It all ended with a laugh. “I already have a jacket and spectacles like yours, Nando. Need to work a bit more on the curly hair though”, H. said enabling everyone around the table to take a breath and move on from the conversation. But how did we get there? Let me rewind it a bit. We had spent the day around a table in a room in central London with our research team and a group of colleagues and friends, mostly practitioners and advocates for migrants’ and children’s rights. The room is painted in a vibrant yellow with the autumn leaves adding some extra colour through the large balconies. We arranged the workshop to share in a close group of critical friends the findings of our research on former unaccompanied minors. How to translate the empirical findings into meaningful recommendations for policy makers and practitioners? This is the question the participants are working on together. We are a pretty diverse bunch in terms of ethnic and migration backgrounds. There are our Afghan project assistants, a refugee/practitioner, some born and bred Brits, and a varied group of EU nationals – this includes two researchers, two IOM representatives, and a campaigner for children’s rights. After two hours of plenary discussion, we split in small groups. Each group has the task to go through some of our policy papers and make suggestions on how to refine the message for particular policy audiences. When we report back to the large group, one of the rapporteurs offers some ideas on how to develop a positive message around unaccompanied minors and their future in the UK instead that back ‘home’. Is there any policy opportunity for a long-term regularisation instead? Among various mentions of human rights, security considerations and better use of the resources put into the education of lone migrant children than removing them back to war-torn countries, one of the suggestion is to argue that, as Brexit will create a skills gap in the UK, especially in service and food processing jobs, why not employ them instead: in other words, have young Afghans as a replacement for Eastern European baristas. At which point someone rightly intervened saying why should we limit the potential of former unaccompanied minors to low skilled, low paid jobs? Good point, I thought. I was listening and taking notes, but suddenly something clicked in me.
While we focus on the never ending ups and downs of the EU/UK negotiations, Brexit is insidiously and surreptitiously becoming part of our daily lives, drawing new lines of inclusion and exclusion among ‘us’. It is perhaps inevitable given the circumstances, but it is still surprising when one sees it while it is happening. My point in writing this is not to claim for EU nationals some kind of privileged treatment or position in the hierarchy of ‘foreigners’ (the ambiguous politics of EU citizenship and free movement is for some other posts), is merely to observe how Brexit is penetrating our everyday lives, the way we interact with our friends, partners, colleagues, and neighbours, and how it is forcing new meanings in what were usual, unproblematic or even familiar conversations and interactions.
“While I’m all for introducing pathways to regularisation for former unaccompanied minors, personally I feel a bit uncomfortable with arguing that we need to stop deportation so that we have a replacement for people like me”, I heard myself saying. In the ensuing laughter, for a split second my fellow EU nationals and I caught each others’ eye. This is when the reassurance by H., one of our Afghan researchers, came: “I already have a jacket and spectacles like yours, Nando. Need to work a bit more on the curly hair though”.