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The Departing #1: The exodus of EU citizens will happen in 2018

If you work in science, academia, the NHS or other public services, you may have already noticed that EU citizens are leaving the UK in their thousands. By the end of next year, many more will have gone.

In the first of a series on the precarious situation of EU nationals in the UK since the Brexit vote, we look at those who are planning to leave.

You may have to go.
Look up removal companies, renew your passport, just in case. Begin remote job hunting. Talk to your landlord about not renewing your lease or look into selling your place. Will your kids finish the school year? Can your partner speak another language? Can you bring your pets? How do you open a bank account abroad? How do you transfer a business? How does healthcare work there? Pensions? Payslips?

Find out now. Because you may have to go.

These are some of the thoughts troubling EU citizens in the UK, as they wait to find out what, exactly, Brexit will mean for them. The number of EU nationals leaving Britain has risen this year, but the real exodus is expected in 2018. All the people interviewed for this piece have set themselves a “deadline”: by the end of next year, they’ll be out. After that, they say, no one knows what will happen.

Even some EU citizens born in the UK are planning to leave. At 25, Julien Hoez, a French national who was born in London, used to take European unity for granted. “I’m still a bit lost, it still doesn’t really make sense,” he says of Brexit, which he calls a “tragedy”. “My plan is entirely to leave because of how Brexit is turning out.”

In a cruel twist, Brexit itself is making the move harder: Hoez’s savings are being devalued by the fall of the pound, and if it continues to fall, he fears he will not be able to afford the move. “I may be stuck out of it.” Many of his friends are moving their money out of the country for precisely this reason, he says: “They don’t want to be punished for the British choice.”

Hoez is currently working as a barman and will soon begin a full-time position in fire brigade administration to make up his budget of £10,000 – what he thinks he needs if the exchange rate holds. Within a year, he wants to head to Brussels or Paris to study International Relations and, hopefully, work for the EU administration one day.

“My goal is to work on policy, to improve the strength of the EU, so I may not come back.”


“My plan is entirely to leave because of how Brexit is turning out.” 
Julien Hoez, French, born in London

It has even affected his love life, leading him to break up with his girlfriend of two years because he felt it was “disingenuous” to keep dating as he knew he would move to the EU soon. For Europeans in a relationship with Brits, Brexit is a minefield: move their partner – who may not speak their first language – and potential children abroad, or face an uncertain future.

Amanda Lindberg, who has lived in Exeter for three years, met her British wife while visiting her native Sweden, having moved to the UK when she was 18. Now they’re planning to leave the UK for Sweden again. Because of the income threshold that is imposed on foreign spouses, which Lindberg doesn’t meet, if her wife Sarah, who works as a nurse for the NHS, lost her job, they fear they would be forced to leave the country after Brexit if EU citizens' rights are not guaranteed.

“I am married to an English woman but with Brexit, it doesn’t mean I am allowed to stay,” she says. “I pay taxes and spend my money here, and I’m still not welcome.”

In her NHS hospital unit, Lindberg’s wife has seen many co-workers going back to Europe, with no one to replace them. “I don’t blame them – why would they stay?” Lindberg says. “The ingratitude is just staggering.”

Her wife is learning Swedish, they’ve put their names down on Sweden’s housing “queue” for a flat, and by summer 2018, they will be gone. 

***

One of the sectors which has already been hit hard by the prospect of Brexit is higher education. As many as 1,300 academics from the EU have left the country in the past year, and Cambridge University alone lost 184 European staff.

Giorgio Gilestro, a teacher and researcher in neuroscience at Imperial College, arrived in London seven years ago. Originally from Torino, Italy, he had done stints in Austria and the US, and thought he had found the “perfect city” to settle down with his family.

“Brexit changed things,” he tells me, and now some of his son’s European classmates are leaving and his own family's deadline is set for March 2018. If the government doesn’t have a plan after that date, he says, the economy will “take a huge hit”: “Companies will start moving people around.” He won’t wait to see how it turns out. 


“The consequences [of Brexit] will be very, very dire.”
Giorgio Gilestro, from Italy

“In case of a hard Brexit, the economy will be so affected, and society in general, it wouldn’t be so nice living here anymore,” he says. “I’m pretty sure the consequences will be very, very dire.”

What has already changed, Gilestro says, is that EU citizens find themselves “making contingency plans". He doesn’t know what to do about the family home yet, where to go or indeed if he will leave for sure – but it’s the right moment to move to Europe, he says: “I’ve seen more jobs advertised, they know people are going back.”

***

For many, Brexit accelerated plans for a move back to Europe that would have otherwise happened later in life. Next year, Sam Schwarzkopf, a German citizen who arrived in the UK in 1999, will be moving with his wife to Auckland, New Zealand. “Without Brexit, we would have been here longer,” he says, but the vote gave him “a very good reason” to look for a job elsewhere. 

“I hadn’t looked into it before,” he says. Leaving is difficult, but staying may be worse: one of Schwartzkopf’s post-doctorate students at UCL could have been offered his position next year, but being European himself, he moved his family back to Germany instead. 

“He decided it wasn’t worth it. The future won’t be rosy in the UK,” Schwarzkopf says. As a scientist, he is worried for what Brexit means for his profession in Britain: once the UK pulls out of the EU, European grants will dry up. “The UK science sector took more of these grants than Britain paid in.” To continue the grants program, the European Research Council needs guaranteed free movement. Schwarzkopf doesn’t see “how the government can square that circle”.

***

The referendum result may be directly threatening the rights of EU citizens, but it is also pushing some of those with a UK passport to prepare to leave. HR manager Sarah Murray, who is 32 and living near Liverpool, is British, as is her husband. They had a son a few months after the referendum and are now looking to leave the country. “I want to give him the best possible start in life,” she tells me. “Brexit Britain will not be a very nice environment for a child.”

Life in the UK after Brexit could get harder for Murray: she has Crohn's disease and worries about access to her medication, which is imported from EU countries. “Are they going to be rationed, or not there? Is there going to be a huge cost?” she asks. They are looking at moving either to Germany or Austria. Murray started learning German “straight after the result” of the referendum, which left her “devastated”. Her husband, who she said feels “very European”, was hit “really hard” too.


“Brexit Britain will not be a very nice environment for a child.”
Sarah Murray, British

Murray’s grandfather was Irish, so she applied for citizenship right after the referendum, and got it before her son’s birth – which means both of them will have legal rights in the EU in the future. Her husband, however, is just British, so they “must be out before Brexit, before the end date”.

There are a lot of things to organise: “Kindergarten, move, flat… We have a dog and three cats, we must look how to travel with them.” Murray had her first job interview, for a position in Berlin, planned for the week after I spoke to her. She is now in the third round of interviews and has recently started to “weigh up housing costs”. They want to be out by the end of 2018. “Hopefully we’ll move quicker”, she says.

It's clear from Murray's story that Brexit isn’t just creating an exodus of skilled Europeans from the UK – it’s also driving away Britons. Murray says she won’t live “like an expat” and wants to integrate in her new home: “I’m treating learning German like a job.” Her future reflects the past of EU citizens, who once learned English and packed their belongings to cross the Channel. Now she is following thousands of them who are crossing back.

***

For most of those I talked to, Theresa May's government is doing too little, too late. “There has been lots of wishful thinking without concrete actions,” says Schwarzkopf. “I had the naïve belief that the Cameron government had a contingency plan.” 

Gilestro echoes this frustration: “When I left Italy in 2002 we had Berlusconi and I thought it couldn’t get lower. I stand corrected: This government is much worse.”

It’s not just British politicians who have failed them: society has changed, too. After the referendum, like countless other Europeans, Hoez was told to “go back to [his] country” by a drunk man on the street. 

“I was born here,” he replied, but now tells me it reminded him of being called a “frog” by other children at his south London school. 

“I’m worried that it’s spiralling out of control – we [EU citizens] will be blamed if things don’t go as they want,” he adds.

Lindberg is scared, too: “Someone was beaten to death for being foreign. Can they distinguish a Swedish from a Polish accent?” Her wife Sarah, she says, is now “ashamed” of her country.

There is one thing all EU citizens want, whether they're leaving or staying. As Lindberg tells me: “To carry on with my life, out of this limbo.”

Read more: The Departing #2: Those who have left will not return

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.