What will become of Nordic highly skilled migrants living in post Brexit London? A study examines their experiences

Brexit is less than 200 days away, yet it remains uncertain what will happen to the residence permits of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom. A new research project is investigating the experiences of Nordic migrants in London.

At the end of March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Brexit will also affect the approximately 90,000 Nordic citizens living in Great Britain.

How will the highly skilled Nordic migrants sort out their post-Brexit life in London? This is one of the questions under investigation in Post Brexit London: Highly Skilled Migrants after the British Referendum, a recent research project.

“I am focusing particularly on London, since it’s such a unique hub of science, arts, business and financing. Nearly half of the Nordic citizens living on the British Isles live in the commuter belt of Greater London,” says Saara Koikkalainen, a researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki.

Will Nordic migrants return home?

The United Kingdom is among the central target countries for Nordic emigrants. The number of Finns migrating to Great Britain also began to rise decidedly after Finland joined the EU in 1995.

The capital London is peerless among migration destinations. It has been a good place to try one’s wings at an international career, providing ample employment opportunities. However, once Brexit comes to effect, London may come to lose tens of thousands of jobs.

“My aim is to find out whether those who have relocated to London will move elsewhere or stay in Britain. Will returning to their former home country be a realistic option or will people prefer advancing their international career abroad?” Koikkalainen explains.

Citizens of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark enjoy a special status, since they can choose between returning to a Nordic welfare state or moving to almost any country around the globe – these Nordic citizens are in possession of the second-most valued passport in the world.

Koikkalainen is also interested in whether the experiences of Nordic migrants vary, or whether they share similar thoughts about, for example, their future employment opportunities.

"Before Brexit I planned to live the rest of my life in the UK, after Brexit I have started thinking about moving back to Denmark. I am not sure the UK would be a nice place to grow old anymore." – A Danish respondent


Did the Brexit referendum already bring on changes?

Five years ago, Koikkalainen observed in her doctoral dissertation how Finns living abroad rarely come face to face with discrimination or actual racism. The dissertation focused on the experiences of highly educated Finns in the labour markets of EU countries.

“As a small migrant group, they easily integrate into the population and don’t become a hot topic, unlike, for example, the Polish, who according to many proponents of Brexit are already living in too great of numbers in Britain. Usually, being Finnish is seen in a positive light, and many  respondents told of taking advantage of their nationality, since Nordic heritage is valued, for example, in London,” says Koikkalainen.

Now she wants to investigate whether the Brexit referendum has already changed the status of Nordic migrants in London. Did these internal EU migrants turn overnight into immigrants to be controlled, and who must now justify their ties with a country where many may have legally resided in for as long as several decades?

"I don't think I will live in the UK in five years. I think I will have been "asked to leave" and I'll tell you what... I will not beg to stay. I will lose everything I came here for, but I will not stay in a place where I am not welcome." - A Swedish respondent


Little data on Nordic migrant groups

The effects of Brexit apply to all sectors of the economy and society in Britain. The Brexit process will culminate in the spring of 2019, which is why it has to be studied right now.

Many groups of EU migrants living in London have already been studied, but there is no scientific knowledge on local Nordic migrants. Koikkalainen’s research is based on an online survey and interviews. The survey was published in summer 2018, and it is being marketed on social media. During the fulfilment of Brexit in March and April 2019, Koikkalainen will travel to London to conduct fieldwork in the form of interviews. Results are expected by the end of the year.

“This project highlights the experiences of a migrant group yet to be extensively studied. Such knowledge is useful for, among others, scholars of migration, politicians and anyone interested in international mobility.”

The study produces information on how restrictions to free movement affect international careers in Europe and how Nordic migrants in London are trying to plan ahead amidst a changing situation.

“At worst, this may result in personal tragedies. For example, a British husband and children in a certain family get to stay in London, while the Finnish wife, who is not a UK citizen, may not be granted a permanent residence permit. That may seem far-fetched, but uncertainty will keep on gnawing at people for as long as the status of EU citizens living in Britain is unsettled,” says Koikkalainen.

"My husband wants to stay in his job in London. I would like to leave, but I don't want to lose my home. Every person in the family has a different plan. Brexit will split the family and throw us far away from each other for our daily life. I don't know how we will handle this, I honestly don't have a clue." - A Finnish respondent


The quotations are extracts from the research data.

Nordic Nationals in London

Saara Koikkalainen’s research project “Post Brexit London: Highly Skilled Migrants after the British Referendum” has received funding from the Alfred Kordelin Foundation, and the Academy of Finland as part of Transnationalism as a Social Resource among Diaspora Communities, a research project carried out at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki.

The progress of the project can be monitored on the Facebook page Nordic Nationals in London.