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Brexit Fallout: Anxious Immigrants, Backtracking Politicians

Sandy Berart sat in the shade of a birch tree eating a very British lunch – a cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich — and wondered what lay in store for her in the city she calls home.

"The first thought I had is, 'Am I going to be able to stay and work freely?'" asked Berart, 41, an assistant office manager from France who works in London's Southwark neighborhood, a hub for architectural, design and engineering firms south of the River Thames.

She was describing her reaction to last week's surprise vote to leave the European Union. Berart, who has lived in Britain for 19 years, doesn't expect to be deported, but she's anxious about what a new immigration system will look like.

Will the government force her to get a work permit? Will it overload companies with so much paperwork that employing foreigners like her will become too onerous?

In the wake of last week's so-called Brexit vote, EU immigrants in the U.K. are worried.

"It's a time of uncertainty for a lot of people," said Madeleine Sumption, who runs the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. Sumption says more than 2 million people born in EU nations work in the U.K. But contrary to many fears, she doesn't think the government will throw most of them out.

"The central estimate is that 100 percent of people who are already here would be able to stay," said Sumption. She expects there will be some cutoff date after which new rules will apply. "The reason for that is when the U.K. government introduces new immigration rules they tend to apply only to people who haven't yet arrived."

As immigrants worry, some pro-Brexit politicians are lowering expectations for what they'll actually be able to accomplish on immigration. Some seem to be backtracking on pledges to significantly cut the flow of immigrants, which is what many who voted to leave the EU last Thursday want.

"Some people thought the immigrants would be on the boat the following day," said Peter Catterall, who teaches history at the University of Westminster.

In order to keep access to the hugely valuable European market, some Brexiteers say the U.K. will have to allow the free movement of workers from the European Union. When anti-immigration voters realize they won't get what they were promised, Catterall thinks they will become angrier and more disaffected.

"They're already feeling that people aren't listening to them," said Catterall, "that the people in metropolitan London, these experts who talk down to them, aren't listening to their problems. The risk is you move from increasing cynicism towards democracy to listening to demagogues."

So how will Brexiteers address the immigration issue they ran and won on?

The former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the current favorite to become Britain's next prime minister, has suggested the U.K. adopt an immigration system used in Australia that would allot points to EU migrants based on their skills, including level of English.

But Khanh Hoang, who teaches in the Migration Law Program at Australian National University, says pro-Brexit politicians don't seem to really understand the Australian model.

"If you kind of look closer at what the points test does, it's not actually a tool to limit migration at all," said Hoang.

He said the points-based system tries to match immigrants to labor needs as determined by the government, but the approach has had problems. Some immigrants claim skills they don't have. And, Hoang says, the government's estimates of needs haven't always been accurate.

"You could have people who meet the points test, and they come into Australia and there is no work for them because the shortages in those areas aren't exactly what the government thought they were," said Hoang.

Hoang says immigration can be an effective wedge issue for winning political campaigns in different parts of the world, as the Brexit effort has shown. Designing and running an immigration policy that works, he says, is trickier.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.