Christopher Desira is Seraphus’ director and founding solicitor. He has over 15 years of experience in immigration law. Since 2018, his team has been special advisors on Brexit to the European Commission Representation in the UK. In that position, his team gives free non-political information sessions on EU citizens’ rights in the UK in the context of Brexit.
So, you give workshops to advise on the EU Settlement Scheme. What happens at those workshops exactly, what is your goal there?
It’s a two-pronged aim, really. On the one hand, we want to communicate the scheme and the need to apply by the deadline, and then secondly, we try to give everyone the tools they need to make the applications themselves.
We try to explain the EU Settlement Scheme as in simple terms so that EU citizens and their family members can make applications under the scheme themselves without the assistance of a lawyer. The seminars are very practical-based – we tell them how to apply, what questions come up, how to answer those questions, what the pitfalls are and what evidence they need to provide.
What happens if people don’t apply by the deadline?
If someone does not apply before the deadline, on New Year’s Day 2021, under the current rules, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. That has immense implications: if you’re unlawfully resident, that means all of the hostile environment policies which are in place in the UK will apply to you.
The hostile environment mechanisms are built to make life in the UK as difficult as possible, forcing you to leave the country. Your employer will have the right to terminate your employment, your landlord could terminate your tenancy agreement, you can no longer use your driver’s licence, etc. If someone does not apply before the deadline, that is exactly what will happen to them: they will be unlawfully resident, and all of those mechanisms will start hitting them.
Brandon Lewis, a Home Office Minister, got into a lot of trouble about a month ago when he he told a German newspaper that EU citizens who fail to apply to the settlement scheme will be deported. But in reality, what he was saying was true, and this is part of the challenges that we face. The Home Office communication campaigns are good. They are becoming warmer and friendlier, sending out messages to EU citizens saying that the UK wants – and needs – them to stay. What the Home Office communication campaigns fail to do, however, is stress the importance of applying before the deadline. They don’t stress that if one doesn’t apply before the deadline, they will be unlawfully resident in the UK, and the Home Office have the right to ask them to leave. Those messages might start appearing nearer to the deadline, but it might be a little too late for some.
Who do you think bears responsibility for people failing to apply because they don’t have the knowledge and why?
There is a lot of people out there that are doing a lot of good work to try and make sure that we reach everyone we need to reach but the ultimate responsibility is with the Home Office.
Although they are doing a lot of good work on communications, it is likely not going to be enough. I worry that the communications may be used against late applicants later. So that for example, if someone applies late and their reason is that they did not know about the scheme, the Home Office can say: “We did all of this work to let you know, so that is not a good enough reason to apply late.”
In any case, whatever the Home Office does and whatever all these other organisations such as charities or the European Commission do, there will always be groups that don’t apply, no matter how much communications work has been done. The UK government has an obligation to those people as well. They need to make sure that 100% of people who need to apply under the scheme effectively do so. The Home Office can change current rules to ensure no one fall unlawfully resident on New Years Day 2021, and they may well do so, but if that doesn't happen those who apply late will be doing so while unlawfully residing here.
Which type of audience usually shows up to the workshops?
It depends who is organising the workshops and who they are advertised to; it varies immensely. We have done workshops set up by the advice sector who want to help their local community, for example. Those would be advertised to the whole European community there, so anyone can turn up. Sometimes it is more specific, for example if it is a Polish charity, it is catered towards polish citizens. Or if it is a consulate or embassy which organises the workshop, then it is only citizens from that specific country who turn up. And then there are also community champions. A community champion is someone within a community that is not a legal entity or part of a charity, who wants to help their community on their own initiative because they know their community needs help.
Each community necessitates different types of sessions and poses different challenges. The Home Office communications campaigns work for a lot of people, but there is going to be just as many people that will require their own community to help, and if there is no one within their community who is going to point that out, then they are going to miss out on the knowledge they need to apply under the scheme.
What are some of those challenges? What do you think is the biggest barrier for people to apply?
There is a long list. It could be language, or education. It could be physical or mental health issues, dependency issues, street homelessness, living in precarious residence accommodation, or a combination of a number of those. More broadly, it could be people living in religious or close-knit communities, like the Roma community for example. People with criminal convictions, however minor or serious, would also be less eager to apply because they would be worried about the impact of those offences on the outcome of their application.
It really is a long list.
Yes, and to make matters worse, usually someone who has some kind of vulnerability has more than one vulnerable characteristic. For example, someone who has dependency issues may also be street homeless. Needless to say, the more issues an individual has, the harder it is to reach them and the harder it will be to ensure those people apply without any legal assistance.
Another category of people I’m worried about is those who simply don’t apply on principle. I have met many people who have said they don’t want to apply to the settlement scheme. They think: “Why should I, I have been here for 40 years, what are they going to do? I’m 72 years old, are they really going to put me on a plane? Are they really going to send me home?” Well, unfortunately, the answer to that is yes, that is exactly what they will do, or at least they can if they want to under the current rules. However old you are, however young you are, if you don’t have a status and you’re unlawfully resident on New Year’s Day 2021.
Is the Home Office making an effort to address these issues?
To be fair to them, they have listened to advice on the fact that technology is going to be a barrier and they have tried to find ways to resolve that. For example, there is a service called assisted digital service, where people can get practical assistance with filling in the forms. They are listening where they can and want to.
Many local authorities are taking the initiative themselves with so-called “one stop shops” where people can turn up and use a computer if they cannot access one, and where staff will help them engage with the technical barriers as well. But it’s just not going to be enough; there will still be many people who will not or cannot apply unless they have someone holding their hands for the whole process, someone applying for them.
What do you think is the one thing which should be done differently in relation to the Settlement Scheme?
Part 2 of the withdrawal agreement discusses EU citizens’ rights. It outlines two ways of sorting out people’s residency rights. On the one hand, it discusses how to implement an application scheme to grant rights and how simple such a scheme should be. If a country does not want to implement that type of scheme, then it discusses an alternative system of declaring rights. The reason why there are two different mechanisms in the withdrawal agreement is because this is not just an issue in the UK– it’s a problem in the EU more broadly, as each member state will need to decide what they are going to do with British citizens living abroad.
So, in summary, each EU member states has two options. The first is to implement an application process, which means that at some point in the future, anyone that does not apply and gets granted a status will be unlawfully resident, at which point in time their residency rights end. That is the model the UK has adopted.
Alternatively, countries can introduce a declaratory scheme. A declaratory scheme essentially establishes that the rights one has now will be carried through with them for their lifetime. Residents can then obtain physical evidence of their lawful lifetime residence right by asking for it. This is kind of how EU law works: as long as you are doing the right things, you acquire EU rights, and these rights continue with you as long as you continue to do the right things. Applying this to the UK, as long as one would have lived in the UK by a specific date, they would continue to be lawful residents in the UK. That means someone could never be unlawfully resident as long as they lived in the UK before a certain cut-off date. All they need to do is show up and say they lived in the UK since before 31 December 2020, confirm some information, and the government would give them a piece of paper, no questions ask.
The settlement scheme should be a declaratory scheme instead of what it is now. I think that is the only way we can protect everyone, including the most vulnerable to exclusion, through this process.
Summary: Children’s rights are not for the Home Office to block, and no child should be prevented from securing British citizenship to which they are entitled by law. On Tuesday November 26th, the first day of a court case challenging the lawfulness of the Home Office fee of £1,012 for a child to register as a British citizen, Amnesty International will be protesting outside the Royal Courts of Justice to visually demonstrate significant support for the children affected by this government profiteering. Show your support and join them.
The Secretary of State, on his British citizenship application form guide, outlines the importance of British citizenship to an individual:
“Citizenship is a ‘significant life event’. Apart from allowing a child to apply for a British citizen passport, British citizenship gives them the opportunity to participate more fully in the life of their local community as they grow up.”
The British Nationality Act 1981 ensures that children who grow up in the United Kingdom (either UK-born or not), who feel just as British as their British-born friends, have rights to register as British citizens. Failure to register means one is excluded not only in the present, for example because they are not allowed to go on certain school trips, but will also continue to be marginalised in the future, when it comes to obtaining all the perks which come with British citizenship, including the right to remain, the right to vote in all elections, access to public funds, health services, and other social benefits.
Registration is fundamentally different from naturalisation, which is the process adult migrants need to go through in order to acquire citizenship. The essential difference is the role of the Home Office when processing the applications. In naturalisation cases, that role is to decide, at the Home Office’s discretion and balancing all relevant factors, whether the applicant should be made a British citizen. Contrastingly, in registration cases, it is simply to recognise a pre-existing right to citizenship laid out in statute.
Academic researchers have estimated there to be around 120,000 children in the UK without British citizenship, around 65,000 of whom were born in the UK. However, many of these children do not register for citizenship, not because they are not eligible, but simply because they cannot afford to. Since 2007, the Home Office have started charging applicants more than the administrative cost of processing the application, aggravating the situation. The Home Office states that the fee, currently priced at £1,012 is made up of two parts: £372 for the administrative cost of processing registration, and £640 as a profit element to finance the immigration system. In other words, the Home Office is profiting off children who are merely claiming what is rightfully theirs, and they are making twice as much profit as the actual cost price.
In practice, the Home Office fee hinders children in exercising their rights under the 1981 Act. This sort of exclusionary policy not only jeopardises a child’s start in life; it also undermines their future. Ultimately, if a child is unable to pay the £1012 fee today, that may well be the reason why that same child cannot afford to go to university eight years from now, because they cannot get a student loan. In addition, their children won't be recognised as British either, even if they are the second or third generation in their family born and brought up in the UK.
This outrageously discriminatory Home Office policy needs to stop. Children’s rights are not for the Home Office to block because of finances, and no child should be prevented from securing their British citizenship. In order to allow children to exercise the rights which were conferred upon them by Parliament, the Home Office fee should be reduced; the profit element of the fee should be removed altogether. In addition, for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, public funds should be made available to cover the fee in full. Children should not have to raise funds to pay for their registration rights, particularly where these rights are by entitlement. That is why the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC), a London-based charity which fights for British citizenship rights of children born in the UK to migrant parent(s), is challenging the lawfulness of the Home Office fee in court.
PRCBC’s case is centred on challenging the Home Office’s flawed, quid pro quo argument on which they rely to justify the elevated fee. The basic premise of their approach is that those who are profiting from the immigration system, should also be paying for it. However, since these children are merely asking for recognisance of their entitlement, their applications for registration fall outside of immigration law and policy. Registering as a British citizen is not a benefit the Home Office grants these children. Rather, it is a recognition of a right these children already have by law. Therefore, they are not profiting from the system, and it is only natural that they should not be made to pay for it.
British citizenship, especially for children and young adults, is about much more than just getting the right documents. It is about identity, integration, a sense of belonging, and about confirmation that the UK is their home. It is about having the same rights, feeling part of their peer group and much more. That is why on Tuesday 26 November, the second day of the PRCBC proceedings, Amnesty will be protesting outside the Royal Courts of Justice to visually demonstrate significant support for PRCBC and for the children affected by this government profiteering.
Show your support and join them.
On 11 September 2019, the UK government announced an extension of the post-study visa rules. International students who complete their degree at a recognised institution will be able to stay in the UK for two years after graduation, increasing their chances of finding long-term employment upon completion of their studies.
The current immigration policy gives students just four months to find work after graduating. As the country is preparing itself for a fall in recruitment from the EU for education and employment alike when freedom of movement ends after Brexit, the announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by both the education sector, which only benefits from attracting more international students who pay higher tuition fees, and the business sector alike.
Grace Kuperman, a US national, graduated with a First-Class Politics BA from a Russel Group university. She is now writing her dissertation for her MSc in Security Studies at University College London.
“For certain sectors, such as British politics, I understand to an extent to why British employees are preferred, but I have studied here for almost four years now and I feel as though certain fields in the UK are missing out on valuable potential employees due to visa restrictions.”
The pressure of the current rules on international students in the UK should not be underestimated. One recent graduate, Tracy Jawad, moved back to Beirut, Lebanon in October 2019 when her student visa expired. She studied Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
“I think that a lot of people from the same background as me just jumped into masters to avoid having to leave the country. I decided not to do that because I wanted to get some work experience first, and because a masters degree is a substantial investment.
I was applying for graduate jobs from October 2018 onwards. It was an extremely difficult and unfair process; often job descriptions did not specify that they would only accept UK, EU, or even Commonwealth citizens. Only when I got rejected, after having gone through the whole application process, would I find out. Even then, I was the one who had to reach out and ask for feedback as to why I didn’t get the job, and companies would then respond my application was side-lined because an international student is less employable than a home or EU applicant.”
The Home Office publicises the reforms to the rules as an answer to the problem Tracy outlines: a new way of attracting young international talent. Home Secretary Priti Patel championed the extended post-study visa as a “new way for talented international students, whether in science and maths or technology and engineering, to study in the UK and then gain valuable work experience as they go on to build successful careers.” However, there are multiple caveats.
The Home Secretary’s enthusiastic announcement fails to mention that the two-year extension is not a “new route” into graduate success. It is simply a revocation of the current policy, which was controversially put in place by Theresa May in 2012 as part of the hostile environment policy against illegal immigrants in the UK, and which has been contested ever since.
Tracy: “If there is such a hostile environment against international students, then UK universities should not be allowed to use us as poster boys, or as alluring marketing ploys. All you ever hear about Queen Mary is how diverse it is, but ultimately, as one of those people bringing diversity to the university, I have not benefitted from Queen Mary’s international community; I’m back in Beirut now.”
The new policy will not apply retroactively; only students graduating in 2021 and thereafter will be able to access the scheme. This puts current students at a competitive disadvantage with future students.
MM, who wishes to remain anonymous, moved to London from Egypt to study Business Management at undergraduate level and is now reading a MSc in International Marketing at King’s College London, explains:
“I don’t think I got a fair shot at finding a job in the UK, definitely not. Due to the preference for EU and UK graduates, job offers clearly state that they do not sponsor an international working visa or permit. Because of this, I didn’t even apply for jobs within the UK, as I felt like there was no point. Instead I embarked on a masters degree to have more specific qualifications within my industry, and hopefully that will increase my employability.”
“I’m happy my younger sister might have better chances at finding a career within the UK should she choose to study here, but for me, it is too little, too late.”
Tracy, who will be eligible for the two-year extension should she start her masters next academic year, says:
“When I heard of the post-study visa extension, I was mostly really happy for myself, that I did not immediately started my masters upon graduation. Thanks to my decision to move back and rethink my options, I will now have two years after my masters degree. That is such a relief, because finding a graduate job is not something that can be done in 4 months.”
“For the UK more broadly, more people are now going to want to study there because the new rules show a willingness to invest rather than just make money out of international students. Plus, although there will still be a cost to hiring an international graduate, it will be easier for students to find companies which are more likely to take on that financial burden.”
However, even given extra time, international graduates in certain sectors will still be disadvantaged. Grace attests to this: “Fields that are flooded with large multi-national corporations, like finance, can afford to hire international students. For me, who is interested in international organisations and politics, it is much harder. NGO’s are famously short on funding and prefer British applicants above all else.”
Tracy confirms: “STEM majors are more likely to get jobs in the UK than humanities majors. When I spoke to other Lebanese people who were applying to jobs at the same time as me, but with Engineering or Computer Science degrees, they were clearly more likely to at least get interviews. It requires funds to sponsor foreign students and unfortunately, humanities organisations do not have as much money as STEM companies. That is not how it should be.”
As the new rules apply to all non-British students, they will bring EU students to a level playing field with international students. This would not only boost the economy, but also avoid a brain drain to countries whose rules are more relaxed, and let their graduates stay for longer periods of time post-graduation. At least that’s the idea. In practice, EU students will face many challenges: tuition fees, already elevated for international students, will probably rise further for those from the EU, until they are equal to international levels. Meanwhile, EU funding and the future of Erasmus after Brexit are all up in the air.
It is unfair to make international students pay almost twice as much in tuition fees, without any guarantee of a job afterwards, or at the very least the time to look for one. From that perspective, the post-study visa extension is more like a bare minimum than “a transforming new way for talented international students to build successful careers in the UK,” as it has been described by Ms. Patel. Instead of slightly improving international students’ perks at the cost of dragging EU student benefits down, the government’s aim should be to increase all graduate opportunities. University graduates benefit the UK just as much as the other way around. That should be enough of a reason to end the marketisation of education once and for all, and although a two-year extension may seem like a step in the right direction on the face of it, it is not the end of the road for international or EU students.
The second quarterly UK Home Office statistics on the EU Settlement Scheme scheme has been published.
According to the Home Office it 'complements high-level monthly statistical releases on the progress, taking an in-depth look at the number of applications and their outcomes, covering the period between the launch of the beta scheme to the end of Q3 2019 (28/08/18-30/09/19).'
One thing that stands out is the low number of applicants from the age group 65 or older. According to the statistics only 2% of the total applications came from people aged 65 or older.
The Home Office say that the share of applications from this age group matches their estimates for age distribution of EU citizens in the UK. Indeed @ons predicts a share of 2% to 3% for elderly EU citizens.
But some embassies/consulates which register their citizens record a higher percentage of residents aged 65 or older, with reports in the region of 5-6%. This suggests that take up of the scheme by this age group is currently low.
Anecdotally, this reflects my experience meeting those aged 65 or over living across the UK through the course of the last 2 years. While many can and have applied, a majority of whom I have met would be unable to get through the system unaided.
I was in Kettering on 28/09/19 meeting a community of Italian residents aged 65 or older. The majority would not have been able to apply unaided despite efforts to verbally walk them through the process. Most did not have mobile numbers, nearly all did not have email address.
Instead of a presentation and Q&A we gave up our Saturday to submit applications on their behalf. We registered over 30 residents, all of whom were on course to obtain settled status but would have been unable to do so without this assistance.
Not withstanding the grant funding, the various communication campaigns and the free services we do have out there, I am still concerned that many 65 or older residents will struggle to apply before the deadline and access their status after the deadline.