The problems of a digital-only immigration system by Charlotte Rubin

When the government first outlined its vision for a new, post-Brexit immigration system in December 2018, they clarified that they wanted the system to be modern, efficient and in keeping with the “shift towards digital status in all areas of life”.

The first large-scale project where this “shift” became prominent is the EU Settlement Scheme, the framework under which EU citizens need to apply for status if they want to remain lawfully in the UK after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. Under the Scheme, EU citizens do not receive physical proof of their status, having to rely instead on a digital-only status, which they can access via the government website.

Under the hostile environment, introduced by Theresa May in 2012, the government forces service providers like landlords, employers, banks and universities to ask everyone they provide services to prove their status, effectively delegating its border control responsibilities to non-governmental entities. As a consequence, non-British nationals in the UK have to prove that they are legal at every turn. In order to live and survive in the UK as a non-British national, easy access to proof of one’s immigration status is therefore essential.

The Home Office argues that the digital-only status reflects that, as it allows EU citizens to “check their status from anywhere, at any time” from their phone. The government stated that “the EU Settlement Scheme protects the rights of EU citizens in UK law and gives them a secure digital status, which unlike a physical document, cannot be lost, stolen, damaged or tampered with”, selling the digital-only access as advantageous and useful for all parties involved. This reasoning fails to consider many factors which can prevent EU citizens from accessing their status, and therefore, accessing their rights.

Firstly, sharing and evidencing a digital status is hindered by numerous practical obstacles such as lack of IT knowledge, literacy, language barriers, or age differences. At Seraphus, we have encountered many EU citizens, especially elderly or isolated communities, who for example do not have email addresses or phone numbers. Both are necessary not just to apply for (pre)settled status, but also to access and share their status with service providers further down the line. For now, free advice and support is available to help EU citizens who for whatever reason are not secure in their application, apply under the EUSS, but there is no indication that this support will carry through once the deadline for application has passed, and citizens will need assistance to change, update or share their status instead of simply to obtain it.

This will harm many EU citizens once the points-based system come into force in January 2021. Most importantly, EU citizens are highly likely to be discriminated against similarly to how it occurs against third-party nationals today under the “right to rent” rules. In fact, only 3 in 150 landlords said they would be prepared to do these digital checks when renting out a flat, meaning that candidates with physical proof of their status will be prioritised over EU citizens who have go through the hassle of accessing their status online. The risk of being discriminated against increases, as it always does, for more vulnerable segments of the population, including those from isolated, older or BAME communities, women, children, and those with disabilities.

As Christopher Desira wrote, barriers also exist for the third-party requesting access to the status, multiplying the likelihood of discrimination. For example, a private landlord with a basic understanding of English and IT will find challenging to access and understand an EU citizen’s digital status, and therefore prefer to rent their property to someone where that hurdle need not be overcome, i.e. a British national who simply has to show their passport to prove that they have the right to rent in the UK.

Thirdly, the risk of any type of digital-only access scheme is that there can be a system outage at critical times, leaving EU citizens out in the cold when needing to show their status. In addition, digital security is a hot topic. Digital records can be breached, hacked or made unavailable, with not only consequences for the EU citizen who at that moment is unable to prove their status, but also for their privacy in the longer term. How securely is all this digital data stored, what are the contingency measures in case of a breach, and who is the data shared with? The government have answered none of these arguably critically important questions.

Non-EU family members who are eligible under the EUSS do receive a physical, credit-card sized document evidencing their settled or pre-settled status, so it is clear that if the Home Office wanted to, they could give EU citizens the option to request a hard copy document as well. The question remains why they then decided against it after a petition calling for physical documents as proof of (pre)settled status was brought to them in August 2019. Physical proof of immigration status, even on an optional basis, is not only easy implemented, but also an important basic right, especially since the government’s own assessment concluded that digital-only access to status would cause serious issues, and that a physical backup should be retained until the online system is streamlined and perfected to a standard which actually benefits EU citizens instead of hurting them.

If you have any questions regarding absences or the EU settlement scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.

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