italian and Spanish, and everyone is making a contingency plan. I don’t have a family so I’m free to move. I have a partner, which means I have to think carefully, but it wouldn’t be enough to convince me to stay.”
Elizabetta believes Brexit has compromised much of what attracted her to the country. “I’m quite scared about the future in Britain, for the economy and job wise, but also socially. I think there will be more tensions and aggressiveness. Already you always feel like you’re part of the problem, despite the fact that you came here legitimately to contribute. There’s just a general feeling of being not welcome, even when people say ‘it’s not you’ – in the end you feel like you are part of this absurd issue that people seem to have with non-Brits at the moment.”
She feels there is no time to waste in getting out. “I don’t want to wait 10 years and be really stuck here, because I think this place won’t get better with this decision. I’m not wishing Britain or British people bad luck, but I think there’ll be problems and I don’t want to be here witnessing the decline of a place that I’ve loved.”
For Elizabetta – as for many others – her decision to leave seems like part of a bad breakup: “It feels like when you love someone and they cheat on you. I feel betrayed. I’ve always abided by the rules and been a good citizen. It’s just a feeling of, Well, if you don’t want me, I don’t want you.”
* Name has been changed
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