Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens could face becoming undocumented and fall foul of hostile environment policies as Britain leaves the EU, with many failing to apply for a re-settlement scheme that some don’t even know exists.
The Home Office’s EU Settlement Scheme is the process that allows EU citizens to continue living in the country post-Brexit. It is unprecedented in scale in the UK, with over 4 million people applying since the scheme was rolled out in March last year.
A recent report from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory notes that “100 percent coverage of the eligible EU citizen population within a period of a couple of years is not likely”. They cite other UK government programmes – such as child benefits or tax credits – where between 5 percent and 14 percent of people don’t apply, even though it is in their interests to do so.
Even if just 5 percent of people fail to apply by the final deadline – June 2021 – the numbers of EU citizens who become undocumented and fall foul of the hostile environment would be in the hundreds of thousands.
Those who are homeless, have low levels of literacy or digital skills, or suffer from mental health issues, are among those most likely to face greater difficulties.
Coline Schupfer moved to the UK with her family from Germany when she was 15. After college, she worked abroad for a number of years. Upon returning to England in early 2019, she applied to the scheme, but unlike the rest of her family was only awarded pre-settled status due to her time away. Pre-settled status lasts for five years and can later be upgraded to settled status.
“So when I came back I was quite shocked that I didn’t even qualify [for full settled status], even though this is where my family is, this is where I’ve studied,” Ms Schupfer said. “I felt kind of penalised for working internationally.”
Beyond the implications of being awarded temporary residency in the country you and your family call home, pre-settled status also grants fewer rights. From the start of 2021, there will be restrictions around being out of the country for more than a total of six months in any 12-month period.
Charities have raised concerns about EU nationals who were trapped abroad for lengthy periods due to the pandemic, and asked that absences from the UK during the coronavirus crisis not count against them.
The pandemic has also added to the delays people are facing because of closures among government agencies.
Applications can be completed in a matter of days, but many take longer. Angela Cruz had to wait over a month for a decision on her application. Originally from Canada, she and her Irish husband recently moved to Northern Ireland.
While the scheme is for EU citizens, Ms Cruz and her daughter are among the over 200,000 people from elsewhere in the world who are eligible to apply through their partners or other family members. Their process, however, is more complicated. For one, she had to provide “biometrics”, including getting fingerprints taken at one of only a number of centres in the UK.
These centres faced severe backlogs and a lack of appointments when they reopened after the lockdown. Because Ms Cruz had a job offer that she could not accept until she gets her settled status, she eventually paid for a fast-track service, costing £110.
“That’s been the worst part. I’ve had this job offer for a while, and they gave me a deadline of end of September that they could hold the job,” Ms Cruz said. “And obviously we’ve passed that now, so it's looking like I might lose it.”
A few days after speaking with VICE News, Ms Cruz finally received a positive decision from the EU Settlement Scheme, meaning that she will now be able to start her new job.
Many workers, meanwhile, simply don’t know about the Settlement Scheme. A survey of mostly “lower-skilled” EU migrants in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire found that over 40 percent of these workers were unaware of the scheme’s existence.
“There's still a significant part of the population which clearly is not aware of the EU Settlement Scheme,” said Mihai Călin Bica, who works for the Roma Support Group. “We are concerned many will simply not make applications, and will get in trouble.” The Roma Support Group, which works to empower Roma communities, found that only about 3 percent of their clients were able to complete the application independently.
However, even those who have applied and are being granted status are also facing huge difficulties, Mr Bica said. This is because, in contrast to other immigration permits, the EU Settlement Status can only be accessed online. There are no physical documents or other evidence, raising fears of a Windrush-style scenario where people have the right to access services but cannot prove it.
A report released last month by the Roma Support Group highlighted several instances where people had gone without access to vital public services, like Universal Credit, during the summer due to not being able to access their digital status.
Disquiet with the digital-only scheme is widespread. A survey at the beginning of the year showed that 90 percent of EU citizens were unhappy about the lack of physical documents to prove their right to employment, healthcare and housing. Campaigners cite a previous “mystery shopping” exercise that showed only three out of 150 landlords would be prepared to perform digital checks on prospective tenants.
Many charities have received funding from the government to support vulnerable EU citizens to apply, but these too were closed for months, and remote working wasn’t an option. “People were kind of panicking”, says Polina Malcheva from the Community Intercultural Programme in Portadown. “There was a queue of people waiting for me to go back to work.”
Ms Malcheva, who mostly supports Bulgarians involved in factory work, said the majority of her clients have applied. But while the scheme is not due to close until next June, her charity only has funding until March, meaning those who apply late will struggle to navigate the system themselves.
There are high levels of uncertainty about life for EU nationals post-Brexit more generally, even for those who have applied and received their status, she says. “Rumours are going around in the community that people will be literally kicked out of the country if they don’t have the status, or even if they have pre-settled status they won't be able to live here.”
“Nobody really knows what is going to happen,” she continued. “This is probably the main question I receive. ‘What is going to happen next year?’”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Across government we are working to ensure that all eligible children and families are supported with their applications to the EU Settlement Scheme.
“The Home Office has already spent £9 million funding third party organisations across the country who support families and the hard to reach with their applications, and in March we announced a further £8 million to support that work.
“There have been more than 4 million applications under the scheme already and there is still plenty of time to apply before the deadline of 30 June 2021.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that the deadline for the Settlement Scheme could be December 2020 in the event of a no deal Brexit. In fact the deadline it will June 2021 whether or not there is a deal.