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Exploring the meaning of home for UK-based EU migrants post-2016 EU referendum


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Exploring the meaning of home for UK-based EU migrants post-2016 EU referendum/h1>

The research discussed in our Podcast episode “What is Home?” has not yet been published. A brief summary is provided here.

Dr Kate Foxwell, Ms Sarah Stromaier, Dr Fergal Jones

Ten citizens from other EU countries living in the UK were interviewed following the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the EU, the data from which was analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Two participants were from Northern Europe (Lithuania and Sweden), three from Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Slovakia), three from Southern Europe (Greece and Italy) and two from Western Europe (France and Germany, as classified by the United Nations). Seven women and three men took part, with ages ranging from 29 to 74. Occupations varied from skilled manual work to those requiring higher education postgraduate study. Two participants were retired or semi-retired. The minimum time lived in the UK was 5 years, whilst some had lived in the country for over 40 years. Only migrants who did not have British Citizenship were able to take part in the study.

The focus of the interviews was around what home meant to people who had chosen to leave their country of origin; the process of leaving and of coming to the UK; setting up life in the UK; and about their experiences of wider societal factors which might have impacted their sense of home. Given this research was conducted in the summer of 2017, after Article 50 was triggered (March 2017) but prior to any agreement being made regarding citizens’ rights (November 2018), the EU referendum result was a meaningful context for all participants.

The findings from the research suggested that moving was often a decision made with uncertainty, and participants negotiated their place in the UK whilst initially continuing to hold open the possibility of return. ‘Push’ factors to leave their country of origin, as well as ‘pull’ factors to come to the UK, were discussed. Loved ones, both in the country of origin as well as the UK, were described to significantly impact participants’ feelings about migrating, with familial and societal expectations often compounding some participants’ sense of guilt around separating, and anxieties around the permanency of the move.

The calling of the original home appeared to be strong for many in the initial period of moving to the UK. However, with time, the majority of participants reported finding ‘home’ in the UK, with their country of origin continuing to hold this status also. Factors which grounded participants (such as a partner, children, house, or career) were named as significant in enabling participants the life they hoped for, and thus allowing them to see, as well as invest in, a future in the UK. Such developments were only possible within a context which felt safe, welcoming, and in which participants felt that they belonged. The relationship with the country of origin continued to be navigated, with it evidently important that participants were able to maintain networks and identities significant to them, whilst also allowing a letting go or amalgamating process to occur. Connections with the physical landscape as well as key values within the UK and country of origin were discussed as having an important impact on people’s sense of home.

For a minority of participants however the process of finding home in the UK appeared more complex, continuing beyond the initial years in the UK. The study draws on psychological concepts including attachment and acculturation to propose that both internal processes which facilitate self-actualisation (the realisation of one’s potential and hopes), and wider contexts which enable this to be possible, are important. How welcoming the culture in the UK towards migrants was experienced to be had an evident impact, influencing how ‘at home’ participants felt.

It was apparent that, even for those who felt that they had found home in the UK, this sense of home could be unsettled or unmade, within the context of wider socio-cultural and political changes. The referendum vote to leave the EU was acknowledged to have challenged their security in their future in the UK for many.  Participants discussed their perceptions of their value within the UK, with some feeling unwanted following the referendum result, and that their efforts to fit in and contribute to society had not been appreciated. A theme around safety and vulnerability was prevalent in participants’ narratives regarding the uncertainty faced, with some reporting that they no longer wanted to live in the UK, and others not sure whether deciding where they would be, was any longer their choice to make. However, three of the ten participants, all of whom had lived in the UK for more than 18 years, did not feel that the vote had had any impact on them, due to not feeling like a ‘migrant,’ and subsequently not doubting their place in the country.

Participants often provided their understandings of the context of the referendum and the resulting outcome, as well as assertions around who voted and why. The UK-EU history was discussed, as well as hypotheses around the British people’s perceptions of their identity as a nation. Participants were not without empathy for why people might have voted to leave the EU, acknowledging their own concerns around how the EU had been functioning, the impact of migration on the British culture, and for one, their belief that the UK would be better off economically out of the EU. However, the negative personal, societal and global impacts of the vote result were acknowledged by most. Concerns about limitations resulting following Brexit regarding travel, employment, business and cultural richness were named, as well as a mourning for the loss of the ideology on which the EU was felt to have been founded.