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The trapdoor opening up for EU citizens

EU citizens in Victoria Tower Gardens in Westminster in 2017, lobbying MPs over post-Brexit rights in the UK. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

We must not forget the plight of EU citizens in the UK.

The Sun has been full of praise for the government’s treatment of European citizens in the UK. A recent piece celebrated the fact that “five million EU citizens apply to REMAIN in Britain despite us leaving the bloc”. It had all been an extraordinary success, the story said. The concerns expressed after the referendum were hysterical fear-mongering.

The reality is different and deeply troubling. Three separate policy areas are combining to terrible effect: Brexit, coronavirus and the hostile environment. And the way in which they interact is threatening the well-being and security of millions of Europeans living in the UK.

At the heart of the problem is the hostile environment policy. This was Theresa May’s brainchild when she was home secretary. It effectively outsources immigration control to civil society. Landlords, doctors, employers and others have come under a strict legal obligation to check people’s documentation.

Until now, Europeans were protected by free movement. But since Brexit, they have to sign up to a new system called ‘settled status’ in order to maintain their right to be in the UK. They have until the end of June to apply. To secure it, they need to have been in the country for five years. If they’re been around less, they get pre-settled status and have to upgrade later.

But there’s a problem. We have no idea how many Europeans are in the UK. We thought it was around three million on the basis of Office of National Statistics data. But so far 4.68 million have been granted some form of status. Far from being reassuring, these big numbers just highlight our ignorance. For all we know, there are hundreds of thousands more who have not yet applied.

It’s impossible to know whether everyone who is eligible for settled status will apply for it in time. The UK’s most successful ever scheme of this type – the transition from analogue to digital TV – had 97% take up. If settled status is equally successful, it would still leave around 90,000 people outside of the system – and that’s the best case scenario.

Those people would then face the brute impact of the hostile environment: losing their right to work, or access medical care, or stay in their home. They could even be put in an immigration detention centre and then removed from the country.

This situation would have been bad enough on its own. But then Covid came along and made it worse. Researchers estimate that the total population of the UK may have fallen by over 1.3 million people between the third quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2020. Many of the people leaving will have been Europeans, returning home so they could be close to their family during the pandemic. Many won’t have applied for settled status before they left.

If they’re out of the country for more than a year, they lose their right to apply in future. If it’s between six months and a year, they have to demonstrate to the Home Office that they had an “important reason” for their absence. But the Home Office has not specified exactly what it considers an important reason. Would the pandemic count? We just don’t know.

What we do know – thanks to brilliant community groups like the3million – is that many of the Europeans who are still in the UK have not yet applied. They might not know they have to, or they may know and be struggling to complete the application. They may be children in care, or have mental problems, or be very old, or have simply been here so long that the notion they have to apply to live in the country seems unthinkable. The organisations trying to reach them have been robbed of their ability to hold face-to-face events because of the pandemic.

We also know that many people who are eligible for full settled status are wrongly given pre-settled status by the app. Many of them take it. Often they don’t understand the consequences or are simply relieved to have secured any status at all. But in reality, pre-settled status is extremely precarious.

It expires after five years, meaning the applicant must remember to apply for settled status. If they don’t, the hostile environment trapdoor opens underneath them. They become an undocumented immigrant, subject to all the vindictiveness and petty cruelties of the Home Office.

That is the reality of what EU citizens in the UK face, which the Sun did not care to share with its readers. It is a faulty system, working in conditions of ignorance, processing millions of applicants, with life-changing repercussions for those who fall through the cracks.

This is what we did to the Europeans who called this country home. And no amount of gloating tabloid headlines can cover it up.

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