The Home Office has launched a voluntary repatriation scheme for EU nationals living in the UK.
The Guardian has learned EU citizens are being offered financial incentives to leave the UK, months before the deadline to apply for settled status.
Since January 1, EU citizens have been added to the government scheme which promises to pay EU citizens’ flights and up to £2,000 of resettlement money.
The scheme is designed to help some migrants in the UK to leave voluntarily but campaigners helping vulnerable EU nationals say it contradicts the government’s claim that it was doing everything it could to help people register for settled status.
The deadline for Europeans living in the UK to apply for the EU settlement scheme (EUSS) is 30 June.
Benjamin Morgan, who runs the EU homeless rights project at the Public Interest Law Centre, said: “It is clear from our casework that some of the most vulnerable EU citizens are yet to resolve their status. Barriers to application and delays in Home Office decision-making remain significant factors.
“This mixed messaging around settled status on the one hand and voluntary returns on the other, seriously undermines the government’s claim that the rights of vulnerable Europeans will be protected after Brexit.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Some people may choose not to obtain status under EUSS and may not wish to remain in the UK after the deadline. That is why we have written to stakeholders to inform them that EEA nationals who wish to leave the UK may now be eligible for support to help them do so under the voluntary returns scheme.”
The news came as research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) warned that thousands of European key workers risked losing their legal right to remain in the UK.
The report, titled When the Clapping Stops: EU Care Workers After Brexit, spoke with 295 care workers and found that one in seven were unsure what EUSS was, while one in three had not heard about it before being in touch with JCWI. The same number (one in three) were unaware there was a deadline, nor when it was. Most of the surveys were conducted between January and March last year.
“If even a tiny fraction of the estimated EEA+ (EU, EEA and Swiss) residents are unable to apply in time, tens of thousands will lose their status overnight,” the report states.
“Without urgent action, the care sector is likely to be devastated,” it adds.
The JCWI is calling for an immediate lifting of the deadline and automatic settled status for EU citizens in Britain.
Chai Patel, of JCWI, said: “Our research scares me because the people we talked to were far less vulnerable than other groups hidden in exploitative working conditions, who no one has been able to reach to ask questions.
“Despite warnings from us and many other experts, the Home Office is burying its head in the sand about this just like they did with Windrush and making excuses instead of finding solutions.”
The immigration minister, Kevin Foster, said the JCWI report presented “an incredibly misleading picture of the EU settlement scheme” as it relied on “a small survey of less than 300 people conducted a year ago”.
“Since then millions of applications have been received by the scheme,” he said.
“We have now had almost 4.9m applications to the hugely successful EU settlement scheme. There is now less than six months before the 30 June 2021 deadline and I would encourage all those eligible to apply now to secure their rights under UK law. A wide range of support is available online and over the telephone if you need it and we are funding 72 organisations across the UK to ensure no one gets left behind.”