I have lived in other countries of the European Union for the majority of my adult life. I lived in Italy, in Greece and now Cyprus. Each of these places has given me something positive.
In Greece, my children were born. I am a British citizen, and my husband, the father of my children, is Greek. As such, my children have Greek nationality and automatically have the right to reside in Greece, as do I as a spouse and a mother of Greek citizens. I am one of the lucky ones.
My youngest child was born with special needs. He has cognitive delays, and mild hypotonia, which limits his physical activities. In Greece, he attended a special school, and I became part of a community of families with a member with special needs. Many of the children I saw had never known any other life. Those whose parents came from other countries had in some cases never visited those countries, and some did not speak or understand the native language of at least one of their parents.
Among these families, there are British citizens, like me, who emigrated to the EU when much younger, before their child was born. Some of them are not married to EU nationals, and their children do not have another nationality. This is now their reality in the wake of Brexit: their children may not understand English at all, or may only have a limited grasp on it. These children have never been in English-medium education, and they fear regression if they should suddenly be placed into a new linguistic environment. These are children who need routines and stability, who cannot cope with major changes in their lives.
Ah, you may think, but what is the worry? Surely provision has been made so that they can stay where they are? The answer to that is both yes and no. All the agreements with EU countries granting rights to British citizens are contingent on Brexit taking place with a deal. Under no-deal, they demand reciprocity for their own citizens, a point on which the UK government is unclear in the event of no-deal. And secondly, there is the minimum income requirement.
When a child with special needs is born, everything changes. Parents are often forced to give up their jobs to care for their child. You may think it is easy to provide care, you may imagine a team of doctors, of specialists, of dedicated nurses. The reality is very different. It doesn’t seem to matter which country, parents all tell the same story: you’re pretty much on your own, facing an uphill battle, fighting every step of the way. Childminders who were happy to take on your other children refuse to take the one with special needs. You hear the phrase “I’m not prejudiced, but…” and you don’t care what reasoning they have, because it all boils down to the same thing: they won’t help you. State run nurseries will also refuse to take your child. They will come out with all sorts of excuses and reasons, and ways to circumvent the law that ostensibly grants equality of access to people with special needs. Some people can fight it. Other people don’t have the knowledge or resources. And then the child will start school, and there are more problems. Some schools will refuse to take your child. Others will, obliged to by the law, but they make it as difficult as possible for you. They will ring you on an almost daily basis: come and pick up your child, there is a problem. You know that it will be the same story, that it is an excuse to get rid of the child with special needs, but there is nothing you can do.
What all this means is that it can be very difficult to hold down a job. Who is going to employ you when you have to keep leaving to attend to your child? You end up working from home, trying to fit things in around your child’s needs, or working part time. Unfortunately, this means that these parents will frequently fall below the minimum income requirements in order to stay in the country where they live. They are now stuck. Their children do not understand English, or very little of it. They know that a completely new linguistic environment may lead to regression. They worry about what this will mean post-Brexit.
I moved with my family from Greece to Cyprus in the summer before my son would begin his second year of primary school: his fourth year in the education system including kindergarten. I moved to a country where the same language would be spoken, and where the system is very similar: I would not want to put him in an English medium school, in a completely new system.
As it turns out, this move has been fantastic for our family. My son is making enormous progress within the Cypriot system. Do I want to see that progress turned round, do I want to see regression if he is forced into a new environment, where the language is more difficult for him? Of course not.
Now I move onto the next issue. Supposing that we were here temporarily, planning to move back to Greece, and then return to Cyprus again in a few years? This may seem strange to some people, but moves for reasons of work are a fact of life, and I know several families who live like this, moving around every few years. Brexit will change all that. They may have the right to reside in one country, but post-Brexit, there are no guarantees that the other country will accept them. This is what we are thinking about now. As a spouse of a Greek national, I have the right to reside in Greece. This does not give me the automatic right, two or three years post-Brexit, to reside in Cyprus, which is a separate state, and rumours abound. You will hear of a Greek citizen whose Pakistani spouse was refused residency in Cyprus, for example. I have no idea if such stories are true, and I am aware that the rumour mill is currently going into overdrive. But the fact remains that there are many points that have not been made clear. Will British citizens have the right to move from one EU country to another? We don’t know. Will families whose child’s special needs have forced them into lower-paid employment be able to meet the minimum income requirements? Will there be any consideration of their circumstances? Again, we don’t know.
It’s no good telling us at an official level that people with special needs have equal rights. We know from experience that it simply isn’t true, that these rights exist only on paper, and that no considerations are given to the practicalities of life with a family member with special needs.