I am from Eastern Europe: I am fuming and I have been for a long time

Photo from wikimedia commons

I am fuming when seeing the way in which the government, the press, the authorities and other actors of public life treat Eastern European EU migrants. The issues related to the oversubscribed, under-resourced and woefully inadequate, digital-only EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) are well known. The government has also promised that any EU citizen who registers with the settlement scheme would be eligible for benefits- it then chose not to abide by this promise, for example, through denying Universal Credit to EU citizens with pre-settled status. As often, it took court action in order to challenge the government. 

While these above-mentioned issues apply to all EU citizens, Eastern European EU citizens have so far been treated in a particularly abysmal manner. This is because, as it turns out, we have few friends, and, in this country, our rights have been under attack for years.

When the A8 (countries which joined the EU in 2004) and the A2 (countries which joined the EU n 2007) nationals were allowed to come to the UK under the EU’s freedom of movement rules in early to mid-2000s, restrictions were immediately put on their ability to claim out of work benefits through the workers registration scheme (designed by the Labour government under Tony Blair). 

The vast majority of us never came for benefits in the first place, as, in short, living on benefits would not allow us to either:

  • Earn enough money and come back to start a business, build a home, or even a car
  • Settle AND do the same in the UK

In other words, Eastern Europeans did not come here to live off state support, as they had higher aspirations.

Despite that, those who at some point had no choice but to claim, faced refusal if and when they had not secured their status under the so called Workers Registration Scheme (WRS), which operated between 2004 and 2011) often because of lack of knowledge this was even in place, or, because their employer, unknowingly to them, had not completed the process. 

Moreover, this was a hard and fast rule, there were no exemptions, so if you left employment after 11 months instead of after one year, even due to proven discrimination, non- payment of wages or health and safety concerns, you would still not be able to get Jobseeker’s Allowance and other out of work benefits.  This state of affairs continued until May 2011. Elements of the scheme were subsequently found to be unlawful.

In 2014, WRS regulations no longer in operation, Cameron’s coalition government slashed the amount of time for which all EU citizens could claim Jobseeker’s allowance twice in one year- first to six months, then limiting it to three months only, often affecting those who had worked for years before losing their job.

Despite our contribution to the UK economy, EU Eastern European migrants have been undervalued and mistreated since their countries joined the EU.

The tabloid press (in England at least) attacked us time and again, and accusing us of being criminals, benefit scroungers, job – takers and, legendary swan eaters. The label appears to have stuck as several years ago, my friend was actually called a swan-eater by his English work colleagues. The press did not seem to question why migrants from Eastern Europe would have to resort to eating swans- perhaps it had something to do with equal access to support?

In 2016, the referendum sealed our fate.

And who has defended us? Very few.

The Labour Party?  They conceived much of the discriminatory legislation for benefits. Blair advocated tougher immigration controls in exchange for staying in the EU. Corbyn and Starmer agree on one thing at least – that freedom of movement is not worth keeping or restoring. And, I still remember when Ed Miliband was advertising “controlling immigration” teacups, several years after Gordon Brown was advocating “British Jobs for British Workers”.

The Lib Dems? They were happy to support Cameron’s encroachments on migrants’ rights.

Eastern European governments? Embassies say it is a matter for the UK. Some governments, including that of Poland, have a very cosy relationship with the current Conservative government, and it seems unlikely that they will work to secure the rights of their citizens in the UK.

Trade unions? Most have not come out strongly in support of Eastern Europeans, and many seem to be silent on the subject.

Few actors of public life and political parties have come to our defence including the Greens and the SNP.

I am not optimistic about the rights of all EU citizens in the UK now the transition period has ended but I am especially worried about the rights of those of us from Eastern Europe, as we seem to be targeted by many and supported by few.

Has anyone experienced something similar? Please write to our Letters Page on editor@northeastbylines.co.uk

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