Applications for the right to stay in the UK through the EU Settlement scheme have not yet been made for the majority of EU children in care and care leavers, research has found.
Applications for just 39% of known children in care or care leavers eligible for the scheme have been submitted, according to the Children’s Society.
The charity fears thousands of vulnerable young people may become undocumented “through no fault of their own” after June 30 – the deadline for applications.
This could mean they lose the right to work, claim financial support from the government, rent a home, hold a bank account or access further education, and could even face deportation.
A child in care’s legal guardian or council social worker must apply to the EU settlement scheme (EUSS) on their behalf, while local authorities must practically support or signpost care leavers who are under 25 to make their application.
But the Children’s Society said this does not appear to be happening, with slow progress over the last year and uncertainty around how many children need to apply.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster said guidance on reasonable grounds for a late application will soon to published which will include cases where a parent or guardian has failed to apply in time for a looked after child or care leaver.
Responses from 175 local authorities to the charity’s Freedom of Information requests showed that 3,690 looked after children and care leavers were identified as needing to apply to the scheme.
Of these, 1,426 applications (39%) have been made, with 28% of these children obtaining secured status, 838 receiving settled and 189 receiving pre-settled status.
This leaves more than 2,000 children and young people without submitted applications, just three months until the deadline to apply.
A previous Freedom of Information request by the charity found that 730 applications had been submitted as of January 2020.
This means that in the last year roughly 700 further applications were made.
The Children’s Society said it is “doubtful” that all eligible children and care leavers have been identified, based on the lack of consistent data.
A Home Office survey between July and November 2020 identified 3,300 looked after children and care leavers as eligible to apply for the EUSS – around 300 fewer than identified in the latest Children’s Society research.
Chief executive Mark Russell said councils and the Home Office must identify every child and young person who needs to apply and ensure they do so in time.
The charity is also calling on the Home Office to accept applications beyond the June 30 deadline and to protect their status in the interim.
Mr Russell said: “We are very concerned, not only that so many children are yet to have applications made for them, but that no-one seems to know exactly how many children could be affected.
“No child should ever have to face the uncertainty and limbo that comes with being undocumented, but it seems thousands of EU children, who are supposed to be in the care of their local authority, could very soon face this cliff edge. This is simply unacceptable.
“These are children who have already faced huge adversity in their lives, being taken into care is often very traumatic, yet years more trauma and distress could be just around the corner if they become undocumented.”
Baroness Blake, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils continue to support children who are in or leaving care through the EU Settlement Scheme where appropriate.
“However, the impact of the current pandemic on capacity across councils, the legal system, embassies and the organisations providing outreach needs to be considered.
“Vulnerable groups unable to complete the EU Settlement Scheme may be given some flexibility and it will be important to identify well in advance those who may need support to access the scheme after the deadline.”
Foster said: “We are determined to ensure all eligible children and care leavers secure their status under the EU Settlement Scheme.
“We are working closely with charities, local authorities and local government associations to help vulnerable groups apply to the scheme and have provided these organisations with extensive training as well as £22 million in funding.
“Rightly, our focus is on encouraging applications before the June 30 deadline, but we will soon be publishing guidance on reasonable grounds for late applications, which will include looked after children and care leavers where the local authority or parent or guardian failed to apply for them.”