How Will the Brexit Affect Immigrants and Refugees?

The “leave” campaign in England hinged on anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric. Photo by Diamond Geezer (Creative Commons).

When I first met the Pusuma-Darocszi family in 2014, they had been living in a church in Toronto for nearly two years while they pleaded with the Canadian government to allow them to stay.  

The Pusuma-Darocszis are originally from Hungary and of Romani origin, an ethnic minority group that faces discrimination in Europe and throughout much of the world. They are as much a part of Europe as they are excluded from it, particularly in Hungary, where racially motivated violence against Roma people and other ethnic minorities appears to be reaching potentially genocidal levels.

Jozef and Timea Pusuma, along with their young daughter Lulu, fled to Canada after Jozsef  began to receive death threats because of his work with prominent Roma advocate and member of European Parliament Viktoria Mohac. The family did what they could: they fled to Canada and requested asylum.  They were denied again and again. They appealed the decision multiple times despite poor representation (their lawyer misplaced valuable evidence and repeatedly ignored their pleas). In a last-ditch attempt, they finally moved into the Anglican church and invoked ancient sanctuary laws for protection.

They were pale from staying inside for months by that point, knowing that it was only a matter of time before they were deported. What Jozsef worried about most wasn’t his own safety, so much as his wife Timea’s and especially the welfare of their little girl, Lulu. Always, he said, he worried about his daughter getting abducted from class in Hungary, or killed in the street, or brutalized in different ways.  They were deported back to Hungary a few months after I met them.

To be a refugee is to live on the razor’s edge, not knowing what will come next, but knowing that anything must be better than where you came from.  It is a life of constant hypervigilance, scrutiny, and extreme vulnerability.  Within that vulnerability are those who suffer most of all: the women and children. Study after study shows that women and children disproportionately bear the brunt of direct and indirect racially motivated violence, whether through policies or direct confrontation.

Timea, Lulu, and Jozsef are the faces of refugees in Europe. They had been terrorized, beaten, and threatened by right-wing paramilitary groups—groups that are now empowered by the rise of the sort of populist nationalism, paranoid xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments that fueled the success of Brexit. Make no mistake about it: No matter how it was initially intended, voting for Brexit was voting to get immigrants and refugees out.  One look at the politicians who are publicly cheering the decision to leave the European Union should be enough to make it clear where the sentiments are coming from.

Their Brexit campaign poster was roundly criticized for its baldly anti-immigrant and refugee message:


“Victory for freedom!” tweeted Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front — the same group that has made a massive reduction in immigration and strong border controls among its major platforms.

“Thursday, June 23, 2016, will go down in history as Britain’s Independence Day,” Dutch politician Geert Wilders wrote on his website.  Wilders leads the Dutch Party for Freedom, which wants to end Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and reduce support for migrants and refugees across the board.

The push for Brexit was led by Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party, which was initially formed to advocate for Britain’s exit from the European Union, but which also expanded to include other issues—such as opposing immigration.

Demonstrators remember Jo Cox, who was murdered last week by a pro-Brexit man. Photo by Garry Knight (Creative Commons).

The stances of each of these politicians has directly affected families from all over the world like the Pusuma-Darocszis. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that fueled the Brexit is already causing untold misery for the vulnerable by empowering the most vicious sentiment and policies, creating situations in which people fleeing wars arrive to new countries only to be turned back by barbed-wire fences. One deadly effect of the rhetoric that Leavers have spread has already happened: Last week British Labour politician Jo Cox, who supported immigration and was in favor of remaining in the EU, was assassinated by a pro-Brexit killer who shouted, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

The story of the Pusuma-Darocszis ends on a note of hope.  On June 23rd, amid the Brexit brouhaha, the family arrived back in Canada, invited there on a humanitarian visa and welcomed by a new administration.  Their successful escape from an untenable situation is just one story out of many, but its ending shows that it is not only possible but imperative to protect the human rights and dignity of those who are most vulnerable.

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by Brooke Binkowski
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Brooke Binkowski is a reporter who specializes in immigration and humanitarian journalism, mostly (but not always) on the U.S.-Mexico border. She loves long walks on the beach, traveling the world, and deconstructing the patriarchy.

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