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How has Brexit Changed the UK for Migrants?
Episode 28th November 2022 • Borders & Belonging • Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy
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Despite the well-documented benefits of labour migration, much of the discussion before the referendum in the UK argued that it was a bad thing. Now, a few years on, are labour shortages painting a new picture or are migrants forever stigmatised?

Alex Bulat, a Romanian-born councillor on Cambridgeshire County Council, provides a voice from the ground. Bridget Anderson (Bristol University) and Aija Lulle (Loughborough University) join host Maggie Prezyna to talk about fear of migration and why they feel hope for the future of migrants in the UK.

Maggie is a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration & Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University and this new podcast is Borders & Belonging. Maggie will talk to leading experts from around the world and people with on-the-ground experience to explore the individual experiences of migrants: the difficult decisions and many challenges they face on their journeys.

She and her guests will also think through the global dimensions of migrants’ movement: the national policies, international agreements, trends of war, climate change, employment and more.

Borders & Belonging brings together hard evidence with stories of human experience to kindle new thinking in advocacy, policy and research.

Top researchers contribute articles that complement each podcast with a deeper dive into the themes discussed.

Borders & Belonging is a co-production between the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy. The podcast was produced by LEAD Podcasting, Toronto, Ontario.

Upcoming episodes investigate:

Human Smuggling or Human Trafficking? Why the Difference Matters Politicians sometimes talk about human smuggling and trafficking as if they were the same thing. It’s not always because of ignorance: they want to gain support for blocking the flows of all migrants and refugees.

In this episode we hear from Luca Stevenson of European Sex Workers Rights Alliance, who explains that, even with sex workers, we have to look at what drives them to the trade in the first place and recognise that laws to prevent trafficking can cause vulnerable women even more harm. Maggie speaks with Kamala Kempadoo (York University) and Gabriella Sanchez (University of Massachusetts) who argue that we need to look deeper at the systemic injustices behind smuggling, at what drives people to risk everything for a chance of a better life.

Show notes

Below, you will find links to all of the research referenced by our guests, as well as other resources you may find useful.

Art & poetry

Artists Respond To Brexit

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An interview with Bridget Anderson’ by Maja Sager, Sociologisk Forskning (2018)

Beyond the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’’ by Bridget Anderson, Social Europe (26 October 2022)

Imagining a world without borders’ by Bridget Anderson, TEDxEastEnd (22 September 2011)

Towards a new politics of migration with Bridget Anderson’ by Bridget Anderson, McMaster University (9 October 2019)

The rights of non-UK EU citizens living here are not a ‘done deal’. This is why’ by Alex Bulat, London School of Economics (27 February 2018)


Anderson, B. (2013). Us and Them?: The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control’. Oxford University Press.

Lulle, A., Moroşanu, L., & King, R. (2022). ‘Young EU Migrants in London in the Transition to Brexit. Taylor & Francis.

Koller, V., Kopf, S., & Miglbauer, M. (Eds.). (2019). ‘Discourses of Brexit’. London: Routledge.

Academic works

Anderson, B. (2017). ‘Towards a new politics of migration?’ Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Benson, M., & Lewis, C. (2019). ‘Brexit, British People of Colour in the EU-27 and everyday racism in Britain and Europe’. Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Duffy, B. (2014). ‘Perceptions and reality: Ten things we should know about attitudes to immigration in the UK’. The Political Quarterly.

King, R. (2021). ‘On Europe, immigration and Inequality: Brexit as a ‘wicked problem’’. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies.

Lulle, A., King, R., Dvorakova, V., & Szkudlarek, A. (2019). ‘Between disruptions and connections: ‘New’ European Union migrants in the United Kingdom before and after the Brexit’. Population, Space and Place.

Lulle, A., Moroşanu, L. & King, R. (2018) ‘And then came Brexit: Experiences and future plans of young EU migrants in the London region’. Population, Space and Place.

Sumption, M., Forde, C., Alberti, G. & Walsh, P. W. ‘How is the end of free movement affecting the low-wage labour force in the UK?’. The Migration Observatory, University of Oxford.

Wadsworth, J., Dhingra, S., Ottaviano, G. & Van Reenen, J. ‘Brexit and the impact of immigration on the UK’. London School of Economics & Political Science.


Maggie Perzyna

Welcome to Borders & Belonging, a podcast that explores issues in global migration and aims to debunk myths about migration based on current research. This series is produced by CERC migration and openDemocracy. I'm Maggie Perzyna, a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Today we're going to delve into Brexit, the 2016 referendum vote, where 52% of the voters in the United Kingdom decided the UK should leave the European Union. Many believe concerns about immigration and migration are what drove those results. In this episode, two leading experts will weigh in on the powerful rhetoric and myths about migrants that influenced how Britons voted, and if those views are still held today. But first, we'll speak to someone who has seen firsthand the effects of Brexit on migrant communities in the UK.

Maggie Perzyna

Alexandra Bulat had been living in England for four years when the Brexit referendum happened. After getting over the initial shock of the UK's decision to leave the European Union. She came to the realization that her experience as a Romanian in the UK had been different in so many ways for many of her fellow students.

Alexandra Bulat

What was really interesting for me was how after finding out the result of Brexit, how a lot of my friends who are from Western European countries, so my friends, who were then students from France or Germany, or other countries felt quite shocked by the result, and they were saying, 'Well, you know, is the first time I feel like I'm a migrant in the UK. Like I'm not welcomed, or I'm not wanted in the UK, as a person.' And for me personally, of course, I moved in the UK in 2012, so four years before the referendum and to be honest, I have always felt as a migrant because I did encounter people who had quite negative views about Romanians. It was not as if we were all in this big EU family of everyone loving each other.

Maggie Perzyna

The more Alexandra thought about this discrepancy between how she and her friends felt, the more she realized that there was a difference in the national rhetoric surrounding migrants from different places.

Alexandra Bulat

There was this kind of constructed hierarchy of some migrants from certain countries are less desirable, perhaps than others. You know, like we do prefer, for instance, having the brightest and the best as the rhetoric goes in the government, the brightest and the best migrants coming in the UK and working specific jobs that are associated in kind of popular stereotypes of specific nationalities. Whereas if you mentioned people working in construction, for instance, who are often branded as kind of those lower skilled, lower paid, undesirable migrants you automatically in your mind, think, oh, you know, like, the Polish construction worker or the Romanian construction worker.

Maggie Perzyna

The stereotypes made Alexandra feel uneasy, but in the face of Brexit, what was even more distressing, and imminent, was a question no one could really answer. What will happen to our rights?

Alexandra Bulat

At one point in 2016, in the aftermath of the referendum, no one knew the answer to that question. We just knew there will be a long period of negotiations. We knew that people's rights who were in the UK before Brexit will become bargaining chips in the negotiations and some people didn't even know this. Some people actually wrongly thought they have to leave the UK, or they can't continue their lives in the UK anymore. So, there was a period of uncertainty of deep uncertainty and a period where everyone was quite anxious.

Maggie Perzyna

Even though she was worried. Alexandra also knew that she was lucky compared to many other EU migrants.

Alexandra Bulat

I was living in Cambridge, I was connected to a university, I was fluent in English, I had a lot of privilege that a lot of people you know, that I interacted with, didn't necessarily have access to same information. Our university informed us about Brexit updates and so on. So, my first thing was to be how can I inform people around me who don't have the same access to information?

Maggie Perzyna

First thing she did was sign up to volunteer with the3million, a grassroots organization created to protect the rights of people who have made the UK their home. The more she worked as an activist, the more Alexandra realized that all the issues really boiled down to one thing - power - and that motivated her to keep going

Alexandra Bulat

I think that's kind of what I was really focused on. What really made me passionate about activism is actually that information is power. And if you don't have information about your rights and you don't have accurate information about your rights in the UK, you're more likely to end up in exploitative conditions at work, you're more likely to be taken advantage of, you're more likely to end up in very precarious circumstances.

Maggie Perzyna

Throughout the course of our volunteer work. Alexander also realized just how deeply many families would be affected by Brexit, especially families that didn't have enough access to information about the EU settlement scheme.

Alexandra Bulat

It will always remember this example of this, Romanian woman who came to an information stall I was volunteering at in in Cambridge where I lived. It was before the pandemic. And then I asked her who okay, you applied for status. She applied for the status, she got the status.

Maggie Perzyna

Then she asked the woman if she had children. The woman said yes, so Alexandra asked if her children had applied for status. The woman looked extremely confused.

Alexandra Bulat

There was this miss-assumption amongst many people I met that they're my children, the state knows, so they will automatically get the status. But in reality, there's a really stressful situation to come across this because this meant that if this child, then they grew up, they're 16. They start their first job in summer, and then they will be asked, please prove your rights to work or immigration status and then they can find out often after many years in the country, that they are actually unlawful or unlawfully resident in the UK and then effectively lose all their rights, the rights to rent, the right to work, the right to health care. So, it is yeah, it is really, really worrying to think how many people are still in that circumstance.

Maggie Perzyna

In May 2021 Aleksandra Boulet was elected as labor counselor representing Abby on Cambridgeshire County Council, where she continued to bring her lived experience and passion for migrants’ rights to her work. Our thanks to Alexandra for bringing her perspective from the field.

Maggie Perzyna

To discuss the tangled issues around Brexit and migration, I have Professor Bridget Anderson, director of the Bristol Institute on Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol and Professor Aija Lulle, senior lecturer in Human Geography, Loughborough University. Thank you both for joining me.

Maggie Perzyna

Migration was a point of tension between the UK in the EU for some time before Brexit. How did migration factor into the British leave campaign and what fueled the swell of anti-migration rhetoric in Britain?

Bridget Anderson

When we're thinking about how migration plays in Britain, and I think particularly in England, I think that we do always have to think about race and how migrants are racialized and how migration and nationality can be in some ways, a coded way of talking about race. So, I think that in the Leave campaign, in a way, there were two kinds of aspects of it. So, one was a kind of fantasy of Britain, its past glories, the British Empire, Britain ruling the world, you know, and you know, and but now "we" (we in inverted commas) were part of the EU and a kind of sideline power. And the other was related, which has kind of obviously, heavily racist implications. And then on the other hand, there was also this idea that they were basically too many migrants coming to Britain, and that, that needed to be stopped in some way. And the, again (in inverted scare quotes), "we" needed to get control back of our borders. And those were both elements of those, which in some ways you could say were contradictory. Were played on very heavily by the Leave campaign.

Aija Lulle

Yes, yeah. I can just say how Bridget just said. Definitely we need to talk about racialization. During the Leave campaign, and we need to talk about that migration was made - specifically made - as a fundamental issue during the Leave campaign. Precisely with these phrases and tropes that Britain is full, that Britain is like a container that is full and overflowing and getting our control back to our borders. And specifically, I want to say, that I myself, I was born still during the Soviet Union times, and I did not choose where I was born, and I did not choose to be born in a totalitarian country that did not allow any migration. I really felt that our research participants they experienced this racialization towards Eastern European migrants.

Maggie Perzyna

Professor Anderson, you write a lot in your research about the fact that the preoccupation with migration during Brexit is really about global inequality. How do these tie together?

Bridget Anderson

So, I suppose I think, that it's as I mentioned, I think that there is this sense of Britain becoming you know, as once ruling the world and becoming more marginalized. And I think that is something that is experienced by people in Britain as they see their lives getting tougher, and their incomes declining. And the welfare state which let's not forget was also kind of a product that was financed by imperialism, even though it's imagined as a kind of national achievement. But I think there is this kind of sense of decline and increasing impoverishment. And I think that there is a sense in the UK of there basically being not enough to go around. And as you feel like, you know, a sense of well, I'm in a relatively rich country, and yet I'm barely making do and I look out at the rest of the world and say, hey, there's a lot of people who are a hell of a lot worse off than I am. And so, I need to hold on to this, to the little that I have. And I think that anxiety, which was deliberately fueled by the vote Leave by the different vote Leave campaigns. And I think it is a component in fear of migration. So, I think rather than looking out at the world and seeing what the challenges that people might have in common and seeing the kind of ever greater and increasing inequality between the super-rich and the getting by, as something which should, you know, encourage allegiances and alliances with migrants, it was actually used to divide British citizens from migrants.

Bridget Anderson

Professor Lulle, you refer to 'invisible migrants' made visible after Brexit in your research. What do you mean by that and what is life like for migrants after Brexit?

Aija Lulle

We are talking here about cultural racialization and ethnicization because during the Brexit campaign, we really saw the evidence that specific ethnicities were highlighted, especially Romanians, as 'Others' and as not quite white, but also it went towards the Polish people and Others. So seemingly European migrants they could blend into being British quite invisible as being white but then through this Brexit campaign, they were made as - they were racialized - and they were made visible