Brexit turned Nordic Londoners into immigrants

The Brexit process has provided Nordic citizens living in Britain with an insight into what it feels like to be ‘undesirable’. Having been a privileged and welcome group of migrants, they now feel a similar sense of exclusion as other immigrant groups.

“Brexit has fundamentally undermined the feeling of being part of British society and belonging here. Brexit has made it clear to Nordic citizens that they are immigrants, which is something they did not feel they were before,” says sociologist Saara Koikkalainen.

She is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science and has analysed how Nordic people living in London have reacted to Brexit. She used an online survey and interviews with Nordic citizens to analyse how Brexit has affected their lives and how they perceive their future.

Approximately 92,000 people originally from the Nordic countries currently live in Britain. As migrants, they are an invisible and privileged group because they do not usually stand out in terms of looks, they have good language skills and a strong position in the job market, and they rarely face direct discrimination. But Brexit has changed the mood in Britain.

“No discrimination but I feel less welcome since the vote.”
(Swedish woman, aged 40–44)

As a result of Brexit, many Nordic citizens have begun to understand what it feels like to be an African or a Polish immigrant who often encounters racism in their daily lives, Koikkalainen points out. Some have also begun to censor themselves, not speaking their native language when on the bus or train, for instance.

“Many of these people used to feel that they were part of the British cultural sphere, having watched British television programmes and listened to British music from when they were children. Some of them have lived in Britain for decades. Suddenly a barrier is erected, and they notice that they are perhaps not that welcome after all.”

“Brexit made me feel personally very rejected and disappointed in my chosen home country. Now after some time has passed I feel it gives me a better understanding of what non-European immigrants go through in Europe.” (Finnish woman, aged 35–39)

Koikkalainen says that many British people believe that by voting for Brexit, they voted against an unwelcome wave of migration, against those seen as exploiting the system, taking British jobs or simply not fitting in. What they have not understood is that they also voted against the migrants they would welcome.

“You may be married to a Brit, and your in-laws voted for Brexit. It’s really unpleasant when your own family members fail to understand that this affects you personally,” Koikkalainen notes.

“After the Brexit vote, I did start getting more nasty comments on the street when people realised I was a foreigner. At my work, my manager said that ‘Britain cannot take any more foreigners, we are full’, but then made a quick comment about how I was welcome to stay.”
(Finnish woman, aged 20–25)

A common factor shared by all Nordic citizens living in Britain is that Brexit has increased uncertainty in their lives and decreased their trust in British society. Brexit has also forced them to explore their identity, to ask themselves where they wish to live in the future and where they feel at home.

“I think I will move back to Norway. I have always thought that I would go back some day, Brexit has probably pushed me over the decision line. Even if there is a ‘soft Brexit’, something has changed for me. I thought I didn’t have to belong to or have a specific cultural identity (or that I could have both). I now feel I am being forced to choose one.”
(Norwegian woman, aged 45–49)

Overall, the reactions of Nordic people have been mixed. Some are frustrated at the process dragging on and no longer care what will happen. They just want it over and done with. Some are angry and fighting against Brexit, while yet others feel depressed. But there is also a defiant group of Nordic citizens who have lived in the country for a long time. They are saying: “Try throwing me out if you want to.”

“Some people don’t perhaps realise how big a thing Brexit is because it’s difficult for us to imagine a situation in which we would no longer have freedom of movement and other benefits provided by the EU. We have begun to take it for granted that we don’t need to worry about visas or buy expensive health insurance policies – after all, our medical expenses are reimbursed if something happens when we are in another EU country,” Koikkalainen says.

The quotes are from Koikkalainen’s research material.


Further information:

Saara Koikkalainen, postdoctoral researcher

Phone: +358 50 556 0747

Migration and Diaspora

Saara Koikkalainen’s research forms part of the Academy of Finland funded research project “Transnationalism as a Social Resource among Diaspora Communities”, at the Migration and Diaspora Studies Research Group (MIDI), led by University Lecturer Östen Wahlbeck. Her study is one of three case studies that will be conducted during the four-year-project.”