Thousands Left in limbo

Potentially hundreds of thousands of EU citizens could be left in legal limbo on 1 July following the end of the EU Settled Status scheme, a new academic report by UK in a Changing Europe finds.

The EU Settled Status scheme allows EU nationals (and those from Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) and some family members to apply for ‘settled status’ or, if they have less than five years residence, ‘pre-settled status’.

The report, The EU Settlement Scheme, finds the scheme, by far the largest immigration administrative exercise ever undertaken by the Home Office, (perhaps one of the largest in the world) has been hugely successful. More than five million people have applied – far more than expected; this includes non-EU family members, who also have applied in large numbers.

The government’s intention has been to grant status, and refusals have, to date, been low (about 2%). The vast majority of applications have been approved quickly.

However, findings from the report show there will be tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people who, while entitled to apply, will find themselves without a legal immigration status on 1 July 2021.

Those who have not applied by the deadline, and who do not have a good reason for making a late application, will immediately and irreversibly lose their rights of residence, will be considered ‘undocumented’ and become subject to the ‘hostile environment’ and the risk of removal.

There will inevitably be a rush to apply in the final few days of the scheme, but some will not make it. There will also be people who made an application on time but have not received a decision by 30 June 2021. In those cases, if applicants cannot demonstrate they have a ‘right to reside’, they will lose their rights immediately, even if their application is valid. This is likely to impact most severely upon vulnerable applicants with complicated cases. Given delays in processing applications this difference in treatment could become quite significant.

The scheme faces numerous challenges:

  • There is a lack of reliable information on how many EU nationals are in the country meaning the government cannot know how many eligible people have not applied
  • The digital by default approach of the scheme is a barrier for some to apply. Applicants also need digital skills to update their status regularly in the future
  • The government said that it will allow people with ‘reasonable grounds’ for missing the deadline to apply late. A lot will ride on how those reasons are defined
  • Recent studies show there are problems with awareness of the scheme among low paid workers in the agricultural and food processing sectors, and care workers.

EU nationals with settled status will inevitably face some differences in treatment compared to UK nationals: their nationality will trigger requests to demonstrate settled status – to show a right to work, rent, access certain public services and so on. The government needs to ensure those who demand checks – public officials and third parties (landlords and employers) – understand the rights conveyed by settled status to prevent EU citizens facing discrimination. 

Nor does the process end now: there are more than two million EU citizens who were granted pre-settled status but there is no mechanism for ‘upgrading’ from pre-settled to settled status – a fresh application is needed.

Groups of particular cause for concern:

  • Children: There are concerns around the children of EU nationals who, because their children were born in the UK, believe they do not need to apply on their behalf
  • Looked after children: Home Office data shows 67% of looked after children and care leavers eligible to apply for EUSS had received a status by 23 April 2021.
  • Over 65s account for only 2% of applications. There are concerns those in care homes or who may have been shielding may have encountered problems, especially if they were not comfortable with the digital application system
  • Other vulnerable groups particularly affected by the pandemic, including those who are rough sleeping, those with mental health issues, Roma communities, victims of domestic abuse, and victims of modern slavery.

Catherine Barnard, deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe, said: “On one level, the EUSS is a massive success in terms of providing a quick and efficient system which has reached huge numbers of people. But it is about to enter a phase that will require sensitive management where the government will need to show pragmatism and flexibility in dealing with difficult cases.

“The ultimate effectiveness of the scheme can only be judged when we know not just how many people successfully applied but how many of these hard to reach groups were left undocumented at the end of the process and how the government dealt with them.”