No 19: Does Brexit mean my exit? A lack of consideration for women migrants highlighted by Brexit-related uncertainty

The UK's post-Brexit EU migration policy has failed to consider the lives of women migrants.
(Jeff Djevdet/Flickr)

by Eva Duda-Mikulin

One of the major driving forces of Brexit is immigration. This blog tries to make sense of what the situation is for EU migrants to the UK who are women as the Brexit vote has complicated their entitlements to permanent residence or the new ‘settled status’. While there is still no clarity on the rights of EU nationals following Brexit, the process of regulating migrants’ rights to stay in the UK is largely not fit for purpose and has a blind spot for certain groups that find themselves ineligible. Meanwhile, the UK population is ageing and in need of workers to fill labour shortages.

Brexit and its bargaining chips

Brexit has elevated migration to one of the most contentious and divisive issues in the UK today. Naomi Klein emphasises that, due to ‘racial capitalism’, ethnic minorities have wrongly become the scapegoats of practically any current crisis. Meanwhile, the British government continually fails to deliver on its promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. The UK is seemingly trapped in a contradictory relationship. On the one hand, not wanting to shoot itself in the foot and lose trade deal agreements, and on the other, wishing to fortify itself from the rest of Europe, forgetting it is actually a part of it.

When Theresa May triggered Article 50, by default she turned more than 4.2 million people into bargaining chips (approximately 3 million EU nationals in the UK and approximately 1.2 million UK nationals in the EU), or sacrificial lambs, as some have suggested. That figure is actually higher than 4.2 million if one accounts for the children of these individuals.

May refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, despite the concerns expressed by academics, pressure groups (The3Million; British in Europe) and the general public. The UK government took a while to provide any clarification on EU citizens’ rights but a lack of clarity is still prevalent. The UK will certainly manage without the EU but opinions are divided as to how well it will be able to manage. Only time will tell, but the future of those caught in between — economic migrants who provide labour in the UK — remains uncertain and greatly dependent on Brexit negotiations.

Women are migrants too

Despite increasing numbers of mobile women, migrants are still often portrayed as genderless by academics and policy-makers. They are predominantly depicted as male, without regard to gendered responsibilities in relation to household or children. More than half of the foreign-born UK population are women. Yet, women migrants are largely neglected in the literature on economic migration. This is while the majority of post-2004 migrants to the UK have been characterised as labour migrants.

Poland is the most common country of birth and nationality amongst migrants to the UK and so it has been studied extensively. Still, limited attention has been paid to women and their gendered mobility, which may have been undertaken as a sole migrant, pioneer, a tied mover or a ‘trailing wife’. Women migrants are pivotal to consider in light of rapidly ageing European societies and the need for workers. While the adult worker model is prevalent, inadequate state support prevents women from reaching a healthy work-life balance.

My research highlights the need to overcome this one-dimensional perception of economic migrants. Women migrants are often intertwined (or ‘sandwiched’) in conflicting gendered expectations arising from two locations: the home and host countries. Thus, it should be acknowledged that economic migrants, too, are entangled in multifaceted familial and other relationships that may make it more difficult for them to stay mobile or remain outside their country of origin.

The reality check

The feeling of precarity certainly applies to the post-Brexit-vote UK and the uncertainty linked to the future after 2019. Precarity is inevitably characteristic of migrants’ lives, which are often punctuated by a lack of job security. This is related to migrants filling 3D jobs: dirty, dull and dangerous. This trend, consequently, is linked to limited material and psychological well-being. For women migrants, this state of affairs is further compounded by their attachment to the private sphere, which often constitutes a barrier to their engagement in the paid labour market on the same footing as men.

The ageing of the UK population increases the need for foreign-born labour to take on jobs unpopular with British workers. The EU labour force is younger and fitter in comparison to UK-born workers. Hence, after Brexit, the UK is likely to experience labour shortages in certain areas of the economy. Indeed, some argue that ‘Brexodus’ has already begun, with EU migrants leaving their jobs and the country. This is linked to overwhelming uncertainty (and racial abuse) of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU (some 1 million British migrants, often favourably referred to as expats, on the Spanish Costas) following the Brexit vote.

Many EU nationals seek to regulate their stay and apply for permanent residence (PR) and British citizenship (naturalisation), which suggests they consider staying for good, while many others are planning to leave. The process of obtaining PR has undergone many changes but remains lengthy with the requirement to produce a number of documents from the 5-year qualifying period (P60s, payslips, bills for every year, etc.) and so may be difficult for some. This could be the case for women migrants who are not engaged in the paid labour market but are homemakers. They may find it difficult to collect the required substantial documentation for PR. Additionally, they may experience trouble in regulating their stay due to a lack of continuity of employment. Thus, their lives, particularly after the Brexit vote, are characterised by widespread uncertainty.

The wider implications of Brexit’s impact on EU immigration

The UK government should recognise that the process of obtaining PR, as it is, is not fit for purpose. It will likely exclude a number of people, namely, women migrants who are homemakers or carers, or those who are in unregulated work or do cash-in-hand jobs, as well as disabled migrants.

The British authorities should acknowledge the vital roles migrants, and women migrants, in particular, play in the British economy. It is also crucial to recognise migrant women’s roles in ‘topping up’ the birth and fertility rates. By doing so they contribute to the prevention of an ageing population.

Further restrictions on social welfare entitlements, which are likely to follow Brexit, will not stop the forces of migration. Indeed, they are likely to have devastating consequences. They will do nothing to prevent Britain’s ageing population but will increase the probability of a demographic crisis by accelerating the process. This, combined with labour shortages, will no doubt prove challenging. This is why the UK government should, as it did in the past, look at women migrants as a solution to some of its problems rather than a threat.

Until recently, Eva Duda-Mikulin worked as Senior Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Now, she lectures on inclusion and diversity at the University of Bradford. You can find her on LinkedIn, and Research Gate. She tweets at @DrEvaDuMik.

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  1. Post 4 of #GPC@25: “I love the UK but it broke my heart and I will leave”: Speculating about Brexodus by Eva Duda-Mikulin – Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography

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