Argentinian, Carolina Cordoba is the kind of worker Northern Ireland has been looking to attract.
For two years she has worked in Dublin restaurants in the Republic of Ireland. But the capital city is notoriously expensive and she sometimes struggles to pay rent. She’s considered looking for work in Belfast, where the rent is much lower, but Brexit deterred her from taking that idea very seriously.
Cordoba knows that Belfast and the North have a much lower cost of living, but the fees for visa applications combined with the post-Brexit anti-immigration attitude makes Northern Ireland an unattractive option.
“The English have a reputation of not being welcoming, and the Irish have a reputation of being very welcoming. So the Northern Irish always try really hard to say: ‘hey, I’m English, but I’m nice. God save the queen,’” Cordoba said.
It’s a line Northern Ireland has to walk given its dependence on workers coming to the country.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 2000s, the region struggled to attract investment and workers. The country’s reputation as a war-torn region did little to stimulate the economy and the collapse of the few successful industries, such as shipbuilding, further weakened the economy.
A study by the Northern Ireland Assembly showed a net increase from -1,085 in 2001 to 9,140 in 2007. Most of these migrants were reportedly from Poland and Lithuania.
For the first time in over a hundred years, Northern Ireland saw a population increase.
During the peak of foreign immigration, 2004-2008, migrant workers contributed over £1.2 billion to the Northern Irish economy according to a study conducted by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building. “At that point they saw the economic boom that can result in a huge labor force with fairly low salaries,” said Christopher Desira, a lawyer with the London-based immigration rights firm Seraphus Solicitors.
Desira specializes in worker and immigrant rights within the UK and he says the government at the time had been very eager to take advantage of low-skilled labor. “They knew quite well what the benefits of migration were. They decided to not put any curbs in place when the EU expanded to include the Eastern European countries.”
The influx helped spur the tourist industry in the post-Troubles North. The hospitality industry accounts for one fifth of all jobs in Northern Ireland and The Northern Ireland Hotel Federation has said that EU migrants represent 27% of the people employed in that industry.
Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland which has a competing economy. And when Brexit occurred, the immigration policies in Ireland remained friendly to EU workers while suddenly stricter immigration was being enforced on the Northern side of the border.
Employers worry about that disparity and that workers, especially low-skilled workers, will simply decide to live and work on the Irish side where nothing has changed.
While a non-EU citizen still needs to apply for visas in EU nations, Brexit has introduced a new “points-based” system which largely alters the chances of being accepted in the UK and Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland has a list of 24 nationalities which are exempt from application fees. Argentina is on the list, but there is no exemption on the Northern side. If an application is denied then the fees are not reimbursed, and in many cases applicants have to tap into their life savings to afford it.
“If you’re going to go to another place and you’re going to pay that huge amount of money you try to play it as safe as you can,” Cordoba said.
The lowest priced application for a temporary work visa from Argentina is roughly $338. If they are accepted then applicants may need to pay an additional $205 to take an English test. They must also pay an Immigration Health Surcharge based on how long they plan to live in the country (around $856 per year). The immigration office also requires an applicant to have an additional $1,758 in savings when they apply.
That’s $3,157 just for the privilege of having the UK immigration authorities look over your application. None of these expenses guarantee that your application will be accepted and if it is there are still other expenses.
That’s 289,058.65 Argentinian Pesos for a “maybe”.
Concerns about immigration were a big talking point leading up to Brexit and many would-be immigrants don’t even feel wanted in Northern Ireland. That “maybe” ends up looking even less hopeful.
“It’s not only the expenses. They wouldn’t really give us the visa, that’s the thing. It wouldn’t be up to a discussion,” says Cordoba.
Without the free movement that Northern Ireland experienced while in the EU, they will need to find another way to bring in the workforce and they will first have to make themselves appear more inclusive.
“Politically, you haven’t created a very welcoming climate. I mean, you can’t kick out EU citizens and incentivize them to leave and then say: hey come work here it’s such a welcoming place to foreigners,” said Matthias Matthijs, Associate Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University.
If cutting off the flow of EU immigrants isn’t offset with new workers from other locations Northern Ireland could experience another period of population decline.
“Well, they say: okay we’ll replace Germans and Romanians with Jamaicans and Sri Lankans,” said Matthijs.”I mean that- I think is going to be the very, very tricky part.”
Northern Ireland would be particularly affected by a lack of migrant workers but there is hope that the government will find suitable ways to address the issue before it becomes a full-blown labor crisis.
Migrants already living in the UK need to apply to stay and the main concern among immigration advocates is ensuring that they all apply. The UK Home Office had expected 3.4 million applications, but have received 5.2 million applications as of February. Keeping the current workers there is the first step in staving off a labor crisis.
Northern Ireland will have a clearer sense of the impact of Brexit on their foreign-born workforce this summer, following a June 1 deadline for those workers to apply for permanent settlement status to remain in the UK.