Monday, 16 March 2015 00:00

EU migrants in the UK: what the 2015 election will mean for them

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Photo: Paul; Licence: CC BY 2.0

Italian vespa in Durham, UK


Immigration is a hot topic in the UK and the current political campaign is no exception. In the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 7 May 2015, politicians from different wings are getting tougher on EU migrants. Focusing mainly on migrants coming from Southern Europe and, especially, on the Italian community living in the UK, E&M's author Nicoletta Enria takes us through some of the scenarios about how this election could affect EU migrants and their lives in a country where they don't have the right to vote.


From the time of the Roman Empire to Ellis Island and now taking to the streets of London, Italians have always been known to migrate and make their presence known throughout the world. As youth unemployment in Italy soars, hitting a staggering 43.9% in November 2014, young Italians cannot help but feel anger, disappointment and resentment towards a system that offers them no hope and begin to look for a brighter future abroad. This swarm of educated youngsters, the "escaping brains" as they are known in Italy due to the fact that many of them have university degrees, are now predominantly settling in the UK. Officially, there are said to be 600 thousand Italians today in the UK, of which 60% are under the age of 35. What is life like for all these hopeful young Italians in the UK and how will the potential outcomes of the UK General Elections in May affect them?


In Italy, partially due to the role of the press in glorifying the UK and Germany, young Italians are brought up believing that all hope lies in migrating there. More and more hopeful Italians are travelling to the UK and finding themselves living in squalid, cheap hostels to avoid transport costs and expensive rent. Paid minimum wage, sometimes even less, they are ideal for low-income jobs as they provide big companies with cheap labour. In their dream for a better life not just Italian migrants, but also Portuguese, Spanish and Greek youngsters are facing this similar unexpected economic hardship, in an attempt to escape the financial crisis in their home countries. There is also a large community of young Italians studying at British boarding schools and universities in an attempt to profit from one of the best education systems in Europe and broaden their opportunities to obtain jobs in more places around the world. With a growing anti-immigration discourse in the UK, seen in articles such as this one by the Sun referring to Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Spanish migrants as "PIGS [that] are here to stay", integration is a privilege that not all of these young migrants have. Despite this, plenty of Italian migrants I have spoken to, myself included, thoroughly enjoy living the UK and feel fully integrated in their home away from home.

Most parties are proposing to reduce EU immigration with an especially tough approach on welfare. With the increasing support that UKIP (UK Independence Party) is receiving with their notorious, extremely anti-immigration agenda, and a Brexit appearing to be a concrete probability, the UK does not seem as hospitable and ideal as expected


Recent statistics have shown that three quarters of people in Britain favour reducing immigration, thus explaining the recent shock response to the news of UK net migration had risen to 298 000, three times higher than current British Prime Minister David Cameron had promised. This grand scale immigration has led to a growing anti-immigration discourse, making many politicians turn to Brexit.


With the increasing support that UKIP (UK Independence Party) is receiving with their notorious, extremely anti-immigration agenda, and a Brexit appearing to be a concrete probability, the UK does not seem as hospitable and ideal as expected. The Conservative party and UKIP have promised that a referendum on EU membership will take place by 2017 if they win the elections, sending a loud and clear message to Italian and other EU migrants that we "PIGS" may in fact not be here to stay. The Labour party and Liberal Democrats have openly opposed the referendum, but mainly based on the economic repercussions of it. Immigration is a hot topic in the UK, and the candidates for the May general election are fully aware they will have to juggle appeasing the British public and keeping within EU regulations about workers' freedom of movement.


Italian bar


Photo: Astonishme; Licence: CC BY 2.0

Italian bar in Soho, London


Most parties are proposing to reduce EU immigration with an especially tough approach on welfare. Cameron had previously attempted to reduce the principle of freedom of movement within the EU and was halted by the then president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said that this was non-negotiable. Therefore, the Conservative party is taking a different approach by allowing EU migrants to come, but limiting their eligibility for state support as they lose entitlement to any form of benefits after being jobless for six months in the UK. Cameron also plans to impose tougher rules on EU migrants bringing partners from outside of the Union. Similarly, Labour suggest that in-work benefits should only be paid to EU migrants after two years of unemployment but also promise to ban recruitment agencies that only recruit people from abroad. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats promise to limit the eligibility of EU migrants to obtain benefits, by stating that EU migrants can only receive Universal Credit (a single benefit that is paid to you if your income falls below a certain level) after six months of unemployment and that will only be paid for six months. Naturally, it is UKIP who are planning to be the harshest of all against Italians and all EU migrants by placing a five-year ban on people coming to settle in Britain whilst immigration policy is sorted out, and that EU migrants are only entitled to permanent residence in the UK after 10 years of residence. All these claims are supposed to deter EU migrants from wanting to move to the UK, thus a subtle attempt to reduce EU immigration.


What does this pragmatically mean for Italians and other EU migrants in the UK? In a nutshell, it's not looking up for us. It means workers will be able to come and work at the lowest paid jobs without much regulation, paying taxes but obtaining no kind of safety net from the welfare support system. The truth is, less than 10% of all EU migrants in the UK claim any kind of welfare in the first place. The Migrants' Rights Network speaks of the disappointment of these proposals from UK parties in their missed opportunity to reframe the public conversation about EU migration and focus on enforcing a minimum wage for all. What's most frustrating of all is that only British citizens can vote in British general elections, thus leaving the fate of all EU migrants in the UK completely out of their own hands. Nothing is yet set in stone, but one thing is for sure is that the stability of EU migrants in the UK will be put into question this May and all we EU migrants in the UK, like all migrants during election time in their respective host EU countries, can do is sit and watch. 

Last modified on Monday, 16 March 2015 21:24
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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