“In the ten years I’ve been working in the Backpackers, I’ve never experienced a situation like this.” Hostel workers on the impact of Brexit.
When I first arrived in Bristol, I spent five months living in the 007 Hostel in Bedminster. Over time I experienced how the hostel, instead of being a place to just stay on a temporary basis, acted as an alternative home for a large number of young Europeans who had moved to the UK in search of better job opportunities. New people came every week and the hostel’s community grew and diversified. Different nationalities co-existed in the same place and respected each other. For me, it was like a utopian miniature vision of Europe.
But this was two years ago, in 2015. Since then, the amount of EU nationals moving to the UK has decreased in response to the political climate around Brexit. According to the latest report on net migration published by the ONS (Office for National Statistics), immigration from the EU has fallen to its lowest level in three years – the number of people coming and settling in the UK has gone down by 19,000. In light of this, I wonder how the atmosphere in the hostels in Bristol has changed: are their living rooms still bustling with Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Poles? Or are they now empty? To find it out, I spoke with hostel managers across the city.
The Full Moon is located in the centre of town and connected to one of the main pubs in Stokes Croft. There, you can find hostel residents of many different nationalities hanging out with the locals –a mixture that defines this part of the city.
I meet with Matt, the manager of Full Moon. He invites me to sit with him behind the reception desk. It’s a sunny day and the pub’s garden is full of people. While we talk, people are coming in and out through the entrance door, laughing and talking loudly. His tranquility provides a nice balance with the heated atmosphere outside.
Matt started working in the hostel as a receptionist three years ago, and then moved up until he reached the position of a manager. The ever-changing atmosphere is what keeps him in the hostel: “It’s as if you are working in a different country every day because of the variety of nationalities we get.” It’s the constant transition that he would miss if he worked in a different place, he says. “It’s really satisfying to see how people who live in the hostel finally manage to find a proper accommodation and a job.”
Matt says that the Full Moon don’t get as many European guests as they used to a few years ago. “I understand some of the European people who decide not to come. I would also hesitate to move to the UK as the image that politicians are creating of English society is nothing but unwelcoming, but that misrepresents a huge part of it.”
“You’ve just arrived at peak time. I’m doing the household chores, everything is a mess! You’ll have to wait until I finish – grab a coffee and have a sit in the living room,” the manager tells me in a sort of mixed Argentinian-English accent. The living room conjures up memories of the time I lived in a hostel: people speaking to each other like siblings, sharing the struggles they were experiencing trying to find a job.
The manager, Felipe, is from Argentina. He has been working in Backpackers for ten years. Bristol was the last stop for him and his wife after travelling around Europe for a year. In the beginning, their idea wasn’t to stay in the UK. Instead they just wanted to work for a short period of time and save up money to keep travelling. Roxana, his wife, was the first to be offered a part-time job in the hostel. Then, after a couple of months, Felipe started working there too. They ended up doing shifts of eighteen hours per day to afford the cost of living in the city. Although their situation wasn’t ideal, they decided to stay.
Normally a hostel is a cultural melting pot, a little St Pancras Station, where people meet from different points around Europe to then move on, but this doesn’t seem to be the case at Backpackers. I tell Felipe that I was surprised not to hear the mixture of languages I was expecting in the living room. Felipe’s expression turns more serious. “In the ten years I’ve been working in the Backpackers, I’ve never experienced a situation like this. September should be the peak time, when people from different places start coming to the UK to look for a job. This is the worst September I’ve ever experienced,” he tells me. “European people don’t stay. After trying to get through the difficulties that are involved in opening a bank account, finding a job and accommodation, which have considerably increased, they end up returning to their home countries,” he says in a very worried tone. “Disruptive” is how he describes the changes that Brexit is bringing about in the hostel industry.
“What’s the point of having a train station open when nobody comes because the rails that connected it with the rest of the world have been blocked?” says Felipe.
The Old Port
The Old Port is a little Spanish colony in the heart of Bristol. Not only are the vast majority of guests from Spain, but the owner is too. “This place has always been a reference point for those who move to the UK thanks to word of mouth,” Maria, the accountant manager, tells me. She spent some time in the The Old Port when she first arrived in Bristol four years ago, after a friend told her about the place.
What makes a hostel like The Old Port different from a traditional one is the sense of community, says Maria. “Although you arrive alone, you always meet other people who are in the same situation, and everybody helps each other. Some people even end up sharing a house after leaving the hostel.” This is an aspect that still characterises this place, but what has changed is the number of people coming and staying for a long time. Maria says that the people coming now have a stronger determination to stay than those who came before Brexit. “Nowadays the chances of staying for a newly-arrived are slight so they’re aware that in order to increase them they have to work hard.”
The sound of a bagpipe coming out of a phone tells me that something has changed in the hostel. It is 9 o’clock in the morning and people are starting to wake up. Charlie is still here. This might be his fourth year in the hostel. He was the only English person when I stayed in 2015. Now the situation seems to be the exact opposite: there is just one Portuguese guy and the rest of the guests are English, Irish and Scottish.
I have come to the hostel to speak to Peter, the owner. “Come at midnight, when I start my shift,” says Peter. “Then we’ll be able to speak calmly.” I grab a word with Charlie about life at the hostel, and although he misses the atmosphere of previous years, when Spanish, Italian and Polish were the predominant languages, I can see that the local atmosphere makes him feel at home. When I leave, the bagpipe music is still on.
When I come back at midnight, there is hardly anybody in the living room. Peter has already started his shift. He tells me that he has been in the industry since 1974, when he started running a hostel for homeless people. It was in 2007 when he converted the place in a backpacker’s style hostel. “I’m an old man – I’m 62 and don’t like having to deal with youngsters all the time,” he says. However, he likes to see the brotherly attitude among the guests and how people help each other in many aspects: to find a job, open a bank account, look for accommodation…. “It’s really inspirational to see the sense of unity and community among the newly-arrived. You can see people who have met in the hostel and have ended up creating a solid group of friends.”
Peter’s noticed the effects of the Brexit process in the hostel and crosses his fingers that the situation doesn’t harden. “It would be a big step backwards if we stop allowing people to travel freely and make it mandatory to get a visa to live here. My parents are from Cyprus and I’m proud to be British, and to be part of such a multicultural city that has always been a bridge between Britain and the rest of the world.”