“Everyone knows Italy, as soon as you come here they’ll be like, “Oh Italian, cool! I’ve been there,” so it’s a way of chatting, breaking ice […] but I don‘t know if it’s the same for other foreigners. Like my friend from Bulgaria, if she says, “I’m from Bulgaria,” people are like, “[silence] I’ve never been there.”
I interviewed Elena some months after the Brexit referendum, while conducting research on Italian migrants who moved to Britain after the 2008 economic crisis. Over the past decade, Britain has become the primary destination for Italians leaving Italy.
The referendum had a profound emotional effect on EU migrants in the UK who had built families and long-term relationships. To them, the UK’s decision to leave the EU felt like a shock and betrayal.
But participants like Elena, who left Italy only two years earlier, did not feel Brexit changed their view of the UK as an inclusive and meritocratic country.
While migrants from eastern Europe have been targeted by anti-immigration rhetoric, those from wealthier European countries like Italy and Spain have not been associated with welfare abuse, “low-skill” migration or labour shortages in agriculture and hospitality.
Italians are mostly invisible in these debates. As remarked by many of my 57 participants, they are seen as “cool” and somewhat more desirable than eastern Europeans. Yet, my research shows that post-2008 Italian migrants are a diverse group. And inequalities of race, class and gender affect their experiences of Britain.
For Italians who identify as Black and Muslim, Brexit challenged their previous assumptions about Britain as welcoming and multicultural. It also evoked memories of racism in Italy. Oliver, a Black participant in his 30s, said that while he initially felt like “everyone else” in London, his positive experience was challenged by Brexit.
The first week after Brexit, I think there’s been a lot of those [hate crime] cases, and even now, but I’ve never… I’ve never felt this sort of intolerance, I mean, otherwise I’d feel foreigner twice! I mean, you can’t stay in Italy, you can’t stay here, where the hell can I stay!
Most of the non-white participants I interviewed moved to Britain during their 20s. Many grew up without Italian citizenship, as children of migrants can apply for Italian citizenship only when they turn 18. This amplified their feelings of exclusion in Italy, even before they migrated to the UK.
Participants said they left Italy due to feeling “like a foreigner at home”, and moved to the UK where they believed, as one participant said of London, “You are valued for your skills, not for your ethnicity or religion.”
Yet, not all moved to London and arrived in the UK with unequal access to economic resources, social connections and educational qualifications. Particularly for Black and Muslim participants, their experience of Britain varied greatly.
Daniel, aged 21, experienced racial discrimination and was denied compensation while dealing with work agencies in the Midlands. Summing up his two-year experience of precarious work, he said:
I wouldn’t stay if they paid me a million pounds, no. England is not a place you’d call cool, it’s cool for going two to three days to Cambridge or London, but not for life.
Shadow of social class
Class further complicates assumptions about Italians’ relative privilege compared to eastern Europeans.
Participants who moved to Britain with vocational qualifications and working-class backgrounds experienced a different Britain than those who moved abroad with degrees, who more frequently came from middle-class families.
The experience of physically demanding and stigmatising work was common to this group. One participant quit his hotel job, feeling treated like “dirt” by customers. He applied for a loan and enrolled in a bachelor’s programme while continuing to work part time.
Older, working-class participants, particularly women, reported more challenging experiences. After two years of zero-hour contracts, poor housing and an episode of sexual harassment in the workplace, Sara said she felt “defeated”:
The UK, hasn’t given me all these beautiful experiences, from day one. Unfortunately people in Italy think that here we are rich, have nice jobs […] but they don’t know the backstage.
Her comments show how the experience of inequality challenges Italians’ perception of Britain as a country with better opportunities for social mobility.
Impact of inequality
While Italians might benefit from their invisibility in anti-immigration rhetoric, this was not necessarily the case for Black, Muslim and working-class participants and for women in precarious employment.
Class, race and gender inequalities cut across the broad east-west distinctions that dominate debate on EU migrants, and affect the lives of even those migrants who are considered “desirable”.
While EU migration is at a historic low under current immigration policies, the many people who moved to Britain before Brexit remain part of British society. As the rhetoric on immigration grows more toxic, it is as important as ever to understand how migrants really experience life in Britain.
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