As the UK prepares to end free movement, EU citizens already living in the UK have to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) if they want to maintain their residency rights. Whoever fails to apply by the deadline (currently set at 30 June 2021), loses their legal status in the UK, and becomes an unlawful or irregular migrant. The government has therefore invested significant efforts into creating a Scheme that is inclusive and easy to use for all applicants.
However, as we have argued before, no system is perfect, and there are significant challenges for certain groups of people who need to apply under the EUSS. The Migrant Observatory published a report confirming many lawyers and advocates worries for EU citizens’ rights. We take a look at their findings.
A key question to understand the Settlement Scheme is how many eligible people have already applied, and how many are left to apply. But the exact number of people currently living in the UK and eligible to apply to the EUSS is unknown, and estimates of the number of EU citizens living in the UK have significant limitations. Unlike in other European countries, there is no registration system or population register in the UK, and as such, the government does not know which UK residents are EU citizens. EU citizens will thus need to come forward of their own accord under the EUSS, as there is no way to track them. Additionally, the number of successful applications under the Scheme does not reflect the number of current UK residents, as some people may get their status and then leave the UK, and some applications are counted twice. It does not help that the Office of National Statistics measures the number of EU citizens living in the UK differently from how the Home Office assesses the applications and grants under the EUSS.
Equally hard to interpret is the data on whether applicants are being granted the right status, i.e. are receiving settled status when they have been living in the UK for more than 5 years, and pre-settled status if they have been in the UK for less than 5 years. If this is not the case, and people who in theory are entitled to settled status receive pre-settled status because they do not have enough evidence of living in the UK for the whole required five-year period, their future rights might be in danger. If we don’t know whether people are receiving the right status now, we will not be able to determine whether people with pre-settled status later manage to upgrade their status to settled status. The process of upgrading from pre-settled status to settled status could bring many complications.
Firstly, individuals do not always understand their immigration status. As such, applicants who receive pre-settled status may not understand that that status is temporary, and that they need to apply separately to obtain settled status further down the line. Secondly, unlike the initial EUSS application, there will not be a single deadline for people to upgrade to settled status. Instead, there will be many different deadlines depending on when the person made their initial application. This complicates the public communication around the need to apply. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the evidence required for settled status is more extensive than for pre-settled status. As such, the report highlights that applicants who are not covered by the automated checks and lack the necessary paperwork to prove their residence can currently receive pre-settled status with just one piece of evidence, such as a single invoice issued in the past six months; however, once the main EUSS deadlines have passed, applicants will need a full five years of evidence retrospectively to qualify for settled status.
The report also highlights the lack of data on applicants’ experience of the scheme. To encourage EU citizens to apply, the government has developed an application process that is designed to be easy to use, launched an advertising campaign and grants to community organisations to support vulnerable EU citizens. However, this is not enough, as we still do not have detailed information on waiting times, reasons for pending applications, administrative review procedures, or reasons for not granting status.
In order to understand the EUSS statistics better, as well as understand its shortcomings, and improve it in the future, The Migration Observatory states that data collection needs to change. The focus should shift from successful applications to the people who have not yet applied, and on how to reach them so that they can acquire the right status. Finally, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, future challenges to the EUSS are unavoidable, as the outbreak disrupts EUSS assistance services, hinders data collection, and causes increased absences from the UK which may well impede EU citizens from reaching the EUSS residence requirements. There are many gaps in the evidence base about the EU Settlement Scheme, and unfortunately, the consequences of those failings will not become clear until many months or years from now. This is the unfortunate consequence of choosing a constitutive system over a declaratory one.