Migrants' Rights Network

What does Brexit have to do with race?

Right after the referendum to leave the EU, Warwick University professor Akwugo Emejulu pointed out in a blog post that “whiteness,” as an identity, played a key role in the Leave campaign. It permeated the image of the (mostly) white English working class victimised by European integration and globalisation more broadly. Whiteness as exclusionary identity was also on full display in the wave of hate speech, incidents and crime that followed the referendum result – much of which had a racist component, as statistics indicated.  

In a more recent post, Oxford researcher Luke de Noronha delves deeper into the question of race as it relates to Brexit. De Noronha enjoins us to consider how class and race play out in defining who gets targeted by the harshest border control policies, in particular detention and deportation.

EU citizens are increasingly targeted: the number of EU citizens in detention increased five-fold between 2010 and 2015, and grew from 11% to 19% of the total population in detention between 2015 and 2017. But de Noronha is quick to point out that not all EU citizens are equally affected.        

Drawing on data about immigration detention and deportation, de Noronha shows that Eastern Europeans have been most heavily targeted by repressive immigration measures. Eastern Europeans made up 87% of EU citizens detained in 2017, with over two thirds of them coming from Romania and Poland. De Noronha links this data to the fact that Eastern Europeans are more often in precarious work or housing situations, leaving them “vulnerable to criminalisation and homelessness, both of which land people in detention.” More broadly, de Noronha points out that Eastern Europeans  have long been stigmatised in the UK. He links the stereotypes that construct Eastern Europeans as a “social problem” (see for example this recent thread) to those that established Jews or Irish people as “not properly white” in the past.

What about the Western Europeans who end up in detention? Drawing on data from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), de Noronha notes that they are overwhelmingly black Western Europeans.

Tom, a legal manager at BiD, explained to me that all the Western Europeans he had met in detention were either black or brown and had been detained after interacting with the criminal justice system. The Portuguese nationals detained have Brazilian or Angolan heritage; the French nationals have Algerian or West African parents; the Dutch nationals are the children of Somali refugees.

De Noronha links this situation to the racial discrimination that is often encoded in policing practices, and which disproportionately target black or minority ethnic men – thus increasing the chances for black Europeans to be criminalised. In addition, de Noronha points out that the threshold for what counts as criminality, and thus an excuse for detention and deportation, has lowered. As a result: “some of these young men are being detained because of non-custodial infractions: for driving offences, possession of marijuana, or breaching community orders.”

Citing the case of a Dutch-Somali young man who had been detained and threatened with deportation for violating a community order, de Noronha concludes: “Many of the black and brown Europeans in detention are held because the Home Office is not convinced that they really are Europeans. These are the European nationals whose Europeanness is suspect, up for debate, provisional.”

Why is this important to bear in mind? De Noronha’s point is that those Europeans targeted for detention and deportation rarely make the headlines. Yet in forgetting them we risk reproducing a distinction between “good” and “bad” migrant that leaves race and class inequalities unchallenged.    

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Fabien Cante

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