This article is part of our special report Status Anxiety. The 6 million people at the heart of Brexit.
The negotiations on a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement have been painfully slow and often rancorous, but ministers have always insisted that the rights of EU nationals living in the UK will be protected. In August, recently installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would “repeat unequivocally” the government’s guarantee to them.
The government’s EU settled status scheme is designed to keep the promise that all EU citizens, their family members, and dependants can stay, with no change to their rights. Anyone who has lived here continuously for five years should, in theory, be able to get settled status. However, there is anxiety, on all sides.
Avoiding another Windrush
The UK’s Home Office is anxious to avoid a repeat of the Windrush scandal in 2018, which saw dozens of people, many of them British-born, wrongly deported. Windrush was widely seen as proof of the ‘hostile environment’ to immigrants championed by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
Civil society activists report that between 10-20% of applicants so far, particularly among non-EU dependents of EU nationals, have encountered problems, typically delays of between three and six months for a decision.
Part of the problem is that the true number of EU nationals in the UK is likely to be a lot higher than the 3.5 million EU nationals officially reported by the UK government. Around one million people have already been given settled status, under which they can stay on indefinitely and eventually apply for British citizenship, if they are eligible.
The Home Office wants to look accepting and is working with community and civil society groups, civil society campaigners say. It has provided £9 million to 44 agencies specifically to target vulnerable groups. Meanwhile, a Digital Assist service, and a helpline based in Liverpool, are also part of the £460 million funded scheme.
Computer literacy and access to technology are recurring problems, according to officials and activists.
“I’ve heard civil servants say that it (Windrush) won’t happen again. They are reassuring, confident but anxious,” says one official on the Home Office working groups.
Civil society groups say their main task at the moment is about raising awareness of the new system, particularly among vulnerable citizens, particularly the elderly and those with limited access to or familiarity with the internet.
That includes workshops for community groups on how to navigate the system and offering one to one support with caseworkers.
Bianca Valperga, EUSS [EU settlement scheme] development officer for New Europeans, a civil rights group that champions freedom of movement and non-discrimination, estimates that the application should take up to 45 minutes providing that all documents are in order and correct.
But therein lies another problem, as the Home Office “EU Exit: ID Document Check” app is currently only available on Android, although an Apple version is set to come online this month.
Danai Galaziou, project manager with Advice on Individual Rights in Europe (AIRE), says there is difficulty in getting people engaged and aware of what they need to do. Meanwhile, the erosion of community, particularly in cities, means people often don’t know who to talk to.
She adds that government civil servants tend not to be aware of the detail, which makes it hard for them to advise.
There have been some successes. Applying for ESS is free and the Home Office has waived the hefty application fees it charges third-country migrants.
But even if the UK government is trying to ‘bend over backwards to be helpful’, as one official says, the pain and resentment of having to apply for residency in the country you have lived in for years or even decades, in many cases, is very real.
“There is a real sense of annoyance. People had never thought that they would need all these documents. Many who have been here all their lives feel hurt that they have to apply for a status they have already, and then often receive only pre-settled status,” says Bianca Valperga.
The pre-settled status allows applicants to stay in the UK for five more years, pending the approval of settled status.
“Many EU citizens don’t feel welcome anymore,” says Roger Casale, a former MP who set up New Europeans in 2013. He describes pre-settled status as a ‘grey zone’.
Migrant Voice, a campaign group, reports that a majority of people found the system quite easy and got the decision they expected. But they and other campaign groups are already talking about scrapping the December 2020 deadline arguing that the process is going to be far slower than the government thinks.
Others fear that the common practice of leaving problems until the last minute will also lead to a huge backlog. Although the imminence of Brexit on October 31, and the threat of a no-deal Brexit, has concentrated minds, the deadline for applying for settled status is not until December 2020.
Organisations such as the Joint Committee on the Welfare of Immigrants worry that EU nationals and family members who do not apply under the EUSS will be left with no legal status whatsoever.
For all the government’s assertions of good will, many question how prepared its departments are. For example, the database for the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions only goes back seven years, potentially creating problems for EU citizens who have not worked in that period.
Nor does the Home Office application system keep a record of past applications, meaning that citizens who have wrongly been given ‘pre-settled status’ will need to keep all their documents and start from scratch.
“At the moment, nothing is a problem because we’re still in Europe,” says New Europeans’ senior adviser, Tamara Flanagan. But she, like other activists, worries what will happen after 31 October, when the UK is due to leave the EU, unless another extension is agreed.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]