On Friday 8th December, more than 75 people packed into the Norwich City Council Chamber in City Hall to hear testimonies of EU nationals living in the UK.
Several City Councillors were also in attendance, alongside Labour MEP Alex Mayer and MP Clive Lewis, who gave short speeches pledging support for EU citizens living in Norwich.
The free event was organised to promote the non-profit book In Limbo, a collection of nearly 150 testimonies from EU nationals writing about their experiences in the UK before and since the 23rd June 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Copies were on sale at the event.
Opening the event, chair Alan Waters, City Councillor for Crome ward and Leader of the Council praised the “excellent publication” and its “compelling, fascinating and moving” contributions. Cllr Waters remarked that it provides a “narrative around citizenship and losing parts of that citizenship”.
Next, one of the co-editors of In Limbo, Tim Sykes, read out two of his favourite contributions, and discussed the “disappointing level of indifference” seen by many of the wider British public towards the plight of EU nationals here whose futures are uncertain.
“All of us,” he said, “have to face up to having been part of a collective failure… to celebrate as much as we could have done the social and economic benefits of migration.” This failure, he said, was of “curiosity as well as courage,” something he hoped to address with the book, first launched almost a year on from the referendum.
Sykes also read the book’s foreword, by poet George Szirtes (absent tonight due to flu) who was born in Hungary but moved to Britain as a refugee when he was a child, and several of Szirtes’ recommendations of passages in the book. Cllr Waters described the passages as being written with “eloquence, passion and great feeling”.
Joan Pons LaPlana, a Spanish nurse, was the first of several EU nationals to speak about their experiences before and since Brexit. Unemployed in his native country, he described how he landed at Luton airport with £50 in his pocket and a “suitcase full of dreams”. Since then, those dreams have been realised and Joan has settled in the UK, is a father and has made a successful career as a nurse in the NHS.
He explained “the government has decided I’m not good enough for this country” and explained his confusion that he is being asked to “justify my existence”. It was the “openness and passion” of British culture which first attracted him to “take a chance” and come to England, a love of British music and TV and the perception that Britain is a place that opportunities are available to progress yourself.
He reeled off the number of days since the referendum vote like a well-known fact, now standing at over 500, relating his scenario to that of a prisoner, tallying the days on the wall, “hoping that a ray of light will come”. The price of a British passport, he said, was prohibiting many from even applying for dual citizenship.
“Since Brexit,” he remarked starkly, “I don’t feel welcome any more,” stating that people now notice his accent and ask him about his country of origin, something which never happened before. He went on to rebut some myths of Brexiteers’ claims about British jobs for British people, quoting the statistics of falling numbers of British nursing students and the thousands of NHS vacancies already existing.
“My passport may be Spanish,” he reflected, “but my heart is British.” The self-styled “citizen of the world” concluded: “I’ve been shouted at many times to go home. But this is my home and I’m not going anywhere!”
Norwich sculptor Laure Ollivier-Minns moved to the city from France, and is married with children. She has been a tireless campaigner for EU citizens’ rights since the referendum, being featured in national media and speaking at the recent Cambridge Stays rally.
She talked about the “intolerable uncertainty” EU nationals face on a daily basis. Discussing the recent ‘breakthrough’ with EU negotiations, she urged caution, discussing her “grave concerns for the future as the EU has given the [British] government a green light to apply settled status” explaining that this could mean that all three million EU citizens in the UK would need to apply. Laure reflected on the “extremely discriminatory” attitudes towards EU citizens in the UK, saying “it’s not the procedure, but the principle of settled status that is wrong.
“The general apathy towards the discrimination against EU citizens really shocks me,” Laure continued. “It is not right that their voices continue to be ignored. This government is playing with people’s lives and treating us as bargaining chips. A Brexit Impact Assessment is being denied to us all… true democracy begins with honesty”.
Discussing her own feelings, Laure remarked that she felt “tired, quite frankly” after 18 months of uncertainty, as her different jobs and occupation as an artist mean that she does not have the five years’ continuous work needed to apply for settled status. Laure spoke of her “profound sadness” that “I don’t feel valued since the referendum”. Others, she says, feel the same: “alienated, unvalued, unwanted, unwelcome, forced to leave the country”.
Laure received a warm reception for her opinion: “Brexit is not only dreadful on the economic level, but on the human level,” feeling that the regulations against EU citizens in the UK amount to “an attack on my identity and my individuality”. “Brexit has created this ‘us versus them’”, she said.
“After 31 years, I feel betrayed, humiliated, insulted.”
Malika Steed gave up a promising career in the French civil service, working for Strasbourg City Council, to move to Britain with her British partner, who she subsequently married. Her life, she says, “was turned upside-down” by Brexit, “a vote that was won on the back of a xenophobic ticket, a political move orchestrated over many years.
“My anger is still there,” she said, but she doesn’t know what to do with it. “I am in limbo… extremely anxious about my future and my day-to-day life. [I am] expected to deal with this on my own and by myself.”
Malika spoke of her occasional regret at leaving France, although she admits it was the best thing to do at the time. She also recounted how she no longer speaks French to her children for fear of them becoming the victims of racism thanks to their nationality the same way as she suffered in France for her skin colour.
She urged those in attendance to use the testimonies to “speak up about what you know”. Having heard the real stories from citizens at the event, she told the gathered crowd that to them “we’re no longer these statistics.” She urged: “talk about [the impact of Brexit on EU nationals] with people. Get them to see the implications it has on us because the ramifications are huge. It affects all aspects of society. We need to have these conversations.”
Therapist Olaya de la Iglesia was moved to tears giving her testimony, and announced that a date is set for her permanent departure from the UK. “People are making judgements based on how to spell my name and my accent. Life is not OK for EU nationals [in the UK] no matter where they live, in a remain area or not.”
She noted that despite the potential for Brexit to lead to the UK being “vulnerable to the whims of the government,” citing the example of changing the income threshold for spouse which has led to “splitting families,” the “promises” have not yet been enshrined into law and until that point, “anything can be taken back”.
Olaya discussed the “demonisation” of foreign nationals in the UK, saying “I don’t want to raise my children here… it’s being allowed to happen through politeness and a fear of confrontation”. Olaya said she wanted to give a voice to the “thousands of low-paid workers [who are] scared of speaking out because if they do, they’ll lose everything”.
Olaya has found strength in the groups of EU citizens online and in Norwich who have come together to support each other and raise awareness of their position through projects like In Limbo. It has made her realise, she says, that she’s “not alone”.
She thanked attendees, reiterating that “not enough people are coming forward to offer support” and asked them to “keep pressing the powers-that-be to let us get settled status”.
Olaya is leaving because she is not entitled to permanent residency (PR), and recounted her bad experience applying for British citizenship. “We are supposed to take it on the chin… and get on with it.
“I had a home, a career, plans. All that has changed.”
Cllr Waters then summed up the remarks, noting “the obsession of this government” with immigration figures and remarking that “we do live in a time of odd politics with some populist leaders”, branding Boris Johnson a “liar”.
There were cheers for Labour MP Clive Lewis, who thanked the panel for delivering “some of the most moving [testimonies] I’ve heard on this issue” and discussed the “constitutional crisis” Brexit was creating.
He gave a personal welcome to migrants entering Norwich, saying “in Parliament, I will fight for your right to be here as equals. There is no alternative.”
The former Shadow Defence minister was bullish about what he described as “racist and xenophobic” attitudes: “you can cover it up how you like but sometimes you need to call it out for what it is”.
He bemoaned “the tide of nationalism [Brexit] has unleashed”. Although he has not yet seen the document relating to the news of an EU ‘deal’, he discussed the original settled status proposal, which appears not to have changed much, describing it as the start of a “slippery slope” to first and second-classes of citizenship.
Lewis was unequivocal about Labour’s stance on granting EU nationals in the UK full rights and demanding a reciprocal agreement from EU countries for British citizens abroad. “No ifs, no buts,” Lewis said, “we would do it on day one.” No such guarantees, he said, had so far come from the government.
Lewis also criticised the Home Office’s “dilapidated” computer software, detailing the case of one particular constituent’s struggles. Lewis has noticed, he said, a “significant change and non-committal attitude from Home Office staff when approached with questions from my office”. He also blasted the 52-week average wait for the date of a tribunal hearing.
He summed up: “I don’t personally believe Brexit should happen.”
After Lewis had finished, the empty chair for Conservative MP Chloe Smith was explained by a “disappointed” Alan Waters, who had lent her his copy of In Limbo and promised to write to her with a summary of the meeting. She was apparently invited but recently pulled out of the event. Copies of a statement from Smith were made available on the table in front of her empty chair.
In a short speech, Green City Councillor for the Wensum ward Sandra Bögelein, an Associate Tutor in the schools of DEV and PSY at UEA, said she moved to the UK from Germany, and told of her decision to have a second child “in defiance of Brexit uncertainty”. She bemoaned the “lack of clarity” for families so far in the rules regarding EU citizens living and working in the UK. “Theresa May’s empty phrase ‘no family will be separated’”, she said, “means absolutely nothing.”
Liberal Democrat City Councillor for Eaton James Wright was also invited to give a brief talk in which he praised the “heartfelt, powerful” testimonies and called the EU “the best peace deal we’ve ever had”. He also added to previous discussions about the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and million UK citizens in the EU by mentioning the 16 and 17-year-olds unfairly denied a vote in the referendum too, accusing the government of “pandering” to older Tory voters through the plebiscite. It shouldn’t be the MPs who have the final say on any Brexit deal, he said: “what starts with the population must come back to us”.
Next, those in attendance were invited to take up to a minute to deliver their thoughts or questions for the panel. We heard apologies from British audience members to the panellists, the stories of two Germans who have made successful lives for themselves in the UK and a question for Lewis on Labour’s stance on Europe and his opinion on a “ratification vote” and so-called ‘Lexiteers’ on the left. Green Councillor for Town Close David Raby supported a second referendum, making the point that if people were allowed their say, democracy “did not start and end on the 23rd June”.
East of England Labour MEP Alex Mayer arrived just in time to conclude the event, recounting her meetings with UK citizens in Europe, saying that already “we’ve wasted so much time” and that in her view negotiations should have started with a reciprocal citizenship agreement. She revealed she is “concerned [that] citizens’ rights have once again been pushed to the bottom of the pile.” Summing up, Mayer echoed the other panellists by urging those in attendance to keep spreading the word and campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
Perhaps the most striking part of the evening, which ran past 9pm, was the realisation that if the 3 million EU nationals in the UK denied a vote in the referendum were taken into account, there was a clear majority of people in the UK wishing to remain, which would be even greater if 16 and 17-year olds were given their rightful consideration. The thanks of the Europeans in attendance to the Brits and requests for the continuation of campaigning, spreading the message and stating support for EU citizens were widely supported in the room.
What was also brought to the public’s attention, as Malika pointed out, was that there is a real impact of Brexit, today, with a hostility affecting real people and making some feel like they must leave the UK. For some like Joan and Laure, however, the UK is their home. There is nowhere in their country of origin for them to go that is home like the UK. The question, then, is what we can do to spread the world and solve this, and what the government must do in order to prevent this culture from becoming ingrained, by legislating for equality, not retrospectively singling out and punishing the EU residents who have made the UK their home and contributed to our society for years, becoming as ‘British’ as any of ‘us’.
In Limbo can be purchased here.