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11 September 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:02am

Britain’s eight million ethnic minorities are still being ignored over Brexit

Despite being “wined and dined” by Brexiteers before the referendum, the UK’s minority population has been largely ignored in the whole process. 

By Zubaida Haque

The waning public interest in a second Brexit referendum may lead one to think that the public no longer care about the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, but the Independent’s “Final Say” petition has now reached three-quarters of a million signatures from the public in support of having a say in any Brexit deal secured by Theresa May by March 2019. Undoubtedly, the public are close to Brexit-fatigue, but with the latest Chequers Brexit plan declared “already dead” by the former education Secretary, Justine Greening, it’s clear that the public still have a strong interest in the outcome of the Brexit process.

This is particularly true of Britain’s eight million ethnic minorities, who despite having been “wined and dined” by Brexiteers before the referendum with promises of more work permits for non-EU countries, have been largely ignored in the whole process. In fact, the only time ethnic minorities became important to the Brexit discussions was when post-referendum police statistics revealed a spike in hate crimes against them. Boris Johnson’s controversial Brexit jibe at the Prime Minister this weekend that she was putting a “suicide vest around the British constitution” was simply the latest example of dog-whistle racism in relation to Brexit.

We now know that the 2016 Brexit referendum highlighted (and arguably exacerbated) substantial social divisions within the UK, including a significant split between BME and white voters: a little over half (53 per cent) of white voters chose to leave the EU compared to a quarter of the BME population who voted Leave. And these ethnic divisions also obscured significant differences among the black, Asian and ethnic minority groups. A more detailed analysis of the BME block vote reveals a third of British Asians voted Leave (mostly men, mostly older groups and most notably Indian Hindus), compared to a quarter of black Caribbean, black African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters – although even this pattern differs across the regions.

In contrast, motivations for Remain were more similar between ethnic minorities and their white counterparts, with more emphasis on rights, environmental regulation and more positive feelings about freedom of movement. Even on immigration, there was some overlap between BME and white communities, with the former expressing some concerns about the perceived economic impact of new migrants despite academic evidence showing otherwise.

However, one important factor that is often missed, according to the academic researcher Neema Begum, is how the xenophobic and racist sentiments of the Leave campaign motivated a significant proportion of ethnic minorities to vote “against Leave” due to bigotry rather than “for Remain” as an endorsement of the EU.

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Another reason for Brexit votes among ethnic minorities (something which Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and Brexiteers exploited) was the resentment of the apparent ease with which “white Europeans” could bring over spouses compared to BME people from the African, Asian and Caribbean countries.

This is not an insignificant issue for BME communities and if there was a referendum on the final terms of Brexit, it would continue to be a key factor in BME votes. This is because the current immigration regime resembles a two-tier system between EU migrants and non-EU migrants with ethnic minorities from non-EEA countries (including the Commonwealth) significantly worse off (with regards to punishing minimum income requirements, visa requirements and minimum income thresholds to bring in spouses and other members of the family).

In addition, Britain’s ethnic minorities, who already experience substantial racial and religious discrimination in the labour market, will be concerned about how the Brexit negotiations may weaken their positions further in the labour market, and widen the racial inequality gap. What is particularly at risk for ethnic minorities is equality protections, which have hitherto been supported by EU laws, including laws around equal pay and fairer treatment for those on part-time, temporary or agency contracts.

While the UK Equality Act 2010 legally guards people with protected characteristics (eg gender, ethnicity, disability) from discrimination within the workplace, it is important to recognise that the Equality Act is not protected by a constitutional bill of rights, meaning that parliament could easily repeal or undermine the fundamental right to equality once Britain has left the EU. Together with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) secret pacts between the EU (including the UK) and the US, which reduces the “regulatory barriers” for large private companies and transfer more power to the corporations with regards to employee rights and regulations, ethnic minorities – who are already more likely to be in insecure or zero hour contracts are significantly likely to be worse off in terms employment, workers’ rights, safety and guaranteed hours.

Britain’s ethnic minorities, still bruised by the substantial increase in hate crime against them (as well as Muslims and new migrants) during and after the EU referendum, will also be looking for significant reassurance from Theresa May that her party will not be trading their interests (and security) for an influx of new Ukip members, once described by David Cameron as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

The current inter-Conservatives civil war over Chequers highlights once again how Brexit has become an intra-party debate, rather than one based on views and interests on the ground. It’s also problematic that the recent “no deal” impact papers published look at different sectors of the economy, but not at different sections of the population with regards to equality impact assessments. All in all its glaringly clear that decisions about Brexit in relation to immigration, the labour market and trade continue to exclude a sixth of Britain’s population.

Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @zubhaque.

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