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British families blame Brexit for au pair shortage

London - Negotiations over Britain's withdrawal from the European Union have started, and some British families are feeling the bite as the number of au pairs coming from across Europe declines.

"Brexit had an impact, without any question," Rebecca Haworth-Wood, president of the British Au Pair Agencies Association (BAPAA), told AFP.

"I estimate that au pair applications for the UK are at least 50 percent down compared with this time last year" after Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Compared to 2015 "last year's numbers were also very much lower due to the uncertainty caused by the Brexit referendum" on June 23, 2016.

Every year, about 40,000 British families welcome an au pair -- a young person keen to improve their English and to travel who looks after children in exchange for lodging and some pocket-money.

There are usually more au pair applications than families needing their services but that may be changing as parents turned to the popular online forum Mumsnet to voice their growing desperation.

"Instead of the normal flood of applicants on AuPairWorld I had to do all the chasing and matching," one parent wrote on Mumsnet.

"Eventually we found someone but it was such hard work. Bloody Brexit."

Another parent wrote: "The agency have informed us hardly anyone wants to come to the UK".

A third said: "It's horrific this year. We usually have over 100 applications. This year it's us doing all the applying (to girls who have over 100 responses)".

- Europeans 'very welcome' -

At the heart of the problem is the uncertainty over travel and residency rights for EU nationals as the British government has made putting an end to freedom of movement one of the cornerstones of its negotiating stance.

AuPairWorld, an agency based in Germany, said it had seen applications for Britain drop from 21,000 in the first half of 2015 to 12,000 in the first half of 2017.

"We can only speculate about the reasons but it might very well be Brexit and all the uncertainties around it," the agency's spokeswoman Susanne Becker told AFP.

"People might fear that they will soon need a visa. And of course, no one knows who will be able to apply for a visa, how difficult it will be and how much it might cost," she continued.

For the BAPAA's Haworth-Wood, the terror attacks that have struck Europe in recent months may also be to blame for young people's reluctance to travel.

While waiting for the UK government to explain what immigration system they want to implement for au pairs, Haworth-Wood is keen to reassure, saying: "At the moment nothing has changed. We want Europeans to know they are very welcome!"

By Clement Boutin