‘I felt suicidal’: EU nationals express anguish a year after Brexit vote

'I was totally shocked. I wasn’t crying – I was wailing. It was totally catastrophic'

May Bulman
Friday 23 June 2017 09:25 BST
For many EU citizens in the UK, Brexit was the start of a tumultuous journey that would throw their personal lives into disarray
For many EU citizens in the UK, Brexit was the start of a tumultuous journey that would throw their personal lives into disarray (AP)

“I cried. At 3am, I went to bed and I was in tears. I thought, what on earth is going to happen? I had seen so much hatred. Jo Cox had been murdered, and I was very, very scared.”

A year ago today, Britain was voting in a referendum that would change lives forever. As the result became clear the next morning, some were dejected, others were elated – few were indifferent. But for one group, most of whom were unable to take part in the vote themselves, it was the start of a tumultuous journey that would throw their personal lives into disarray.

Three million Europeans who had built their lives in the UK suddenly had to worry about their rights to live, work, study and do a host of other things that they had never questioned before. And amid the logistic nightmare of whether they could continue living in Britain, they felt the burning sentiment that they were no longer welcome.

“I fell in love with Britain," says Veronique Martin, a writer and academic who has lived in Britain since 1984 when she came as part of the first ever group of Erasmus students. "But since the referendum, so much has changed. The atmosphere has changed, the values of tolerance and open-mindedness, the wonderful uniqueness and quirkiness has faded down in comparison with a much harder edge, and this is very worrying for all of us Europeans. We’ve been left in limbo,” she says

Since the vote, Veronique has been working with other EU nationals to raise awareness of their plight. They have produced a collection of testimonies, in the form of a book titled In Limbo: Brexit testimonies from EU citizens in the UK, which gives an inside view of what it feels like to go from a sense of safety and certainty to “total insecurity and doubt” within a matter of days.

Elena Remigi, an interpreter from Milan, Italy, who has lived and worked in the UK for 12 years, co-wrote the book with Veronique, and says she came up with the idea while she was struggling with applying for British citizenship. She was less surprised by the result.

“In the weeks before the vote, I noticed the newspapers had started talking about us as EU migrants,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with the word itself, but the EU talks about the circulation for EU citizens. The term was used in a derogatory way. And when I read the comments below articles, I saw the tide was turning.

“There was a sense of mourning on the day. It was sad to see a country like Britain, with such a strong, liberal tradition, decide to abdicate from this. Britain has been open and always been a very tolerant and open place, so seeing that brought a sense of great sadness.”

Anne-Laure Donskoy, a French citizen who has lived in the UK for 30 years, recalls how the vote to leave made her feel suicidal, saying: “I was totally shocked. I wasn’t crying, I was wailing. I felt really suicidal. It was totally catastrophic.

"You know when they say your worst nightmare has come true, you keep waiting to wake up but you can’t and it goes on week after week and then month after month, and now it’s been a year. I don’t know if this is the end of the nightmare of if there’s more to come,” she says.

“After living my adult life here – it takes away your bearings and everything you know, everything you take for granted, including how you relate to other people. And the Britain that’s been my home and that I’ve known for 30 years. How do you fit into this landscape that still isn’t defined a year on?”

Amid the anguish of not knowing whether they will have the rights to remain in the UK, EU nationals also describe the discrimination they have felt since the vote. Many have already left, not because they are afraid they will be forced to leave, but because the anti-European rhetoric has driven them out.

Advert for 'In Limbo: Our Brexit Testimonies' chronicling EU citizen's experiences since referendum

“The divisiveness has been really difficult," says Maike Bohn, who came to the UK as a German student 25 years ago. “It gives me an idea of what it might be like to be a religious minority or to have beliefs that aren’t approved of by the majority of society. People say to me ‘Oh, we don’t mean you’, but you either mean all of us or one of us.

“I really feel that this environment has been created to make us all feel invisible. People can’t bear it, and many have left. The British abroad have experienced a lot of uncertainty about pensions and other issues, but I don’t think they’ve met such a hostile reception from their respective governments."

Official statistics released last month showed a surge in EU citizens leaving the country last year, with around 117,000 leaving in 2016 – an increase of 31,000 on 2015 and the highest recorded estimate since 2009 – prompting business groups to warn that employers risked “losing key members of staff in positions that cannot easily be replaced”.

"This country wants to attract that best and brightest, and the best and brightest are leaving in droves," Maike continues. "People have stopped applying for places at universities here, or coming to work in the NHS. People are starting to realise that Britain is no longer that wonderful places where you could build your life and feel at home.”

As Brexit negotiations get underway, there are thin promises of guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals in the UK and Britons living in Europe. But for many, regardless of what the politicians decide, the Leave vote has changed their perspective of the UK forever.

"There has been a before and after the referendum. Before, people felt settled and integrated. This was home," says Elena, her voice audibly cracking. "After that our lives have been thrown into incredible uncertainty. I’ve listened in chat rooms to people who are extremely desperate. People say it’s overexaggerated; they should speak to people whose lives have been thrown into great disarray."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in