Brexit – Raising awareness for hidden Europeans

Landlords and civil society campaigners have urged Boris Johnson’s government to provide physical proof for EU citizens living in the UK, warning that landlords and employers could otherwise be reluctant to let a home or offer a job to EU citizens. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Status Anxiety. The 6 million people at the heart of Brexit.

Raising awareness of the need for EU citizens in the UK to apply for EU Settled Status is one of the main challenges facing the UK government and activists. And it’s proving to be harder than many in the government expected.

“We knew very early on and were informing the European Commission that it wasn’t going to be easy for everyone,” says Chris Desira, an immigration lawyer and director of Seraphus solicitors, which is advising the European Commission on the EU Settlement Scheme.

While the Home Office, along with the rest of the UK government, has stepped up its public communications about the changes that Brexit will mean, there are still a number of blind spots. In the case of the EU Settled Status scheme, government communication is as much about defending the scheme as it is about educating people on how to use it.

Desira has been running advice centres with community groups on how to apply for EU Settled Status for over 18 months. He says he has attended more than 200 such meetings since last April. With Brexit looming there has been a huge spike in applicants for settled status in recent weeks.

The European Commission office in London has been co-ordinating the network of national embassies in the UK via monthly meetings since 2016 and been actively involved in the talks with the Home Office. Meanwhile, embassies have been developing their own support networks, including information sessions, and providing legal support and mobile units for passports.

This support varies from community to community. For example, the Italian government has close ties with its expats.

Elsewhere, the EU Londoner’s hub, operated by the Mayor of London’s office, offers the guidance documents on Brexit and Settled Status in all EU languages, as well as Arabic and Somali.

Complicated and expensive

But it is still a complicated, expensive and time-consuming process.

“In our application workshops, we need four different interpreters,” says Bianca Valperga, EU Settled Status development officer for the campaign group New Europeans. “It’s quite resource-intensive to have that group of people in a room at the same time,” she adds.

For smaller communities or those with fewer resources, however, problems are of a different nature,

“One thing that we find with the Roma and Somali communities is that the communities trust their reference points, but they are limited in terms of resource capacity,” says Tamsin Koumis of New Europeans.

“They might have to represent a large but underserved community,” she adds.

Activists say raising awareness is particularly difficult among those EU citizens who have acquired European citizenship rights either through family or refugee status, and are less likely to understand the loss of legal rights that Brexit will mean.

“A year ago, I would have said that the Home Office was incapable of delivering; three months ago I was impressed. Now I am concerned,” says Desira.

“The indications are that there is a bit of a backlog building,” he adds.

The Home Office has estimated that 5-10% of applicants will face difficulties with the application process. That may not sound like many but could translate into a total figure of between 200,000 and 400,000, a volume which the government’s current network of advice centres won’t be able to cope with.

The £9m provided by the Home Office to fund projects working with vulnerable groups, for which programmes will expire next March, is “not much per head”, says Desira.

“Lots of people will apply after the date (December 2020) and we expect a lot of complex cases to come up later,” he adds.

In September, there were 500,000 applications for settled status, and Home Office statistics suggest that 1.8 million have applied already, almost half of the total number of EU nationals living in the UK.

Difficulties are expected

But officials and civil society activists are still expecting difficulties and predict that many thousands of ‘hidden Europeans’ will, for a variety of reasons, be unable to complete the application by December 2020.

Last week, Home Office minister Brandon Lewis stated that the UK will deport EU citizens after Brexit if they do not apply in time for the right to remain, raising alarm bells about the government’s promises to protect the rights of EU nationals.

Opposition parties are already urging the government to reconsider the December 2020 deadline.

Speaking at an SNP conference in Aberdeen last week, Ben Macpherson, migration minister in the Scottish government, said pre-settled status for EU citizens who want to stay in the UK after Brexit should be scrapped in favour of a registration process with no end date.

In a similar vein, a number of campaign groups have called for the introduction of a Green Card, as a simple way to demonstrate to government authorities and other institutions that an EU citizen has the right to remain in the UK.

But while Desira believes the UK government might well end up extending the December 2020 deadline, there are still many reasons to be unsettled about the process of acquiring settled status.

It is “inevitable”, he says, that some EU citizens will still end up being deported.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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