Guest blog – Brexit and attracting and retaining migrants in Scotland

Dr Paulina Trevena has recently published the results of her SPICe and University of Glasgow research project, ‘Attracting and retaining migrants in post-Brexit Scotland: is a social integration strategy the answer?’ Here, she explores how the Brexit vote has impacted on migrants living in Scotland, and on Scotland’s prospects for attracting migrants.

More information about the project is available from Dr Trevena’s earlier blog posts from 26 February and  28 June.

As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.

EU migration currently plays a significant role in Scotland’s population and economic growth, especially in rural areas. However, migration flows from the EU are projected to decline as a result of Brexit.

But what are the impacts of Brexit on migrants already living in Scotland, and how does it affect their – and prospective migrants’ – future decisions?

Insecurities created by Brexit

After the Brexit vote, EU citizens suddenly found themselves in a legal limbo, uncertain about their rights post-Brexit and how these will affect their lives, and futures, in the UK. However, the insecurity is not just about legal issues. The fact that the UK decided to leave the EU –  and the focus in the referendum campaign on immigration – has given rise to profound emotional insecurity among EU (and other) migrants.

First of all, migrants reported an increase in the levels of hostility towards them following the Brexit vote. Not all migrants actually experienced hostility, but many were wary of the risk. EU migrants felt they were no longer welcome in Britain.

The feeling migrants had of being settled and comfortable here has been taken away by political change. But broader societal reactions to Brexit also played a part:

“I never came across any hostility or any racial problems till the Brexit vote.  That was the first time in my life, in all my life in Britain and because of where I work and style I live in (…) I’m always surrounded with the nice people somehow, very rarely I meet aggravated and anxious people and really angry people.  But straight after the Brexit vote (…) I have come across comments which I would never like to hear again.  And it was the first two or three months were horrible.  I personally started to question the sense of why am I even bothering and trying [to grow my business and support local business development].” 

EU citizen and business owner, rural Scotland, interviewed individually

Brexit and migrants settled in Scotland

Many EU migrants feel insecure about their future in Scotland. In some cases, this impacts on their migration decisions: a number of people have left Scotland; others are thinking of going back home or moving to another country. As a result of Brexit, Scotland (as well as the UK in general) is seen as a generally less attractive place to live:

“All the Brexit things have been blown into big bubble and has brought lots of negative things for the people and we felt that. And I think it has made everyone think twice, do we really want to live here?  Do we really want to stay?  Was it really the right move to come here?” 

EU migrant, focus group participant in a rural area

Nevertheless, many people feel absolutely settled in Scotland. This is especially so for those who have been living in Scotland longer-term and whose children have grown up here. Migrants who have been resident in Scotland for a longer period of time feel fairly confident that they ‘will not be asked to leave’.

On the other hand, Brexit has strengthened the perception that Scotland is more welcoming and accepting of migration than England. Scotland’s majority vote to remain in the EU was seen as a reflection of an overall more positive attitude towards migrants:

“Compared to England Scotland is… it’s still international, but it’s also welcoming to foreigners. But also from Brexit results, from the referendum results we can see that it is not the same.”

“After seeing almost 60 per cent of Scottish people voted to stay in the European Union, I felt like wow, I’m safer here.”

International students, EU and non-EU, focus group participants in Glasgow

Migrants perceived that hostility towards them as a result of the Brexit vote existed in Scotland ‘to a much, much lesser extent than it did in England’.

The fact that the Scottish Government, as well as some local authorities, have kept a positive stance towards migration was viewed as helpful. While the mood around migration in the UK is negative, migrants felt the Scottish Government was making a real effort to support newcomers.

Brexit and attracting migrants

Employers in agriculture, food processing, hospitality and the care sector in particular have expressed concern over falling numbers of migrant workers since the Brexit vote. Population decline has also been noted in some local authorities which largely depend on migration for growing their population.

Some employers have drawn attention to the fact that Brexit has impacted on the perceptions of prospective migrants, such as seasonal workers. Scotland (and the UK) is no longer seen as a welcoming country.

The temporary drop in the value of the pound also meant Scotland became less economically attractive than other destinations within and beyond Europe. As a result, there have been labour shortages in some areas and businesses:

“We’ve felt an impact already because of the weakening of the pound, a lot of staff decided to go to Germany or to Ireland instead of the UK.” 

UK employer, hospitality, rural area, interviewed individually

Brexit may also affect migrant (as well as British) entrepreneurs. The legal and economic uncertainty around leaving the EU has meant some putting a hold on their business plans:

“After the Brexit vote, and still true today, the unknowing future, it’s pushed a handbrake into the development of my business, so basically the plans which I had before the Brexit vote and the five/ten year plan, they were all going ahead and steam out and going really quickly fast forward and then on the day of the Brexit vote and the following two months everything went on stop.” 

EU citizen and business owner, rural Scotland, interviewed individually

Although Brexit relates to leaving the EU, its impacts are much wider. It has influenced perceptions of, and societal attitudes to, both EU and non-EU migrants, creating an image of the UK (and Scotland within it) as a hostile country. Therefore, if Scotland is aiming to grow its population through migration, it needs to strengthen its image as a welcoming country.

Dr Paulina Trevena, University of Glasgow