No escape from the hostile environment

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The difficulties facing EU nationals wishing to remain living in the UK have been highlighted in a report published on Tuesday (19 November) by Migrant Voice. [Photo: Shutterstock]

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

The UK’s offer of settled status to EU citizens may have seemed like a change of tack in its migration policy but there are many causes for anxiety, writes Roger Casale.

Roger Casale is the founder and Secretary General of New Europeans.

The UK Home Office does not have a reputation for welcoming foreigners. The term “hostile environment” – coined by Theresa May – seems to have stuck.

So when the Government announced that EU citizens could be deported if they had not regularised their status by the deadline a new wave of anxiety was unleashed.

The fear factor was felt not just by EU citizens in the UK. Many Britons abroad are nervous that other member states might retaliate by sending them packing too.

Settled status – in effect indefinite leave to remain – was announced unilaterally by Prime Minister May at the end of 2018.

At the time, it was seen as a major concession.

The UK had previously sought to hold over 3.6 million EU citizens hostage to the Brexit negotiations, citing the need to protect Britons abroad as justification.

In fact, the Government had been playing a dirty game which had more to do with lowering the Brexit bill, than securing the rights of #the5million.

The concession came after a three year campaign by New Europeans, Migrant Voice, Amnesty International and others calling for unilateral guarantees.

We knew it was wrong to allow citizens’ rights to be swept up into the Brexit negotiation. It turned EU citizens and Britons in Europe into bargaining chips.

With settled status, the Government appeared to be changing tack. Overnight, EU citizens had become “our friends”.

Unwanted foreigners would still face the “hostile environment”. But the settled status scheme would create an ‘oasis of calm and security’ for EU citizens.

How real is the offer and how has it worked out in practice?

Contrary to expectations, take up has been strong. Over 2 million EU citizens have already applied and many have already received settled or pre-settled status.

From the perspective of the citizen, however, there remain a number of serious and potentially intractable issues.

The first relates to the approach behind the scheme. By requiring EU citizens to apply for settled status rather than allowing them simply to register, the government is in effect forcing them to apply for a status they already have.

As a result, EU citizens have been made to feel like “second-class citizens”.

That sticks in the throat of any fair-minded person let alone the hearts and minds of EU citizens themselves.

Secondly, there are concerns about the award of ‘pre-settled status’.

There have been reports of EU citizens being turned down in error for benefits and even for healthcare access because they only have pre-settled status.

An award of pre-settled status should not change such entitlements but that does not stop officials making mistakes which can often be costly to put correct.

If EU citizens are not aware of their rights, they may not appeal, with devastating consequences in some cases for themselves and their families.

The Home Office has also been awarding pre-settled status in error. Many decisions are converted to settled status on appeal.

Marginalised and vulnerable groups are particularly at risk which points to a fourth set of issues with settled status.

Applications can only be made on line but not everybody is able to use or access the internet and not everybody has access to the required Android phone.

What happens if ID documents have expired or been lost and cannot easily be replaced – may infirm, housebound EU citizens may be in this position.

And yet they are facing the same deadlines as everyone else – they need and should be given more time to complete the process.

The most telling shortcoming is the lack of a physical proof of status.

New Europeans has proposed an EU Green Card to address this issue and twice presented the idea to the European Parliament.

A Green Card would be a simple, practical way to demonstrate to potential employers or landlords for example, that an EU citizen has the right to remain.

For Britons already resident in the EU, it could also be a way to make sure that they retain their free movement rights.

The biggest problem of all in any process of social change on the scale of Brexit, is that people in positions of power simply do not know what they do not know.

Landlords, employers, healthcare workers, civil servants, may be taking decision based on a misunderstanding of EU citizens which are the wrong decisions based on the evidence but which are generated by risk averse behaviour on the part of the decision maker in conditions of uncertainty.

It is likely to be the weakest, most exposed members of society with the least access to advisers or support mechanisms who will bear the brunt of this.

That is why the psychological and emotional stress of Brexit on EU citizens is unlikely to be alleviated any time soon.

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