Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Don’t Pass Go: Brexit, Covid-19 and the Rising Numbers of Romanians Stopped at the UK’s Borders



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Michaela Benson. Michaela is Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University. She is the co-lead (with Nando Sigona) of the research project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit. She has published extensively on migration and citizenship, with a particular focus on what more privileged forms of migration can tell us about the global migration regime. She is also known for her work with Britain’s emigrants, notably through her project BrExpats, which explored how Brexit was experienced by British citizens living in the EU. In addition to her written work, she is a keen podcaster, using this medium as a way of engaging broader publics with academic research on migration and citizenship. Her latest podcast is Who do we think we are? and debunks taken for granted understandings of British citizenship.

When the UK’s immigration statistics for the first quarter of 2021 were released in May, I conducted an initial analysis that looked at the sharp rise in the numbers of EU citizens stopped at the UK’s borders and asked the question, which EU citizens were being stopped at the borders. There was a clear answer: the 2118 Romanians stopped at the borders accounted for two thirds of all Europeans stopped at the borders. While the headlines focussed on a small handful of cases of those from Italy, Greece and Spain stopped and detained, looking further into the statistics made visible the unevenness in the experiences of European citizens at Britain’s borders.

More of the same … only worse

Drawing on the latest quarterly and annual migration statistics, this post demonstrates that this pattern has sustained over the course of the year. What becomes clear is that the impacts of Brexit and the pandemic on the borders have further exposed the inequalities within the EU citizen population. While there are a number of factors at play in why so many Romanians are being stopped and turned away at the borders, this also sits in the context of a longer trajectory where even before Brexit those from Romania—and indeed some other Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states—could not take their right to Freedom of Movement into the UK for granted, and where those of Roma origins faced everyday racism and prejudice. Such unevenness signals how the UK’s borders, pre- and post-Brexit, reproduced racialised inequalities within the European population that are all too often overlooked.

How many EU citizens are stopped at the borders compared to those from elsewhere?

Figure 1 shows that since the start of 2021 those with citizenship of an EU or EEA member state account form the overwhelming majority (69.7%) of those stopped at the UK’s borders. This is the first time that the numbers of those from the EU have outweighed those from the rest of the world. Previously, the percentage of the same population had never exceeded 20.8% (2017).

Figure 1: The proportion of passengers stopped at the UK's borders by year (2010-2021),  non-EU / EU membership with Romania separated our (Source: Immigration Statistics for the year ending September 2021, Passengers Initially Stopped at the border). Data analysis and visualisation produced by Mariam Abouelenin


The high number of those stopped who hold EU / EEA citizenships (12,400 for the year ending September 2021) is the outcome of many factors, including Brexit, and in particular, the end of the UK’s involvement in the EU’s Freedom of Movement directives. Since the start of 2021 newly arriving EU citizens have, like those from the rest of the world, been subject to immigration controls. For those already settled in the UK, showing evidence of settled or pre-settled status is a requirement. British citizens seeking entry and settlement in EU member states have faced the same restrictions.

The global disruption to travel, and the restrictions introduced to manage the pandemic by the UK Government have contributed to lowering the volume of people seeking entry to the UK over this time period. The traffic light system—a set of tiered restrictions which determined the criteria for entry into the UK for people depending on which country they were travelling from—have also impacted on arrivals. In short, there has been a significant reduction in the numbers of people arriving in the UK and significant shifts with regard to where in the world people are travelling from.  For those able to travel to the UK, the increased documentation (and associated costs)—vaccine confirmation and the Covid-19 testing regime—are a further barrier to entry.

All these factors and more have shifted the balance of those stopped at the borders towards EU citizens.

Figure 2: Total number of EU/EEA citizens stopped at the UK borders by year (2010-2021) (Source: Immigration Statistics for the year ending September 2021, Passengers Initially Stopped at the border). Data analysis and visualisation produced by Mariam Abouelenin


As Figure 2 demonstrates, looking specifically at the case of those from EU/EEA member states seeking entry to the UK, we can see that there had been a slow increase in the numbers stopped at the borders from 2013 to 2016. In 2017, the year following the Brexit referendum, there was a significant increase that took the total to 3,700 people stopped at the border.

Which EU citizens are being stopped at the borders?

Figure 3: EU/EEA Passengers stopped at the border by nationality (Source: Immigration Statistics for the year ending September 2021, Passengers Initially Stopped at the border). Data analysis and visualisation produced by Mariam Abouelenin


As the ribbon chart (Figure 3) clearly depicts, the bulk of this increase is accounted for by increasing numbers of Romanians being stopped at the borders. This is part of a longer-term trend. To date in 2021, the number of Romanians stopped at the UK’s borders accounts exceeds both the total number of those from all other EU / EEA states and the total number of those from the rest of the world. Romanians account for 41.7% of all those stopped.

We also know that there has been a corresponding increase in the numbers of EU/EEA citizens being returned, either at the point of entry to the UK or following a period of immigration detention. In total, they account for 65.2% of all returns. Within this, we know that for the first half of 2021, 3719 Romanians were returned. Data on those returned is broken down by gender and age, showing that in 2021 64.4% of all those returned were male, aged 18-49.

Beyond nationality, the question of who is being stopped at the borders is a little trickier to answer. Publicly-available data does not include reporting on sex, age and ethnicity. Further, this data does not help us to understand the rationale behind border agents’ decision to stop people. Incomplete documentation might account for some of this, but it does not help to answer the question of why so people of one nationality are stopped.

Earlier this year, the Government was quick to deny racial profiling and bias at the border. In a context where an increasing number of Romanians are being told that they can’t pass go, more answers are necessary in order to explain why.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Benson, M. (2021). Don’t Pass Go: Brexit, Covid-19 and the Rising Numbers of Romanians Stopped at the UK’s Borders. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/12/dont-pass-go [date]

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