Migration has become a topic of conversation and contestation around the world since Europe’s shores became a beacon of hope for migrants and refugees fleeing economic and social hardship caused by war and/or poverty in their home countries. The United Kingdom remains one of the least affected countries with regards to migration, especially when compared to Italy, Hungary or France. Despite this, the increased number of people due to their membership of the European Union has led to a sharp criticism from the British public. Having lived in London for the past one year, I was extremely shocked by the result of the Brexit vote. All the areas within the UK that I visited during my stay seemed integrated and extremely diverse. Why did the British society decide to vote to leave the EU despite this diversity and integration? This article offers a few observations.

Before I highlight my observations, it is important to briefly explain the context both before and after the Brexit vote. The reason the vote was organised was due to a 2013 campaign promise by David Cameron. He promised a referendum on United Kingdom’s EU status with the hope of attracting conservative voters who might have voted for more right-wing political parties. Due to scepticisms over the possibility of a ‘Leave’ vote, little was done to prepare for an actual ‘Leave’ win. For example, parliament was so unconvinced that Britain would vote to ‘Leave’ that the procedures following a ‘Leave’ win were not established. Regardless the vote was held in June and its results shocked the world. A keen analysis of the results shows that London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. 73% of voters between 18 and 24 years old voted to remain while majority of voters 45+ years of age voted to leave. In terms of understanding the implications of the vote, many British people didn’t actually know exactly what they were voting for. This was confirmed by the increase in EU related Google searches in the UK immediately following the announcement of the referendum results. Despite the results, after nearly 2 months since the vote, nothing has been done yet to start facilitating the ‘leave’ process. In order to officially leave the EU, parliament has to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The article vaguely stipulates the procedures to be followed, should an EU member wish to leave the Union.

So, now for those observations:

  1. For years, certain groups in the UK have been concerned about the influx of foreigners into their country. Like many countries, including South Africa (where I’m from), the perception is usually that an increase in (“unskilled”) foreigners, equates to fewer lower skill jobs available for locals. The implications of massive job losses once the UK closed its borders to Europe did not seem to be much of a concern. Rather, Brexit became associated with foreigners leaving. This was clearly demonstrated by the post-vote racist attacks which took place across the country.
  2. Migration has been ongoing for thousands of years. As the weather changed, people moved to greener pastures. Then came the era of colonialism which, apart from extracting valuable resources, Europeans migrated in their hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to almost every continent of the world. The UK is not exempt from this, having created settler colonies in South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Australia, India and the United States of America (to mention but a few). Historically, Africa has been the migration continent of the world. Porous borders and cross-border cultural groups have led to the relatively free flow of people across the continent.
  3. Migration should not be considered a bad thing. In China for instance, rural to urban migration has helped facilitate the economic boom experienced in recent years and the development of numerous economic and industrial hubs. In addition, migration has led to the spread of ideas, innovative technology exchange, cultural exchange and the general development of the world. While there might be a large number of unskilled migrants entering the country, so many have valuable skills which can be utilised in their country of destination and due to the conditions in their countries of origin, are unable to practise those skills at home.
  4. Finally, in an era where globalisation is widely accepted as a norm, migration is one of the by-products which cannot be ignored. Governments need to now find innovative ways to manage the flow of people, both in and out of their countries.

The decision by the British society to leave the EU is still an enigma to me. The big question remains whether they will actually leave the EU, and what chain of events might the exit create?

Photo Credit: See http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/article/3532543/asset-management-macro/brexit-referendum-poses-big-risks-for-uk-and-eu.html#.WE7O37J97IU