YMOBILITY: a study on young Italian migrants in the UK pre- and post- Brexit

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From November 2015 to March 2017 I worked as Research Assistant within a team of researchers of the University of Sussex in the H2020 Youth Mobility Project, which aims at monitoring the trajectories, reasons, conditions and objectives of young Italian migrants in the UK. This was part of a wider project involving 9 countries divided into 3 groups: 3 receiving countries (UK, Sweden and Germany), 3 sending ones (Latvia, Slovakia and Romania) and 3 which are both sending and receiving, namely Ireland, Spain and Italy.

We did 2 round of interviews: the first one involved 20 respondents contacted between November 2015 and March 2016. The sample included an even number of male and female respondents, who were either students or working migrants. Among the working migrants, we made sure to equally represent higher- and lower-skilled individuals. They were between 18 and 35 years old at the time of migration to Britain and had lived there for at least 6 months. We had not initially planned a second round of interviews, but we felt we could not ignore Brexit as a turning point in the life stories of our participants. This considered, we reached out 15 interviewees, of which 8 had already been interviewed in the 1st round and 7 were new contacts. This sample was quite peculiar because it included highly educated migrants in an age ranging from 28 to 36 years old.

The questions asked during the first interviews revolved around the respondents’ background, the reasons to migrate to the UK, their occupation and feelings of home and identity and, last but not least, their plans for the future. Concerning the second round instead, the questions focused on their expectations and speculations on the Referendum’s outcome, the participants’ reactions to it, possible changes in their feeling of home, identity and belonging and – again – their plans for the future.

When discussing pre-vote speculations, the vast majority of the interviewees argued that they though LEAVE wouldn’t win because it was just ‘too stupid as a decision’ (Cecilia, 32, working migrant in Brighton). Quite a few of the respondents also linked this attitude to a lack of information and even more to a lack of political participation on the side of the young voters (Elisa, 36, working migrant in Brighton and Gabriella, 32, doctoral researcher in Brighton). Gabriella’s view, for example, encompassed a critique of the Left – not only the British one but rather a pan-European Left, that she defined as unable to understand and react to what is happening in this historical moment. Cecilia also connects Brexit to the election of Trump in the US and to the 21% achieved by Marine LePen in France, clear indicators of the exacerbation of the current political climate.

Another crucial element coming to the fore during the interviews was the feeling of rejection experienced by the Italians migrants, together with a new perception of being exposed to critiques and pejorative views. Many studies had reported how ‘old’ Western EU (i.e. Italians, French and Spanish) migrants enjoyed a status of relative invisibility in the UK. However, the Referendum marked a change between that and a sensation of being ‘targeted’ as before happened to Eastern Europeans. It was interesting to notice how, perhaps in response to this feeling, a couple of interviewees distinguished between ‘1st and 2nd class migrants’. The individuals who referred to this strategically positioned themselves in a separated group from ‘who really annoyed the Britons’ (Luciano, 34, working migrant in Brighton), that is Eastern Europeans. In addition, they emphasised their own qualifications and achievements but also the fact that they don’t claim benefits. In this way, they detached themselves from a negative stereotype of the immigrants exploiting the British welfare, which was a strong part of the Brexit campaign rhetoric.

Finally, I present a couple of results on the respondents’ plans for the future. Surprisingly enough, their practical intentions did not change very much: comparing the responses of the first and second round of interviews, I noticed that who wanted to go back to Italy had already done it, who was keen on moving to a different (mostly EU) country still had the same idea and the same also happened for who was in a ‘wait and see’ phase. In addition, in the long run the almost totality of the sample wanted to leave the UK, mostly to go back to Italy. However, the feelings behind this decision changed after Brexit: if before it was motivated by a nostalgia of Italy and the way of life there, after the Referendum most of the participants felt betrayed and tried to accelerate the process of leaving a country that they felt ‘did not deserve them anymore’. We hope that you enjoyed reading about our findings and invite you both to visit the website of the Project for more detailed information (http://www.ymobility.eu) and to contact us (c.mazzilli@sussex.ac.uk), should you have any questions or proposals for collaborations.

Caterina Mazzilli
On behalf of the University of Sussex YMOBILITY Research Team