EU citizens in Britain stay calm as migration dominates Brexit debate

As Britain enters the final fews days of campaigning before its in-out referendum on its membership in the European Union, much of the debate pits economic security against immigration controls.

A vote to leave could affect the careers, immigration status and personal lives of many of the 2.8 million EU migrants resident in Britain, yet most appear unconcerned by the political controversy surrounding them.

"It's not going to be straightforward, but I'm not worried," says Ivan Fekete, the Slovakian co-owner of the Green Chair Cafe in the centre of the southern English seaside city of Brighton.

"I've been here 11 years," Fekete, 32, tells dpa. "If I have to go back, I go back. But it's the choice of the people [voting in the referendum]."

Miguel Huerta, 36, moved with his wife and young son from Madrid to Brighton four and a half years ago.

"Because I didn't have any job in Spain, and my wife didn't have any job as well, so we decided to move here," Huerta says.

He said the couple found it easy to settle in Brighton once his wife, a primary school teacher, had started her first job as a cleaner. She switched to a job as a teaching assistant after one year, while Huerta works six evenings a week in a shop.

"We like Brighton, my son is going to school here so he's happy, he has a lot of friends," says Huerta, who is also a qualified teacher.

"My wife has has a good job and I am okay working here [in the shop], so it could be worse. I cannot complain."

Like Fekete, he says he is "not nervous" about the referendum, but he thinks it would be "a mistake if England leaves Europe."

"Maybe we would have to get a visa, but maybe it would be easier for us, especially if you have been living in England before," Huerta says.

A survey of Polish, Portuguese and Romanian migrants, published last month by researchers at Southampton University for the government-backed Centre for Population Change, found that only 11 per cent of them would consider leaving a post-Brexit Britain.

During the Brexit debate, the Leave side has suggested that some EU migrants have driven down wages and occupied unskilled jobs that could go to British citizens, but economists say the effect on wages is minimal.

Brighton has about 20,000 EU citizens in its population of 273,000, excluding Irish citizens, a higher proportion than the national average.

Some Leave supporters say EU migrants put pressure on schools, housing and education in some towns and cities.

Speaking to the BBC last week, Brighton politician Caroline Lucas, Britain's only Green Party member of parliament, said EU migrants were making a net contribution to Britain's economy but she urged the government to "use the money they bring in ... to invest in services."

Miroslav Horvath, a chef from the Czech Republic, believes EU migrants have an important role in taking on the long hours and menial tasks that many British citizens appear to shun.

"Try asking an English guy to clean toilets for a minimum wage," says Horvath, who has lived in Britain for five years.

"That's why you have the Polish or Czechs or Slovakians, because we don't mind working 70 hours a week," Horvath, 33, says at a pancake stand opened by his Czech friend Katrina Velkova.

Velkova says she serves pancakes, potato cakes and sweet cakes six days a week and often works until midnight while doubling as a hairdresser in the evenings.

Fekete opens his small cafe six days a week but he normally closes for business by late afternoon. He used to work longer shifts at a beachfront cafe, often finishing at 11 pm.

"I believe coming here made me a better person and more responsible," he says. "Suddenly, you don't get anything, you have to work for it."

Horvath shares Fekete's appetite for hard work and his lack of concern over Britain leaving the EU.

"I've been here long enough, so I'll probably get straight away a visa," Horvath predicts if Britain leaves and its immigration rules change. "So it wouldn't affect me really."

"If the situation comes to such a bad moment that I will have to leave this country, I will just claim my taxes back and leave, and try to go somewhere else," he says. "I'm not really planning to go back to Czech Republic in the next few years."

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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