At the No More War event at Parliament Square in August. A Creative Commons stock photo.

Many months on since the Brexit vote, Online Comment & Opinion Editor Ruth Murphy, looks at how issues of race and immigration are affecting students in the UK.

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We have all heard about how Brexit is to affect the economy, international relations, European politics, and job opportunities in the UK but everything about the future of Brexit is incredibly uncertain. Unfortunately, we cannot say what is to come but we can look at what is happening now. Two related issues that have reared their head since the Brexit vote are race and immigration. To see how these affect daily life this article will focus on the microcosm that is university life.

Farage also endorsed a poster showing a queue of migrants bearing the words “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all.”

First, some context. Around the time of the Brexit vote many people who voiced support for leaving the EU claimed that they wanted to “control” immigration. Nigel Farage opens an article in the Telegraph from before the referendum with this line: “the results of Ipsos-MORI’s new poll are astounding – yet unsurprising. They describe the real concern that the majority of British people have for uncontrolled immigration: half of the respondents rank it as one of their biggest worries, compared with just over a quarter who said their greatest fear was the economy.”

Farage also endorsed a poster showing a queue of migrants bearing the words “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all.” This poster is clearly referring to the refugee crisis and implying that the UK cannot take in any more refugees. As one of the loudest supporters of Brexit, the leader of the UK Independence Party has expressed a major bias against immigration and. with the support he received in his push for Brexit. it may be the case that some voters were against it too.

He defends himself, as quoted in the Guardian, by saying that “to pretend that migration to the UK is only about people who are not white is to peddle the racism that has no place in a modern, caring society.” While he may be trying to avoid the label of ‘racist’ here it seems that he is simply highlighting that he is not just against people of colour entering the UK but is against anyone who is not from the UK entering it. He was widely reported as referring to Brexit as UK’s “Independence Day.” As ironic as it is to hear of a country that once ruled most of the world seeking ‘independence,’ it is likely that his thoughts were echoed by some voters.

Since the referendum there have been many reports of increases in racist crimes in the UK with the British newspaper the Independent, reporting a 41% increase in hate crimes. The international issues of immigration and racism are affecting people at a local level. It would seem that people who voted out of racism now believe that many others did too and that therefore that is ok.

“I am constantly more conscious of my race and the more hostile environment we live in.”

The University Observer spoke to two students studying in England about their experiences with Brexit and its aftermath. Harry Smith*, a British student at University of Manchester voted to remain but admits he had his reservations. He states that “after refusing to restructure Greece’s debt and forcing it into austerity which in turn led to depressed wages and living standards, I didn’t see the appeal of the union. But once the campaign began it was the reminders of its efforts to unite what was once a continent constantly at war with itself that struck a chord with me.”

Sonia Tanna is a British student studying in University College London who would have voted to remain in the EU had she not been in South America at the time of the vote. She believes that many people did vote for Brexit with race in mind but adds that “I am also very aware that not everyone voted for Brexit just due to racism.” Smith expressed similar views to Tanna. He told the Observer that while some people did consider race when voting “I don’t consider racism to be the major, or even a significant contributing factor. However, there was definitely a nasty stench of nationalism lingering around. Is that a form of racism? There was a truly awful ‘us and them’ mentality to the debate… Posters hung about town ‘they do this’, ‘they do that’. It was very different to, say, the 2015 General Election.”

The significance of the role of racism in the Brexit campaign is difficult to gauge but it is clear that divisions formed that would had not have formed during other British referenda, or elections.

Both students said that their day to day life remains mostly unchanged since the vote but Tanna, who is of Indian descent, commented that “unlike before, in encounters with the public, I feel like some people are racist and am always scared they’re going to make a racial slur, and I am constantly more conscious of my race and the more hostile environment we live in.”

India is, however, not a member of the EU but a member of the commonwealth and so leaving the EU should have no effect on Indian people living in the UK. Nonetheless, the racism spread by the leave campaign has still managed to create fear among people from commonwealth countries. With racist attacks featuring in the news and Trump producing his own tirade against immigration it is not surprising that one could feel more self-conscious about the colour of their skin or the sound of their voice or language. Indeed, one man in the UK reported being attacked “after he was heard speaking Polish,” as detailed in the Independent UK.

Smith draws on this comparison with Trump: “The reality is things have changed since that fateful US presidential election. Brexit has somehow… become entwined with the election of Trump. Both are now considered a rise against the establishment, anti-EU, and anti-liberal. Now every European election seems to be pitting the establishment against the populists.” There is a global trend developing of anti-establishment, anti-liberal politics and Brexit was just the beginning. As with Brexit, racism is involved but not all Trump supporters or anti-establishment European voters are voting to defeat, as Farage pens it, “uncontrolled immigration.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for Europeans to have moved here and then become unsure of their status in our country during their degree.”

While Tanna says that she has not noticed a huge difference at her university since the Brexit vote she admits that “being in London I feel generally a bit more protected/at ease.” One might recall that the majority of London voters voted to remain in the EU. The main issue at university with Brexit is for international students and staff. “So many of my friends have to consider Brexit in their future career and academic considerations,” explains Tanna, “and it is a genuine worry for so many who want to stay in the UK. Similarly for international teachers.”

Just as is currently happening in the US, people feel their status in the UK to be threatened by Brexit. Smith says “I can’t imagine what it’s like for Europeans to have moved here and then become unsure of their status in our country during their degree. Will fees go up, will they have to get visas? They can only speculate.” The future of UK relations with Europe are very uncertain and if people voted for Brexit not just to escape the EU, but also to escape immigration, that could threaten the status of people from outside the EU. This means that immigrants must not only worry about their legal status in the country, but also how they will be accepted by the wider population, even if they have lived in the UK for a long period of time.

“I just feel that Brexit has exposed dormant racism, and almost given people an excuse to reveal it, as if there is a mandate of sorts that many people feel the same way.”

One might think that such divisions and any acts of racism would be a call to action for university students but Smith believes this to be far from the truth. “Here’s the thing about universities. They are perceived to be hotspots of political activity, student politics is often the subject of many a think piece in the broadsheets, SUs across the country running passionate campaigns, speaking out on sometimes particularly controversial topics. But the reality is there is still a lack of political community, campus is not intrinsically political, you would have to seek it out yourself at particular societies or events.”

It is not clear how Brexit will affect students when it is finally enacted. While many are unhappy with the Brexit vote the majority of UK voters supported it and so despite the uncertainty and negative effects it has already had, it does not look like any of the current issues with Brexit are going to be solved any time soon.

Tanna states that “I just feel that Brexit has exposed dormant racism, and almost given people an excuse to reveal it, as if there is a mandate of sorts that many people feel the same way.”
Brexit has forced people to acknowledge the hostility many British people feel towards immigration. Students in the UK do not know what is coming and may be now forced to face ignorance and xenophobia, and in some cases uncertainty about their own legal status and their future in education. For the most part however, life goes on as it did before.

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*Name has been changed at the request of the speaker.