Image for the article on Brexit and migration. The EU flag against a metal fence and a white building in Britain.
English Kriittinen tila

The Brexit Geographies – an interview with Dr Kathy Burrell

Lukuaika: 10 min.

This interview was originally published in Finnish in the Geographical Journal Terra.
Haastattelu on julkaistu suomeksi maantieteellisessä aikakauskirja Terrassa.

After the 23rd June 2016 referendum that indicated the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, an avalanche of circumstances and positionings have emerged, often related to a few, reoccurring themes that are cutting through communalities in both domestic and professional aspects of people’s lives. Brexit, as the occurrence has become known as, has been described by several scholars, both geographers and others, as being more than just an event in history. Many human geographers that have written about Brexit have discussed the emerging narratives of many angles related to us and others, including questions about racism, hidden racism, experiences of whiteness, definitions of ‘immigrants’ and ‘immigration’, definitions of home, re-evaluations of places from place identity and sense of places’ point of view, forced or voluntary mobilities and relocations, geopolitics, rights to place, division of regional and cultural identities, distribution of economic welfare and the influence it might have had to the result of the referendum, to name but a few.

Only by glancing through the topics already covered it is clear that Brexit is, and will be, more than just a result of a vote or a way to implement politics; it will have a much longer-lasting impact on many societies on multiple levels – despite the final outcome of Brexit (as it has not yet happened by the time of writing this; and the discussions about the exit deal are now on the table.)

One of the most striking themes that has emerged and that has been presenting itself from many angles is the situation of both other EU nationals in the UK and non-EU nationals in the wider narratives related to immigrants and immigration in general. While the status quo has, for decades, been more or less seemingly stable, with the underlying narratives about racism and anti-immigration present, the Brexit referendum suddenly opened the Pandora’s box and brought with itself juxtapositions that had not been so prevailingly portrayed in everyday discussions, attitudes or in the media. Many minorities from other EU countries, especially from small countries and areas with a shorter history of EU-membership-based mobility rights and UK-oriented migration, e.g. the Finns, the Poles, the Estonians and people from elsewhere in the Baltic region, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe were suddenly faced with being questioned about their right to be in the UK.

Before, the EU umbrella had been something that gave them a status of Europeans, at least to some extent (even though e.g. the Poles have faced several types of racism-related issues in the UK when they first started relocating after Poland joined the EU in 2004). Minorities that had faced a relatively small amount of hostility during their settlement in the UK, e.g. the Finns, now had to start re-negotiating their position in the UK and their relationships with both UK and Finland, as thoughts about being forced to return to their countries of origin were recurrently put on the table. Racism, that had quite often been perceived as happening to ‘other people’, was now a reality for them as well.

The division has not been restricted to immigrants alone, but has also been spreading more visibly throughout the United Kingdom, highlighting areas where results indicated people favouring Brexit and areas that wanted to remain in the EU, causing the country to plunge into turbulence.

Dr Kathy Burrell, Reader in Human Geography in the School of Environmental Sciences in the university of Liverpool, has researched Brexit especially from the point of view of Polish nationals in the UK. She shared some of her views about the geographies of Brexit.

How would you describe BREXIT as a phenomenon from a Human Geographer’s point of view?

Brexit is turning out to be a hugely complex phenomenon, and it is getting more complicated all the time. As a human geographer so many issues come to mind. You are right about the multiscalar aspect – it is something which is felt very personally, has been talked about in local and regional terms (e.g. ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ towns, north/south divides), has real national implications for the UK, in terms of Scottish independence, the Northern Ireland peace process, and is also profoundly geopolitical too, pushing the UK into new political alliances, and taking us out of the governance of the EU, possibly straining and redrawing those European alliances and trade links. There are so many implications – the emotional and relational fallout for people, the practical, infrastructural issues surrounding new bordering processes and new transport deals. How are EU citizens going to be treated at the border? What is going to happen to the ports, or the European based low-cost air carriers, for example, if the UK leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which governs aviation? These are all issues for geographers to think about. There is also something important happening to that relationship people have with politicians – trust issues, how people get their information, how it is shared. This is not unique to the UK at all of course, but I think Human Geography, along with other disciplines, allows you to take these things together, to see how they cut across each other, and to see how they will affect different people differently.

You have done extensive research on for example Polish nationals in the UK. What would you say is the most drastic BREXIT-related impact on them?

The main fieldwork for our project (funded by The Research Council of Norway) took place at the end of 2017, start of 2018, when Brexit was ‘there but not there’ almost, in people’s lives. Even then though, we heard about how people have been made to feel unwelcome (‘why are you still here, we thought we’d sent you home’), the anxieties people had about the future. But other people were angry and resistant too, and incredulous that the UK would want to repel low wage foreign labour especially – who is going to do those jobs? ‘Surely they are not going to be stupid enough to kick us out’.

Looking at the situation now, the parameters have shifted again. Settled status was not really on the radars of our participants at the time of our fieldwork, but I imagine it is becoming more of an issue now. There are lots of concerns about whether people know they need to register, and the ‘burden of proof’ needed to be accepted as ‘settled’. Settled Status mirrors the EU freedom of movement treaty in that it requires evidence of work, and has a strong ‘criminality’ clause – it is conditional citizenship.

There are also a host of practical issues – the system is only compatible with some phones for example. At the moment people are also not being given solid documents to show they have been awarded this status either, so will have no papers to show at the border. There are also concerns about the status of children, and whether a future ‘Windrush scandal’ is brewing, on a larger scale again. The latest threat to halt freedom of movement on Oct 31st suggests even more sinister consequences and has caused yet more confusion about the application process.

What we did find in our research too, was that Brexit itself was intersecting with other issues. The wider ‘hostile environment’ agenda of the Conservative government, and concerted welfare bordering practices, were impacting on the less economically secure participants already, and people were noticing that they had to provide proof of their nationality and status in different situations – at the doctors, in the bank etc. People trying to apply for citizenship, because of Brexit fears, also found that the process has become hugely expensive and difficult – over 80 pages long. So while Poles, as EU citizens, had been protected from a lot of these changes – the more intense everyday bordering practices – they were still being affected by them in different ways.

BREXIT has a tremendous, accumulating impact on the relationships people have with places – when looking at both native Brits and immigrants in the UK and British immigrants in EU countries and also globally, as well as the ties between British-based immigrants and their sending countries, the impact can really be seen as resulting in a global shift in their senses of place. Have you noticed this (people (re)considering their relationships with UK and Poland/country of origin simultaneously; and perhaps even on a more global scale (relationships with places in general) in your research?

To a certain extent, there were lots of discussions about how it doesn’t feel like home so much anymore. But these were juxtaposed with discussions about how people still didn’t want to return to Poland either, and yes, perhaps using that freedom of movement to move elsewhere within the EU. But while there has been a lot of media coverage of people returning, or moving elsewhere, we did seem to find more people who have made the UK home, have children in school etc., and don’t feel they want to, or should have to, move. But definitely a lot of damage has been done. People are perhaps less confident speaking Polish in the streets, less trustful of people around them, and yes it looks like it has raised new questions about staying, and the future, which maybe weren’t so pressing before.

Through the prism of ‘place’ in the BREXIT context, several types of positionings come through from many pieces written by geographers and other scholars. These have ranged from e.g. right to place, mobility privileges, several types of categorising ‘us’ and ‘others’ and varied discourses related to immigration and racism and racialisation. One of the perhaps less expected, but now increasingly prominent, discourse has emerged that is highlighted by Human Geographers – racism and anti-immigrant attitudes through the experience of whiteness.
What would you say are the most striking characteristics about this positioning that you have come across in your research? (e.g. the experience of being a white immigrant.)

We looked at this specifically in our project, and, again, it was complicated. Being white, and being an EU citizen, has ensured really significant protections for our participants, in a climate of hardened bordering practices. Other groups have been subject to such a range of bordering tactics – income tests, health fees, deportations, as well as ongoing racial profiling at borders etc. – and there has been some understandable push back I think against the feeling that people are only now suddenly becoming concerned about the hostile environment agenda, now that it is impacting on (white) EU citizens. But we found that whiteness is only a protection to a certain extent. As other research has found, there has been an increase in xenophobia and hate crime, and Poles have been targets in many ways – media discourse as well as violence. We found too that whiteness offers limited protections in certain situations, and is mitigated by socio-economic status. So a white Polish homeless man is far more likely to be picked up by police than a white English homeless man, for example. Just being foreign, with a foreign name and accent, can make life trickier in the Job Centre – staff are less aware of rights etc. There have been discussions too about hierarchies of whiteness – a sense that northern/western Europeans are treated better, with Poles sitting in the middle – considered eastern, and all the orientalising tropes that resurrects, but not as ‘other’ as Romanians and Bulgarians. So whiteness is undoubtedly a privilege in the UK context, in terms of living as a migrant under the hostile environment regime, but not an absolute one – this privilege is intersectional and can easily be eroded.

BREXIT has also brought into light another angle of whiteness and racism – the so called ‘left-behinds’, referring to the Leave voters that are generally seen as consisting of representatives from the white, native British working class and who are generally being held responsible for the referendum result. It has been discussed that while their behaviour could be seen as anti-immigration/immigrants, it could, in fact, be more of an attempt to hold on to the UK’s past and their past, shared senses of place. Do you share this view?

Not entirely – research has shown that a large proportion of leave voters were middle class and southern. I think class intersects in different ways here, and it is important to remember the fact that the working class in the UK is very racially diverse. I think there is a lot to say about postcolonial nostalgia though, the idea that Britain was great, that it won the second World War, and can go it alone again – which of course is a world view which leaves out crucial aspects of coloniality and the complicated alliances and power dynamics which shaped the war. But I get the sense that this image of a Britain which was great cuts across class, and has actually been perpetuated by more privileged classes, and taken up by key sections of the tabloid press. Brexit comes after decades of circulation of anti-EU stories and anti-German slants (football games etc.) – so there has been a widespread and embedded sense of Britain standing apart and being superior to a strange, bureaucratic continental Europe for a long time.

What would you say are the main differences between the pre- and post-BREXIT anti-immigrant climates in the UK? Are there notable differences e.g. between certain immigrant groups? (e.g. in attitudes towards them or in their own attitudes)

I think the main change has been just generally louder anti-immigrant sentiment, and this slipping into the mainstream more. It seems to be less ‘beyond the pale’ to be openly racist now, and it feels like this is more likely to manifest violently. Part of this has been a rise in hostility to groups not previously singled out so much, such as different Europeans, but of course people of colour are still likely to feel the brunt of this the most. There does seem to be more vocal intolerance generally – anti LGBT sentiment, Islamophobia. But there is still solidarity out there, this does not represent the whole of the UK by any means. I think it is a minority who feel emboldened to act in this way, it is just they are making more noise, and getting more airtime.

BREXIT has been, in some discussions, also seen as a platform to open broader discussions about the structural characteristics of immigration policies, underlying ‘silent’ racism, the whole concept of ‘Europeanness’ and also several other types of scales or categories (e.g. class, types of neighbourhoods and spatial differences in understanding e.g. inequality).
How do you see geographers can contribute to the understanding of BREXIT and its vast consequences?

As before, geographers take these multiscalar aspects as central, and I think that is crucial, understanding how the pieces all fit together and overlap. There is a lot of work for geographers to do to unpack the geopolitical fallouts of Brexit – where this leaves the UK in a post-Brexit world of climate crisis, rising populism and nationalism. Geographers are also especially well-placed to scrutinise what Brexit means for bordering and infrastructure – how will people move around, who will be impeded and who will not? And of course there is more to contribute to understandings of the nuances of the emotional fallout and the new identity politics being shaped, again at different scales.

To find out more about Brexit and migration, read Dr Burrell and colleagues’ publications:
Brexit, race and migration
Conditional Citizens and Hostile Environments: Polish Migrants in Pre-Brexit Britain


Dr Kathy Burrell

Dr Kathy Burrell is a Reader in Human Geography in the School of Environmental Sciences in the
university of Liverpool. She has researched Brexit especially from the point of view of Polish nationals in the UK.

Evi-Carita Riikonen

Evi-Carita Riikonen is a PhD candidate in Human Geography in the University of Eastern Finland. Her research focuses on human – place relationship and especially on the development of the sense of place in translocal contexts. Her research topic is related to Finns living in the UK.