Belonging in the era of Brexit

Leslie Fesenmyer

The referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU posed a seemingly simple question that taps into complex questions of identification and belonging. Unsurprisingly, as people consider who belongs and who does not, immigration continues to dominate discussions. Having worked with migrants from Kenya – members of the ‘new’ African diaspora in the UK – since 2009, I was curious to hear their thoughts. Those I spoke with expressed a range of views that reflects not only the diversity within a so-called migrant ‘community’, but also a desire for belonging.

Migration and life in the UK

The period between migrant Kenyans’ arrival in the 1990s and today spans many changes in law and attitudes regarding (im)migration that have made it increasingly difficult for migrants to obtain permanent residency, much less to regularise their status. Although they might be classed as economic migrants who wanted ‘better lives’, economic considerations cannot be reduced to economic determinism. Entangled with their search for livelihoods are aspirations for becoming particular kinds of persons, of marrying, having their own homes, raising children. These migrants are hard to place on the political spectrum. As born-again Christians, they are socially conservative on such issues as abortion and homosexuality, as well as drinking, smoking, and gambling. At the same time, their concern for people living in poverty, whether in Britain or abroad, suggests progressive views as well.

Remain or Leave: Newham and Barking and Dagenham

Many of my interlocutors live, work, and worship in East London, particularly Newham and Barking and Dagenham. In the referendum, more than half (53%) of Newham residents voted to stay in the EU, while 62% of Barking and Dagenham residents voted to leave, the third highest percentage in London.[i] Home to the London Docks, Newham is a historic site of arrival that continues to be marked by tremendous diversity. Newham is one of two London boroughs where ethnic minorities are the majority (Aston Mansfield 2013: 4). While four out of every 10 residents identifies as Christian, one in three residents identify as Muslim (Aston Mansfield 2013: 8). In contrast Barking and Dagenham borough had a largely stable, white working class population throughout much of the 20th century. According the council’s website, however, the white population decreased by 31.4% between 2001 and 2011, while the Black African population increased by 11% during the same period.[ii] By the end of the decade, the non-UK born population in the borough had increased by 205%, the largest increase for all of London.[iii] The population churn in both boroughs contributes to shifting social dynamics that residents must grapple with, whether they are long-term residents, recent arrivals, or somewhere in between.

Relational experiences

My interlocutors’ views have undoubtedly been shaped by the contexts in which they live their lives. Many are employed in low-wage sectors as carers, cleaners, security guards, and shop clerks in which migrants have been accused of pushing down wages and taking ‘British’ jobs. They have shared with me experiences of racial hostility, such as, being called racial slurs, having their cars vandalised, and feeling unwelcome in particular stores and while passing through particular streets.

At the same time, as I have discussed elsewhere, some have expressed concerns about Britain having ‘left the Kingdom of God’ and no longer being a Christian country, as evidenced by the large numbers of non-Christians and non-believers. And, they identify as religious missionaries intent on bringing the UK ‘back into the Kingdom of God’. Nonetheless, many also express a desire to ‘live as Londoners do’, which means co-existing alongside diverse ‘others’ and negotiating difference.

Those who wanted to leave

Among those I spoke with who supported Britain leaving the EU, their primary motivation was that they believed Brexit might mean that they would be more warmly received as ‘friends’ of Britain from the Commonwealth. One woman reminded me that Queen Elizabeth was in Kenya when she first heard the news of her father’s death in 1952, which marked her ascendance to the throne. Some mentioned long-standing historical ties between Britain and Kenya, including for example, Kenyans fighting alongside British soldiers in World War II. Others prided themselves on their fluency in English, as compared to some of their Eastern Europeans neighbours who did not speak English (very well). Their views also reflected very personal reasons: many hoped that greater closeness between Britain and the Commonwealth might make it easier for their own relatives to obtain visas to visit them.

Those who supported remain, including with some reservations

Others I talked with about Brexit thought the hostility to immigrants was shocking, particularly when that hostility came from fellow migrants. As several people intimated to me, ‘Have they not looked in the mirror?’; one woman said: ‘I can’t believe a foreigner would vote leave. It’s like they don’t know who they are.’ Still others I spoke with about the referendum expressed appreciation for arguments both sides made: they felt concerned about perceived pressure on jobs from EU workers and on the NHS, while also wanting unity and solidarity with Europe. A key concern was that the debate was negative and would (further) divide people.

Belonging at different scales

The differing views of this ostensible (migrant) ‘community’ reflect the complexity of their positionality, which cannot be explained with reference solely to migration, race, country of origin, religion, or residence. Arguably, those who wanted to leave identified with a so-called national collectivity; their efforts to position themselves as ‘good’ migrants compared with other ‘bad’ migrants capture a sense of belonging (or at least a desire to be seen to belong) to wider British society from which they have, at times, felt excluded. Meanwhile, those who supported remaining in the EU expressed an affinity with migrants ‘like them’, if not also with a broader collectivity on the basis of shared humanity.

Taken together, their views reveal the ambivalence and contradictions that characterise many migrants’ struggles to forge sustainable lives in a new place, on one hand, and to identify with a larger social collectivity, on the other. Regardless of their views though, how ‘others’ imagine and interact with them inevitably mediates the answer(s) to the question of where they belong. The divergent views, both revealed and generated by the referendum, indicate that, regardless of the legal basis for determining who belongs, senses of belonging are always relational. This suggests that the tensions and fissures that emerged in the wake of the referendum will be difficult to reconcile however Brexit proceeds.


Aston-Mansfield Community Involvement Unit (2014) Newham: Key Statistics 2013, London: Aston- Mansfield

[i] Accessed 6 October 2016

[ii] Accessed 24 June 2016

[iii] Accessed 29 June 2016

Blog image: “Results of the European Union membership referendum, 2016 in the Greater London region” by Mirrorme22, created from File:Greater London UK district map (blank).svg by User:Nilfanion (which contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right). [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


DiscriminationEuropean UnionIntegrationNeighbourhoodsPublic OpinionReligion