LONDON: With the two-year clock ticking on Britain’s departure from the European Union, Spanish nurse Joan Pons and millions of other EU citizens living in the UK are facing an uncertain future.
“We want guarantees soon,” said 41-year-old Pons, who works in Norfolk in eastern England and has been living in Britain for 17 years.
Pons has three children aged five, 11 and 14 who were all born in Britain, and they are now worried about whether they will need to move to Spain.
“They are scared that we’ll go on holiday and never come back,” he told AFP.
Britain formally launched Brexit proceedings on Wednesday, following a divisive referendum campaign which saw immigration take centre stage.
More than three million EU citizens have made Britain their home, but Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to tighten immigration controls.
London and Brussels have both said they will make an agreement their status, as well as that of Britons living in other parts of the EU, a priority.
But for now EU nationals – most of them from eastern and southern Europe – do not know if they can stay.
Pons is one of the 60,000 EU nationals working in the National Health Service, representing about 5 percent of its staff of 1.2 million.
The uncertainty has already proved too much for some EU healthcare professionals.
“We are thinking of moving to Australia,” a 45-year-old Spanish nurse from Barcelona, who is married to a Spanish doctor, told AFP.
She requested anonymity since she has not yet spoken about her plans to her managers.
EU workers are also the backbone of the “Garden of England” in Kent, southeast England, where local farmers say they rely heavily on foreign staff because they cannot find enough Britons willing to do the required jobs.
Gabriela Szomoru, a 31-year-old Romanian who has worked her way up to an office job at a salad farm, resents the pro-Brexit mantra of EU workers driving down wages.
“It’s a very hard job. You start at five o’clock in the morning, up to 10 hours every day, six days a week,” said Szomoru, who came to Britain 10 years ago and started out picking strawberries before being promoted to her current job.
Szomoru is married to a tractor driver from Hungary and the two are planning to buy a house in the area, seeing their future in Britain.
Nick Ottewell, the director of the farm where Szomoru works, said he had received insults for making comments about the need for immigrants in the local press.
Ottewell said sectors like farming, healthcare and construction “wouldn’t function” without them.
Frenchman Nicolas Hutton, who co-chairs The3Million, campaign group for EU nationals, told AFP he was “devastated” after the referendum result and wanted EU citizens to “have a voice”.
“I hope that the British government and the EU will listen to us and ring fence our rights so we are not used to negotiate any other items on the agenda,” he said after May announced the start of Brexit.
“We don’t want to be the bargaining chips in the negotiations,” he said.