Have we begun to lose our Human Rights since “Brexit”?
Since the 24th June 2016, when just over 51% of British citizens voted to leave the European Union (EU), a process dubbed “Brexit,” there has been a sharp rise in hate crimes. Additionally, the British government contribute to the loss of human rights through official speeches and future policy announcements. Whilst not all the violations of rights are directly related to “Brexit,” some will be part of the result of initiating Article 50. This means that since the vote, all citizens in the UK have experienced or will experience some erosion of rights. There are, however, solutions to the issues which require new laws and for the British public to stand together in favour of their rights.
European nationals living in the UK are finding it increasingly difficult to be guaranteed their rights to stay in the UK. At present, under ‘Freedom of Movement’ within the EU, they have no reason to leave the UK or be forced out. With many unsure about their rights once the UK does officially begin negotiations to leave the EU, many have begun to apply for proof of Permanent Residency and have discovered that it is incredibly difficult to fill the 85-page form, which requires details of every time the applicant has left the UK and evidence of 5 consecutive years of work. This has raised a number of issues, including the Home Office’s system to process these applications falling short and denying proof of residency rights to people who have lived in the UK for over 20 years, in some cases, followed by a letter asking the applicant to leave the UK. This is primarily an issue for dual-national families where it is not possible for the British partner to move to the EU national partner’s home country due to language barriers or simply because once the UK leaves the EU, they will no longer have the right to live in the rest of the EU and so will face the same obstacles.
This, in itself, becomes a violation of section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 as the uncertainty infringes on the right to respect for private and family life, which is protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The situation also discriminates against women. If parents, who are EU nationals, moved to the UK and the father worked whilst the mother stayed at home, or took a break from her career, to raise children, the father could list her as a “dependant”. If the father was British, however, and the mother was an EU-national, the mother cannot be listed as a “dependant” and has to fill in the application herself. Any breaks in employment would mean she didn’t exercise her ‘treaty rights’, unless she also had comprehensive sickness insurance (CSI), which very few people knew about. Whilst there are ‘stay at home dads’, this is still predominantly an issue affecting women.
As well as the discrimination EU nationals now face in order to remain in a country most consider their home, there is evidence to suggest the Home Office are more intent on reducing the number of immigrants rather than actually examining applications to see if they do fully meet the requirements. The situation has escalated to the point of being picked up by the European Parliament, with Dutch MEP Sophie In’t Veld wanting to begin a parliamentary “taskforce” to investigate the UK’s treatment of EU nationals who apply for residency or citizenship, once the UK initiates Article 50. Poland has declared it is preparing to create more jobs as the government expects a mass return of Polish migrants. The situation caused by “Brexit” is in violation of the ‘Freedom of Movement’ rights EU citizens exercised when legally entering the UK. People in this situation have taken to the internet to highlight their situation, pointing to the fact that EU nationals returning home to the UK after a holiday will find it very difficult, no longer having the freedom to travel as they and British citizens do at present, but face having to apply to be allowed back into the country.
Most disturbing of all is the government’s dismissal of these concerns. The government repeat the same mantra that at the moment: EU nationals do not need to worry about their right to stay in the country as the UK is still in the EU. They then continue to use EU nationals as “bargaining chips,” refusing to guarantee any rights or the future of EU nationals in the UK until the EU guarantees reciprocal rights for British nationals living in the EU. This is despite a Parliamentary Select Committee stating the government should make changes to the Article 50 bill to compensate for EU nationals in this situation.
Regarding the government’s use of EU nationals as pawns for concessions, when interviewed in late January, Carolina, Portuguese, commented that “we’re being used for a cause that may come to be worse for us…because it won’t impact their lives they don’t really care what happens for us.”(1) All these issues lead to one bigger ‘elephant in the room,’ EU citizens living in the UK were not allowed to vote in the referendum, yet British citizens who had lived out of the UK were. Just as there was a threshold for British ex-pats of 15 years, it could be argued that the same should have been applied to EU citizens living in the UK for over 15 years. Additionally, some EU citizens (from Malta, Cyprus and Ireland) were allowed to vote, so there was discrimination against citizens from the remaining 24 EU countries. From the start of “Brexit,” the British government have contributed to the erosion and violation of human rights towards EU nationals living and working in the UK.
For British citizens, the problem lies in the existing rights they stand to lose. For example, there is a question of what happens to British citizens living in the EU once the UK leaves. Furthermore, UK citizens will no longer have the option of taking UK court rulings to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if they feel that a UK court ruling violates EU laws. As demonstrated in the case of Sharon Coleman, the ECJ does more to protect the rights of UK citizens than UK courts and has the power to set a precedent across the EU. The ECJ is instrumental in protecting workers in particular, upholding EU directives on working hours and ensuring women cannot be dismissed simply for becoming pregnant. The loss of the use of this court to maintain human rights, especially those for workers, is of great concern. The UK has an opt-out of the Working Time Directive, demonstrating the UK is less keen to give workers as many rights as the rest of the EU. With the loss of the extra layer of protection, cases which are found to not be in violation of human rights in UK courts will stay as they are, even if under the ECJ it would be possible to find a violation. By voting to leave the EU, the nation has allowed for the government to revoke rights protected by the EU.
Rise in hate crime
There has been a sharp rise in the number of recorded hate crimes against many marginalised groups, not just EU citizens. The 41% rise, from July 2015 to July 2016, targeted mainly at Polish and Muslim immigrants, has led to the TUC devoting a webpage to discrimination in the workplace and the rights of workers in this situation. The Kajdan family have felt this spike: More than once, they have been verbally abused in their own garden by passers-by who heard them speaking Polish.(2) Likewise, Carolina, said “People act different when I tell them my nationality”. These two responses show a snapshot of xenophobia sweeping the UK and can be explained by the brutal referendum campaigning and the government’s ongoing speeches. What cannot be explained by this is the rise in hate crimes against other minority groups. Pink News has reported a 147% spike in homophobic hate crimes since the referendum. For instance, as well as facing discrimination for being Polish, Kamil says he’s been called a “fag” more since the referendum.(3) It can only be assumed that the manner in which the “Brexit” campaign was fought, by some campaigners, has given justification to the bigoted minority to carry out attacks, leading to the ‘legitimisation’ of all other hate crimes. At present, the government and politicians are not being held to the same law abiding standards as the general public, and discriminatory language is becoming acceptable.
The government are taking away people’s rights on two fronts. In the first instance, the government allowed for hatred to be used within the ‘Leave’ campaign. Whilst the government took a pro-remain stance, the Leave campaign used maps referring to Turkey’s proximity to current crisis areas such as Syria and Iraq. Regardless of the false information about Turkey, this incited hatred towards refugees from the area, whilst insinuating mass migration from countries that are applying to join the EU. Whilst there was no direct hatred in the words, the message was clear: be afraid of these countries, especially Turkey.
The government did not publish any of this, nor did they stop it. This is in addition to Nigel Farage’s infamous “Breaking Point” poster – whilst it did lead to some members of the ‘Leave’ campaign joining the ‘Remain’ camp, it does not diminish the fact that the poster was used by Farage and never really questioned by the government. It is fair to say that both official campaigns were fought poorly, but it is also fair to see from the evidence that the government were not looking to support those which the campaigns offended, thus contributing to the long term rise in hate crimes.
Add to this, Jeremy Hunt’s aim for the NHS to be “self-sufficient by 2030,” no longer needing immigrant doctors. This is not merely a ludicrous aim supported by false statistics, but also one that shows no sensitivity towards the 1/3 of NHS care staff who were born abroad. It reduces their hard work to nonessential. It is not in itself a xenophobic response, but does pander to the xenophobic attitudes of the minority in the UK. Likewise, Amber Rudd does everything to amplify this sentiment, most notably her (subsequently shelved) proposition to have all companies declare the number of foreign workers employed. This would have put foreign workers at risk of discrimination during recruitment due to businesses fearing persecution and would have had the potential effect of foreign workers losing job mobility and feeling ‘trapped’ in their current roles. As Toynbee discussed, in her The Guardian article, focus groups show that immigration played a key role in the vote for “Brexit” among a minority. The government are now allowing the minority voices to be echoed within official statements.
Furthermore, the government have contributed to the removal of rights since the referendum with policies which are not linked with “Brexit”. The prominent example is the media-dubbed “Snooper’s Charter”, or ‘Investigatory Powers Act’. The Act was declared “illegal” under EU law by the ECJ in December 2016. Once we exit the European Union, it will become possible to push through the Act as there will no longer be an overriding court to block such invasive legislation. The legislation allows all government institutions, from the police to the Food Standards Agency, to retrieve collected data. It is an unnecessary intrusion into citizens’ private lives, creating a “Big Brother”-like state with the government having access to all internet history and communications of all citizens in the UK. This is a gross invasion of human rights, one which is not linked to the actual referendum campaign or result but is only going to be possible if and when the UK leaves the EU.
Finding a solution to the erosion of rights since the referendum is difficult. The answer is not as simple as to prevent the government from initiating Article 50; this would only allow UK citizens to maintain the rights granted by EU laws and directives, but would not stop the growing wave of hate crimes. The police are preparing for another spike in hate crimes once Article 50 is triggered and are therefore currently improving methods of recording hate crimes and informing the public of how to report one. Whilst this is a response to the problem, it is not going to solve it. In order for hate crimes to be reduced, the government needs to be held accountable for the language used in official statements. Likewise, the ‘Leave’ campaign needs to be held accountable for insinuating the dangers of migration.
The referendum and the government did not create the hate we are seeing; it has always been here. “Brexit” is the justification for it. The campaign and the words of the government used since have given a voice to the once silent minority. There needs to be a re-education of the minority and an education of children that migrants are not automatically bad people, migration is beneficial to the economy and culture of the UK. Along with this, to stop the discrimination of refugees, there needs to be more government and school education about the reasons why people flee their home country. With better understanding of the situation refugees face at home and the prosperity they and migrants can bring to the UK, the general public will be less inclined to shout verbal abuse at people. In order for this to happen there needs to be some form of regulation to prevent misleading and xenophobic headlines such as Katie Hopkins’ appalling “cockroaches” description of refugees.
In terms of the rights the government are taking away from British citizens regardless of “Brexit,” the answer is less simple. It is possible to peacefully protest against policies the government enforces and write to MPs, urging them to vote against such policies. If enough citizens rally together against a particular issue, they can have an impact. At the next general election, UK citizens can show their dismay at how the government talks about migrants and are attempting to erode our rights by voting for a different party. All this, however, requires unity among the majority of the British population.
If the referendum result were to be overturned, this would be one way to combat a large proportion of the rights being lost, but it might stir further issues of discontent among those who stand by their vote to leave the European Union, and would not stop the hatred already spreading across the UK. A better solution for the rights of EU and UK citizens concerned about their future would be for the British government to end their strategy of waiting for the EU to guarantee the rights of British nationals and take the first step of guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals in the UK. Therefore, whilst there is clearly a severe loss of rights since “Brexit,” there are solutions and steps which should be taken to combat the problems.
Interviewed by me:
(1) Trincao, C. (2017, Jnauary 24). How do you feel about the gov using you as a pawn to win over negotiations with the EU?
(2) Kajdan, K. (2017, January 25). There has been a spike in hate crimes, have you felt this?
(3)Osoba, K. (2017, January 24). There has been a spike in hate crimes, have you felt this?