EU citizens feel welcome here, but clarity on their status still needed - Piotr Teodorowski

The First Minister's support for EU citizens is much appreciated. Picture: Getty
The First Minister's support for EU citizens is much appreciated. Picture: Getty
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Brexit has had a real impact on the mental health of those EU citizens still living in Scotland, the ‘Stay in Scotland’ campaign has helped but more clarity is needed, writes Piotr Teodorowski

In April, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a new Scottish Government campaign called ‘Stay in Scotland’ – pledging support for EU citizens living in Scotland.

An open letter, alongside an information package about migration, emphasised how welcome these citizens are in Scotland and encouraged them to stay, despite the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. It also provided residents with support to register for the settlement scheme through Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland, which has received extra funding to deliver these services and cope with the additional demand.

While the Scotland Act 1998 clearly states that issues around migration are restricted to Westminster’s jurisdiction, the Scottish Government last year added it to the official portfolio of the Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development.

Did this campaign make a difference to EU citizens living in Scotland? Did they feel it was relevant? And how are they reacting to the messages coming from Holyrood?

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, supported by the Edinburgh-based charity Feniks, have published the findings of a study that explored the impact of Brexit on the mental health and wellbeing of EU citizens living in Scotland. This not only provides a narrative about their experiences since the referendum and shows how they feel about living here.

We conducted several focus group interviews with EU citizens in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In them, participants were asked about their feelings and if there were things that helped them cope with the current political situation.

The results showed that the Brexit campaign, the referendum, and subsequent political discourse has indeed had a real impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

For some, the perception of the UK as a warm and welcoming country has shifted. Against that, however, Scotland was seen as a more welcoming and safer place to live, especially when considering and comparing the more positive messages coming from Holyrood.

The result of the referendum itself was seen as a surprise which affected participants’ sense of belonging in the UK. As one interviewee said: “It doesn’t really feel like you’re very welcome here anymore and they don’t want you.” Others, however, feel that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have been fighting for them.

These positive messages from the Scottish Government have partially addressed feelings of loneliness and isolation, but not fully diminished them. Uncertainty and anxiety about the future was a recurring theme across every one of our focus groups.

With the launch of the ‘Stay in Scotland’ campaign, many suggested this should not only support EU citizens but also give them a space to share their own stories. Some participants told us that – while their neighbours had shown real sympathy – they don’t believe the Scottish public understands the impact this political climate is having on EU citizens, who often feel as though they are having to justify living in this country.

If the Scottish Government wants to achieve the main aim of its campaign – to reach EU citizens – it needs to directly involve them in shaping the campaign, not just as a passive audience for it. This is particularly important, as many of our participants repeatedly remarked on the fact that they were denied the right to vote in the referendum, even though they had rights as citizens and taxpayers. As the grassroots organisation, the3million, repeatedly points out, EU citizens are not simply “bargaining chips”.

The positive impact on mental health and wellbeing following the First Minister’s messages should be commended and not underestimated. Will this campaign be enough to encourage EU citizens to stay, live and work in Scotland? It is a start and can promote a welcome discourse for EU citizens – but clarity on their status and future is urgently required.

• Piotr Teodorowski, a researcher at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Robert Gordon University, worked on a study exploring the impact of Brexit on the mental health and wellbeing of EU citizens. The results of this were published on 12 June at an event hosted by the European Parliament Office in Edinburgh.