I am in Brussels today, participating in a workshop organised by The Greens in the European Parliament. A few blocks away the British ambassador Sir Tim Barrow has just delivered the Article 50 notification signed by the British PM. My workshop is not about Brexit. I am here to discuss how EU’s responses to the refugee crisis are creating new forms of irregularity and precariousness for migrants and refugees. The workshop lasts until lunch time, at which point, after a quick look at the news, I decide to do my personal minute of silence – no one sees it, it is not my turn to speak anyway, but I want to mark the moment the letter has passed hand. I also decide that perhaps the topic of the workshop is not so unrelated, so I raise my hand in the Q&A and make a comment. What follows is a longer and slightly more coherent version of what I said.
When we talk about irregular migration we tend to assume it is something that doesn’t concern us directly as individuals, only as advocates for others’ rights. We may even join a demo or sign an open letter or even lobby for the rights of undocumented people, but it is not our problem so to speak. But this may not be the case.
First of all, it may be useful to ask: who is an undocumented migrant? The answer is a person like you and me, but who is denied the right to move and live legally in another country because of their passport, the colour of their skin, social class, gender or sexual orientation, or a referendum. There is nothing essential or biological about being undocumented.
We tend to assume that undocumented migrants don’t look like (white) Europeans. We assume that to be an undocumented migrant one must have travelled under a lorry or in an unseaworthy dingy. The truth is that how you entered a country, ie by legal or illegal means of transport, doesn’t really tell us much about your immigration status as a resident. For example, most, if not all, Syrians who are now refugees in the EU had to cross the Mediterranean without papers. But even more relevant here is the consideration that people may have travelled legally and even resided legally in a country but then the world around them changes, the goalposts are moved and they find themselves no longer ‘legal’.
Let’s go back ten years, before Romania and Bulgaria became EU member states. At that point, one of the largest group of undocumented migrants in the UK were people from Romania and Bulgaria. They had no visa restrictions on their movement and could visit for short periods. But some stayed for longer and became undocumented, and stayed so until the EU enlargement happened. At that point they suddenly, as EU citizens, were no longer undocumented.
The point here is that as a result of Brexit, the reverse may happen. But this time it will not affect only the citizens of the newer EU member states but potentially all EU 27 nationals. And while I’m sure that some kind of solution will be put in place so that EU nationals that currently live in the UK will be able to continue in some shape or form to live and work there, I am equally sure that these measures will leave some out. Recent data on detention and removal of EU nationals from the UK already show signs in this direction.
In post-Brexit Britain, we may have a situation whereas UK-based EU nationals who don’t comply with the new requirements for staying in the UK and are unwilling or unable to go back their country of origin (there may be plenty of reasons for that) may become subject to immigration detention and removal en masse. It is perhaps an extreme scenario, but it also have some positive transformative potential in it may help us to humanise undocumented migrants and understand on a more equal footing their circumstances and aspirations. It may also provide a reminder to our politicians in Brussels, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Madrid etc. that one day in a not too distant future their own citizens may face in Britain a similar treatment to the one the EU and its member states are inflicting on undocumented people now. And if this is the case, crying outrage and indignation and claiming moral high ground may not work as a response.