Unsettled: what will happen to EU nationals who don’t sort out their status in time?

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A guest post by Benjamin Morgan. Benjamin runs the EEA homeless rights project at the Public Interest Law Centre.

The UK’s departure from the EU on January 31st 2020 has intensified the concern of rights groups for the estimated 900,000 EU nationals yet to secure their status through the Home Office’s settled status scheme.

The government has rejected calls for a declaratory registration scheme, which would have automatically granted settled status to eligible residents. As a result some people have had to submit large amounts of evidence to prove their right to stay.

The effect has been to deter many EU citizens living in the UK from applying for settled or pre-settled status. Meanwhile some applicants, including people with criminal convictions and the non-EEA family members of EU nationals, are waiting for more than six months for a decision on their application.

The Home Office has been boasting about the ‘success’ of the settled-status scheme and the funding it has given to voluntary-sector organisations to help ‘vulnerable’ people apply. It has issued statistics claiming that only seven people have been refused under the scheme.

But the claim of a low refusal rate is undermined by glacial processing times for ‘complex’ cases, which have left thousands of applicants in limbo. Nor do the Home Office’s figures account for EU citizens who believe they are eligible for settled status but have been offered ‘pre-settled’ status (which confers fewer rights).

As for voluntary-sector funding—this is due to end in March 2020. The Home Office has not confirmed whether it will be renewed. Charities and law centres face having to lay off staff as a result of the uncertainty, which could have a knock-on effect in terms of the support available between now and the application deadline in June 2021.

Recent estimates suggest 12% of EU citizens living in the UK are still to apply to the scheme. The true number is likely to be higher because there has until now been no requirement that EU nationals register their presence.

The clock is ticking for people with unresolved status and the government has not announced what will happen to those who don’t apply in time. Home Office minister Brandon Lewis suggested in October 2019 that they could face deportation. (The prime minister’s office later said that such people would not ‘automatically’ be deported but gave no further information about the government’s plans.)

A ‘hostile environment’ for EU citizens

In theory, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK remain unchanged during the Brexit transition period, which runs until the end of December 2020. However there is already anecdotal evidence of employers demanding evidence of settled status from job applicants. Europeans arriving at the UK border are being asked why they are here and how long they intend to stay.

The government has said nothing about post-transition protections for ‘vulnerable’ EU citizens. This is despite evidence that homeless people, those with mental issues, older people and care leavers face barriers to securing their right to remain in the UK.

The Home Office has also refused to issue identity cards to people granted settled status. This raises the prospect of a Windrush-style scenario in which not only EU citizens who fail to apply in time but also those who have lost access to proof of their settled status could be denied essential services or even removed from the UK. Such people could effectively become undocumented, losing the right to employment, housing assistance and benefits as well as access to the NHS.

Street-homeless EU citizens are overrepresented among those still to apply for settled status. This is partly because of the practical barriers they face in accessing the scheme, including the difficulty of holding onto identity documents while on the streets.

For homeless EU nationals, deportation is no abstract threat. Between 2010 and 2017, the Home Office, local authorities and some homelessness charities worked together to ‘administratively remove’ EU rough sleepers until the policy was declared unlawful in the High Court. Immigration detention centres saw a spike in numbers of EU citizens, with catastrophic results.

The government’s new immigration policy, announced last week, seeks simultaneously to make an offer of employment a condition of immigration to the UK and to erode the rights of migrant workers. Migration from the EU will, of course, continue: restrictive immigration policies do not prevent immigration—they simply make life much more difficult for working-class and racialized migrants.

Migrant solidarity in the UK has long been a rearguard action, and the field of struggle is about to expand. EU citizens who have made their lives here have been political targets for years. Disaster nationalism has now mandated a direct attack on their rights.



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