If the Home Office fails to clear a backlog of more than 300,000 applications before the EU settlement scheme closes at the end of this month hundreds of thousands of European citizens will face a legal limbo.
With only three weeks to go before the deadline for EU workers and their families to apply for permanent residency in the UK, campaigners say anxiety and confusion remain over the rights of the 305,000 who have already applied and are waiting for a decision. Many fear they risk a loss of rights similar to those experienced by the Windrush generation.
Out of the 5,423,300 applications, 5,118,300 have been processed according to the latest government figures. Although the Home Office insists EU citizens are assured of their rights even if they have received no decision on their application by the 30th June, campaigners remained concerned.
EU citizens’ rights lead at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Caitlin Boswell, said: “There has been a lack of clarity over what the rights of these 300,000 will be after the deadline, they don’t know their rights. Although they have made an application, it is a really worrying situation”.
The big unknown, and what continues to cause the most disquiet is the number of European citizens yet to actually apply, who risk losing fundamental legal rights, including the ability to work, and face the threat of ‘Home Office enforcement action’ from 1st July.
Monique Hawkins of the campaign group the 3million said she was most concerned about the number of elderly people who had not applied for settled status: “There is a general concern by the EU delegation in London that not enough elderly people have applied, and a lot of them have been here a long time, had their brush with the Home Office in the past and have permanent residence documents, so they think that they are fine”.
The group is also concerned that many people seem unaware that parents need to ensure children and even babies apply for settled status this month. “It’ll be similar in that sense to the Windrush scandal, it will take a long time. Children now won’t discover they needed settled status until they try and get a job aged 18 or try to go to university”.
During the Windrush scandal, the UK government deported or threatened to deport the children of Commonwealth citizens who, despite living and working in the UK for decades, were told they were there illegally because of a lack of official paperwork.
The 3million is now advocating a deadline extension, as well as legislation to avert the cliff-edge scenario for those who fail to apply.
Hawkins said: “We need legislation in place to protect people who will inevitably fail to meet that deadline, and it is a problem because if you miss the deadline you have no right to rent, no right to work, no right to access hospital treatment. We need legislation to suspend the hostile environment”.
Assistant director of the campaign group Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), Pierre Makhlouf, said it would take time for the new reality to become accepted by Europeans.
“The ability of the Home Office to refuse entry, to detain and to deport people is the Brexit experience that unfortunately all EU nationals are being forced to learn, now that they are being treated in the same way as non-EU nationals”.
Kevin Foster, the minister for future borders and immigration, said: “Every day, thousands of people are being granted status under a hugely successful EU settlement scheme. I urge people who are eligible to apply as soon as possible and secure the rights they deserve in UK law. We have already confirmed that someone who has applied to the EU settlement scheme by the 30th June deadline, but has not had a decision by then, will have their rights protected until their application is decided”.
According to Foster, £22m has been given to 72 organisations to help vulnerable and harder-to-reach groups apply. The Home Office says it has over 1,500 people working on the scheme.