Carlie: Hey there. It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Brexit negotiations have amped up over the past month in the UK and Europe, and so has the push to ringfence citizens’ rights. In mid-November, the same evening that UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced her Brexit withdrawal agreement, which the EU has since accepted, I spoke to Elena Remigi, founder and director of the In Limbo Project.
As an Italian living in the UK, she’s one of many citizens who’ve been affected by the Brexit vote. Elena’s In Limbo Project started with a Facebook group that she created for people to share their Brexit testimonies.
These personal accounts from EU citizens in the UK were compiled for a book, called In Limbo. And that book was quickly followed by In Limbo 2, which shares the stories of UK citizens living in the EU. The books provide heartbreaking insights into what the past couple of years have been like for so many, as Brexit talks play out, and, they’re a reminder for all of us of just how deeply this issue is affecting people’s lives.
Elena, I feel like it’s a really interesting time for us to be speaking, and I feel like we need a TV screen in the corner to watch the latest developments, because tonight the UK Prime Minister is supposed to make a Brexit deal-related announcement. How are you feeling at the moment?
Elena: You know, I certainly feel a bit tense. I wonder what’s, you know, going to happen, and I think I echo the feelings of many others who’ve been in limbo for so long, so, for EU citizens certainly, you know, our future largely depends on, on the decisions make, made in these days.
Carlie: You did start the In Limbo Project, and you edited the two books that came out of it. Can you explain to me how In Limbo, book number 1 and then the follow up book, came about?
Elena: Well the idea of, of this project stems both from my personal experience, and from what happened after the referendum. I would say starting from, you know, the referendum, in the month following it, many EU citizens, who like me had had no voice in it, had started sharing their feelings, their concerns, and you know, feelings of, of anger, of worry, of even of betrayal, on facebook and other social medias. So I thought that, you know, our stories, our voices, if collected in a book, could finally be heard. So the idea was to create a book to reach the public, and the politicians, to raise awareness of our plight.
But, it’s also, the idea of the project stems from my own personal experience of dealing with the Home Office for my citizenship, after having obtained permanent residency. The Home Office just simply would not believe that I was living in the UK, although I had a mortgage, a car, a family. So, on top of all the tests and documents already requested, I had to send three kilos of additional evidence. And this for me was, was a Kafka-esque process, where I felt I had to prove my existence here in the UK after 13 years of exercising my Treaty rights and, as an EU citizen. But then I realised I was not alone in this, and hence the idea of, of the book, in particular the first one.
Carlie: I have the two books in my hands, so, for those not familiar with them, the first book produced is Brexit testimonies from EU citizens like yourself, Elena, in the UK. And then the follow up book is Brexit testimonies from UK citizens in the EU. And both of them are not small books, they’re a good 250 pages each, and, looking through them, they are just filled with the most heartbreaking accounts, because, as you said, you’ve been in the UK for a good 13 years, and yet you’re still in a situation where you needed to prove your residency rights to remain.
Elena: Yes. Absolutely. And, you know, I’m not, I wasn’t an isolated case, and actually, my story is certainly better of, you know, compared to many other heartbreaking stories I’ve heard. In some cases, you know, not all the stories have been collected in the book. We have 150 stories roughly per book. But I’ve also listened to countless heartbreaking stories behind the scenes.
For many people, obtaining PR is simply not possible, because of the CSI, this Comprehensive In-Sickness Insurance rule, which, you know, nobody had heard about, which was deemed illegal by the EU, and yet it prevents many people from, you know, from getting their permanent residency, and hence, then apply for citizenship. For instance, the co-editor of the first book, Veronique Martin, you know a French person who’s lived in the, in the UK for over 30 years, married to a Brit, is not entitled to permanent residency. Although she has a PhD in English Literature, she’s lived here and as I was saying has a British husband.
So, yes, the book contains many heartbreaking stories, the first book about EU citizens in the UK, but we mustn’t forget that there is the other side, the people who live on the other side of the Channel, our British friends, who’ve found themselves in the same painful limbo.
And, and the second book comes as a collaboration with a group called Brexpats – Hear Our Voice. But of course the book contains many stories from several groups, like Remain in Spain, RIFT, British in Europe, and, and so on. When you look at the two books, in theory they could be one. They should be read as one, because the suffering is the same, although the problems are slightly different.
Carlie: I think I saw a, a comment from yourself online somewhere, where you mention they’re a real piece of history illustrating the feelings of so many people at this time. And I think it’s something that we’re going to look back on and, and realise, more than we do now, just how, how disruptive this period of, of Brexit has been.
Elena: Absolutely. I mean, our lives have been really plunged into limbo. I think this expression wasn’t used widely at the time we produced the book. People were talking more about us being used as bargaining chips, as pawns, by this government. But I, I really felt that the word limbo described really well how we felt, this, you know, situation of uncertainty, of our lives all of a sudden being plunged into the state of, you know, where you know, you don’t know how to act, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you can’t plan anything, you know, for your future. The book contains all, all these stories, all these voices, because people have been hugely affected. Many of, of the people I speak to always talk about before and after the referendum, as if they’ve had two lives, you know. But truly, we’ve had two lives. And the country we live in seems so different from what it looked like, it felt like, before June 2016.
Carlie: Certainly I, I was in London at the time, and I was able to vote as a, as a Maltese citizen. And I voted Remain, and everyone I knew in London and the feeling in London was very much Remain, and in no way did I think that a Leave majority vote would be a reality, and it was a very big wake-up call. What also jumped out at me when I was reading the stories in these books is, some of the comments from British colleagues of, of EU citizens and they’re recounting British colleagues saying things like, oh, it’s not you that we, that we want to kick out, it’s just that we want less, other people here. Like, there was a naivete about what voting Leave would actually mean, for so many people.
Elena: And also the fact, I felt that what hurt most people is the, the fact that it’s, you know, this was largely a vote against immigration, but it’s never, it’s never us. There is a lovely poem, a very poignant poem actually, in In Limbo, it’s called You and Me, and it describes the fact that, you know, people always say well it’s not about you. And, you know. So, who are they referring to? It’s, it’s always the other immigrant, and you are the good ones, you know, but they’re always the others.
So, you know, as you were saying, you, you lived in London, London can be a little bit of a bubble. But when you look at the, you know, the whole of Britain, there are areas where the Leave vote was particularly strong, and where EU citizens have really struggled, and still struggle to live. Particularly Polish communities, Eastern European communities, and, you know, xenophobia and racism have risen sharply after the referendum. 41%, you know, is the rise of, of these crimes. And we have one of the contributors to the book, Vee [?], who’s also an administrator in our group, who’s, you know, was subjected to a racial attack, besides, you know, a xenophobic attack, because her son is mixed-race.
So, what we’ve, one can see in London is very different from what, you know, was happening in the rest of Britain. But it certainly was a surprise for many. Somehow I wasn’t as surprised as, as many. I thought the, the vote would be, you know, around 50-50 on both sides, but I could see the rhetoric, I could see the language had changed. Nobody referred to me before as an EU migrant, I was considered an EU citizen. Probably I didn’t even have a name, and I was just, you know, me! But, all of a sudden, the language, on TV, on the media, had changed, and made me, you know, made me realise that the vote, you know, could have gone the other way.
Carlie: You mentioned PR, or permanent residency, issues before, and it goes for EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, that their residency rights after Brexit are in no way guaranteed, even in the case of yourself, 13 years in the UK, people in these books that I’m reading have, have been in the UK for 30 years, and yet possibly cannot show enough evidence to the Home Office that they should remain, and that seems so insane to me. They have families, they’ve had careers. Do you think that those in government really understood the fallout for, for citizens of what was going to happen with the Brexit vote?
Elena: I don’t think that, particularly amongst voters, that was understood. And, I must say that we’ve had a number of people who, upon reading the book, have come back to us and said, I voted Leave, but I never realised the impact this vote could have on EU citizens. Yes, probably there was a, a superficiality, but on the other side, we must not forget that we have the Home Office, and the ‘hostile environment’ introduced by Theresa May, you know, this hostile environment, you know, creates problems to, to a lot of people, and, and leaves us in this great uncertainty and worry.
When you look at the scandal, the Windrush scandal for instance, EU citizens wonder, wonder whether we’ll be next? And, they tell us now that a new settled status will be easy, everybody can apply, and you know, people will get through it easily. But, there are a lot of unanswered questions. And also, if it’s introduced as secondary legislation, we know that things can always be changed, without even parliamentary approval.
So, we could find ourselves in a very difficult situation and not dissimilar from what the Windrush or other, you know, people, non-EU citizens have found themselves in. So, as you were saying, I don’t know whether that was deliberate, but certainly, the first thing that was said after the referendum is that for us, things would have changed, and that our rights weren’t guaranteed. And, and this has left us in a situation of, of great uncertainty, of great worry. And, and for many people, particularly, not so much the people in, who have a job, but the, the disabled, the most vulnerable say categories, even older people, don’t have the documents maybe to prove that they lived here 50 or 60 years, because truly, things had changed, and after we joined the EU we didn’t need certain documents. These are the categories who are most at risk.
Carlie: I read one account in your book from a British woman, or, actually they didn’t identify if they were a man or a woman, but a British person living in Spain, who had moved to Spain for the better quality of life, to be able to not need to, to live counting every penny they had. And then the Brexit vote happened, and the pound dropped, and suddenly they were counting their pennies in Spain, and they don’t actually even have a way to financially return to the UK, if they can’t continue living in Spain, and that just must be such a horrifying situation to, to literally just be in so much, as you say, limbo, while, while this is being sorted out.
Elena: Absolutely. I mean, limbo, you know, is very different from, you know, depending on, on the person, because our lives are varied, and, and there isn’t a single, you know, experience, but certainly for many pensioners, this is the situation they, they might find themselves in on, you know, those pensioners who’ve moved maybe to Spain, to find a better quality of life, or to, you know, other countries in the EU. But let’s not forget that most British citizens who’ve moved to the EU are young, they work, they have children, and you know, they are, like us, they’re waiting for an answer. They, they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They don’t know whether they’ll have the right documents to stay. Because, of course, the, each country will reciprocate what happens to us, so, you can understand how they feel, and how worried, like us, they are.
Carlie: Elena, whether a, a full deal is agreed and announced tonight remains to be seen, and ironically we’ll probably know not long after getting off this call. But, are you hopeful that citizens’ rights can be secured ahead of the March 29 exit date?
Elena: No, I’m not secure, but certainly what I would like to see is our rights to be ringfenced. And they need to be ringfenced now, you know, both for EU citizens living in the UK, and for UK citizens living in the EU. I think, you know, we’re tired. Enough is enough, and I think that it’s time, you know, to put our minds at rest, and allow people to carry on with their lives. We certainly cannot carry on, and I certainly speak for, you know, many people who’ve, you know, sometimes have opened up and even recently and told me, you know, one month, two months, but you know, now it’s, it’s been 2 years, you know? You know, I can’t carry on like this. So, my, my hope is that, on both sides of the Channel, but cer-, but particularly here, it, it is understood that it’s so important that these rights are ringfenced. And for, you know, whatever the outcome of, of this agreement or something, you know, we can’t play with people’s lives.
Carlie: Since you collected these stories from those in the, the Facebook group, have the groups continued, and how have you seen the discussions evolve?
Elena: At the start, I think most people were more hopeful that an agreement would be reached soon, in terms of our rights, not of Brexit. As time goes on what I notice is that people are more and more tired. They’re angrier as well, because, you know, simply, it’s, you know, when, when this limbo, you know, feels like an, like an eternity, it is very hard for some to, to be able to, I’ve seen people affected, their, sometimes their mental health affected. Sometimes it’s discouraging, but at the same time, we have to keep on fighting. We need to fight this fight, because it, it is so important, it matters, you know, for our lives, for our futures, and for the future of our children.
Carlie: What are you hoping people get out of reading these books? What are you hoping to put across in sharing these stories?
Elena: Well my, my hope is to touch hearts and change minds. I think that this is really the main idea behind In Limbo, and In Limbo 2. Really, it is important that people read these stories, and realise that we are not numbers, we are not statistics, we are not a depersonalised mass of migrants, we are people, with feelings, with lives, with children. And we are part, you know, in the case of, of EU citizens here, we are part of Britain, you know, we’ve ma-, we’ve contributed to this country.
We contributed to make this country, you know, great, as, you know, some people like to say, using the sentence in another context! And likewise, our friends, British friends in the EU, have done the same. They’ve integrated, they, you know, they, in some cases they’ve married, with you know, a German, a French, and they’ve created new European families. So, it’s important that people really, by reading these stories, start realising that there’s more, and, we can’t be reduced to a mass of EU migrants.
Carlie: Are you hopeful that your home of the UK will recover, I suppose, after Brexit? Are you hopeful for the future in, in what is your home at the moment?
Elena: Well, one never has to lose hope. And, I always like to say that In Limbo and In Limbo 2 are, and particularly In Limbo, is a letter of love to, to Britain. It’s the country that we’ve chosen as our home, it’s the country we’ve loved, and, you know, where we’ve put our, down our roots. It certainly won’t be easy. Because a lot of lines have been crossed, and a lot of work needs to be done. On the other side, when I read the, the accounts of many of my British friends, I noticed that Brexit really was dividing families, was creating, you know, rifts between friends, communities, so there’s a lot of work to be done in that direction.
And this is why a book like this is a book which can be used as a political tool, and we’ve used it, we’ve, you know, used it to send it to, you know, more than a thousand politicians, on both sides of the Channel, but on the other side is a book for the public, really to change their perception, and learn to appreciate, you know, the other, as a person, and not as a number.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have a Brexit story to share, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups. You’ll find the link to learn more about the In Limbo books in our show notes, and be sure to check out our other episodes, on Brexit and citizens’ rights. We have a chat with Daniel Tetlow, from the British in Germany organisation.
But the podcast covers all aspects of expat life, from language learning to visas, having a baby abroad, and relocating your pets, just to name a few. If you like what we do, please leave us a review. And I’ll catch you next time.