migrantvoice
Speaking for Ourselves

This new year, let's remember EU citizens in the UK

This new year, let's remember EU citizens in the UK

Silvia Tadiello

 Migrant Voice - This new year, let's remember EU citizens in the UK

Despite having known for months that freedom of movement between the UK and the European Union ends with this year, it still takes an effort to come to terms with what this entails. On 31 December 2020, the transitional period comes to an end, and with it, the ‘four freedoms’ that the EU provides to its citizens: free movement of goods, capital, services and people.

Like many people, I’m most concerned about the fate of thousands of EU citizens who will inevitably fall through the cracks of the EU Settlement Scheme, which all EU citizens and their families in the UK are required to apply to in order to continue living here from 2021.

The process of applying for settled or pre-settled status looks quite straightforward at first sight. And in fact, compared to many other parts of the immigration system, it is relatively simple and well-functioning. The scheme does have significant shortcomings, however, and these have long been exposed, largely with little reaction from the UK Government.

People with status through the scheme are not given any physical evidence of it, which makes it more complex to prove you have the right to be in the UK to a potential employer, landlord or doctor. While showing a stamp on your passport or a residence card takes seconds, proving your status includes logging into a government website to retrieve a share code, which is then to be given to your employer, who then has to use the same website to check that the code is legitimate (to do so, they must know your date of birth, too).

Obtaining a status should only take a few days after the application, but a significant minority of applicants have complained of much longer waiting times, unexpected requests for additional documentation, or unjustified refusals

H, a third-country (non-EU, non-UK) national who applied to the scheme on the basis of his relationship to a EU citizen, has been waiting for his outcome for over a year. 

“Although it didn’t really affect me at first, it quickly became clear that I couldn’t leave the country after my first visa expired, or I wouldn’t be able to come back,” he says. Because of this, he has not seen his family, who live abroad, since moving to the UK. “I feel like I’m imprisoned here,” he adds, “because – sure, I’m free to leave, but then I’d have to start everything all over again.” 

Communication with UK Visas and Immigration – the Home Office department that handles visas and the Settlement Scheme – has been nearly impossible, H explains. Calls have stayed on hold for hour; emails have been answered with pre-written generic answers; a complaint has returned no effective action.

Other applicants find themselves in need of external support to complete an application. For example, research has shown that most members of the Roma community who applied to the scheme have required some form of assistance. Access to support proves vital for the future of these people. And still, these are the lucky ones – those who know they need to, and have been able to, apply.

Campaigners have raised concerns about the people who will be left out of the Settlement Scheme for a number of reasons: because they lack the necessary documentation, because their health has not allowed them to apply or to gather the relevant evidence, because they did not know that they had to apply. People who are homeless or in care, including children, are particularly in danger.

Although the deadline to apply to the scheme isn’t for another six months (30 June 2021), this also opens the door to another conundrum: until then, how are employers, landlords, doctors and so on – the unwilling border guards of the UK’s hostile environment – to differentiate between EU migrants who arrived in the UK after the transition period, and who hence do not have the right to live and work here unless they have a work visa, from those who were here before 1 January, but who have not (yet) applied to the Settlement Scheme? 

And what about those who have applied but are still waiting for a response: will they face discrimination because of their inability to prove their right to live and work in the country that is their home (and which may have been so for years, if not decades)?

The cut-off date is also causing concern among first-year EU students at UK universities who, because of Covid-19, have stayed in their home countries for their first semester and followed classes online. Although they are enrolled in British universities now, they will have to apply for a student visa if they move to the UK after 31 December to continue their studies.

It is, truly, the end of an era. The moment between 31 December and 1 January marks the split between two generations of migrants: those who could, and those who can’t. The new points-based immigration system does not, indeed, differentiate between EU and non-EU migrants, but it only allows specific categories of workers to enter the country – those who are highly skilled, who already speak English, and who hold a job offer (with some exceptions for ‘outstanding talents’). 

There have been reports that the new system will put a strain on industries who heavily rely on migrant workers, such as construction and care. Moreover, several other categories of so-called “low-skilled” workers who are the backbone of the UK and whose work has been more vital than ever during this pandemic year – delivery drivers, restaurant and supermarket workers, cleaners, and so on – will be excluded from the new visa system.

As the UK ‘Brexits’, I’ll be thinking about all the EU citizens and their families in the UK who are worried about how their lives will change, and uncertain about their future here. And in 2021, let’s keep working to make sure that everyone who’s eligible gets the status and security they need. 

 

Silvia Tadiello is an EU citizen living in the UK and a Migrant Voice volunteer

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