The government’s EU citizens plan ignores the most vulnerable

Latest analysis raises yet more questions about how the government will reach the 3.4 million EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit.

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Imagine waking up one day and being told you have to apply to live in the country you already live in – and have lived in  for decades. No longer can you rest comfortably in your ignorance about the impossibly complicated immigration system. You can't rely on the status quo that doesn't exist for you anymore.

You have to navigate the gov.uk website and not just once a year to slog through your tax return  but to apply to continue with your life as you know it. Suddenly you have to prove something so second nature to you it seems impossible to know where to start.

This is the reality for many of the 3.4 million non-Irish EU citizens living in the UK. After months of deadening silence and obfuscation, the government eventually came up with a plan to allow for indefinite leave via something called “settled status”, for which the vast majority of those people qualify.

However, it is a plan which, according to academics, leaves vulnerable EU citizens including children in care, the elderly, and victims of domestic abuse at risk of losing their right to remain in the UK after Brexit.

A new report published by researchers from Oxford’s Migration Observatory, warns that a potentially "significant number" may miss the deadline to apply for their settled status, forcing them to either leave their home in the UK or they'll be breaking the law. The report's authors believe that many may not know they need to apply, may struggle to navigate the system or make an application, or may not being able to demonstrate that they live in the UK, for example if they don't have a bank account.

The academics claim securing settled status will be more difficult for certain groups, who might not normally be classified as “vulnerable”, including children, very long term residents, and people who have already applied for permanent residence.

There are plenty of EU citizens living in the UK who are young, computer literature recent graduates, who speak fluent or near-fluent English. But of course, they are only part of the picture. While EU citizens living in the UK are on average highly educated, the report suggests other factors such as language barriers, age, disability, and lack of digital know-how could play a role in some citizen’s failure to secure residency.

Applications may be more difficult for people who are already vulnerable or have reduced autonomy for some reason. The report gives the example of victims of domestic abuse, who could struggle to complete the application, particularly if they rely on a partner for evidence. EU citizens are less likely than British nationals to be victims of domestic abuse, although an estimated 50,000 EU citizen women reported experiencing some form of abuse in the year ending March 2017.

The government’s current plan is that EU citizens who have been continuously and lawfully living in the UK for five years by 31 December 2020 will be able to stay indefinitely by applying for settled status. People who arrive by 31 December 2020, but won’t have been living here lawfully for five years when we leave the EU, will be able to apply to stay until they have reached the five-year threshold. They can then also apply for settled status. Irish citizens won't be required to apply for settled status.

This latest research is based on what has so far been negotiated between the UK and EU about the rights of EU citizens and their families. Details about the process of applying are still to be thrashed out, but the application form will include six to eight questions and be far simpler than the permanent residence application under EU law. The Home Office also says it is planning targeted support for certain groups.

Whether EU citizens want to stay in the country that voted for Brexit is a different matter. The so-called Brexodus has begun: in 2015-16 net migration of EU citizens was estimated at 189,000, but in 2016-17, this fell to 107,000, the lowest since 2012 (though it's impossible to tie down specific reasons for the such largescale figures, anecdotal evidence suggests a link)

The analysis raises more policy questions for the government. Raising awareness of the residency application process is key for the government if it hopes for a comprehensive take up of settled status.

The extent of the barrier to securing settled status is likely to depend heavily on key, as-yet-undecided policy decisions. The types of “non-official” evidence that are acceptable and how many different forms are required, will have a huge impact on certain groups, such as those without a bank account.

Other research makes clear that 100 per cent takeup of the eligible EU citizen population within a period of a couple of years is not likely. Many similar government forms that require people to apply have incomplete take-up, even when it is apparently in the interests of individuals to participate - an estimated 14 per cent of families eligible for child tax credits did not take them up in 2014-15. 

All this suggests that there could be a considerable number of eligible (and wanting) EU citizens who do not take up their settled status. So what happens to those of the 3.4 million who don't meet the deadline?