In their most recent report, the Migration Observatory confirms what many lawyers and people working in the immigration field feared: no matter how much outreach and campaigning the Home Office plans to do, thousands of EU citizens in the UK are still likely to miss the EU Settlement Scheme deadline, which is set on 30 June 2021, and lose their lawful residence. These are not necessarily vulnerable individuals, but often simply people who do not realise that they need to apply to the Scheme. Broadly, the people most at risk of missing the deadline fall into five categories.
Firstly, those who are simply not aware that they need to apply. A perfect example of this are very long-term residents, who might think that they do not need to apply because they have lived here for so long, or EU citizens with permanent residence. In absolute numbers, tens of thousands of EU citizens fall under those categories. We know that at least 145,000 non-Irish EU citizens have been granted permanent residence from 2004 to 2019, who are not (yet) UK citizens. Many of these do now know that their permanent residence is not enough to warrant their continued lawful residence after Brexit.
Similarly, children of EU citizens whose parents do not themselves apply might not realise that their children need to do so, or mistakenly believe that their UK-born children are automatically UK citizens. In absolute numbers, this means a big group of children are at risk, as there are an estimated 689,000 children living in the UK with non-Irish EU citizenship. Other people who may not be aware that they need to apply to the Scheme are people who have been rejected for permanent residency or who were previously ineligible, and who do not realise that the criteria to obtain status under the EUSS have been made less restrictive. Additionally, people with criminal records and people who have been removed in the past might be reluctant to apply due to fear of being refused status or not meeting the suitability requirement), even if they are in fact eligible. In prison specifically, EEA citizens are in theory entitled to apply, but in practice unaware of the scheme or unable to submit their application due to practical difficulties.
The second category comprises of people who already face some kind of social exclusion, or who enjoy reduced independence or autonomy. Again, children are part of this group, specifically children in care and care leavers eligible to apply. According to Home Office estimates, there are around 5,000 children in care and 4,000 care leavers who would be eligible to apply to the EUSS, but some local authorities might not have information about their citizenship and hence do not apply on their behalf. In addition, some children might lack a valid ID and/or might not be able to provide evidence of their residence in the UK before coming into care. Other vulnerable groups include rough sleepers, victims of domestic abuse, victims of modern slavery and migrant Roma communities. According to government statistics, which tend to underestimate population numbers, there are currently at least 4,250 EEA nationals who qualify for homelessness assistance, 101 000 victims of domestic abuse, 1,400 victims of modern slavery and 200,000 Roma people, respectively. The numbers add up quickly.
Thirdly, some people might know about the EU Settlement Scheme, but struggle to navigate the application process. This could be due to practical difficulties such as language barriers, mental health problem or people with cognitive disabilities. It could also be due to technical difficulties, for example low digital literacy, low general literacy, or age. If we do the math again, these categories account for at least 600,000 vulnerable individuals: 244,000 people with language difficulties, 15,000 individuals who say their mental health impacts their daily activities, 42,000 people who have never used the internet before, 300,000 EEA citizens who have no formal qualifications, and 58,000 people aged over 75.
Lastly, people who lack evidence to prove their eligibility will also fail to acquire status, even though they might qualify for it. The biggest groups here are people who lack identity evidence to demonstrate their EEA nationality, of which there are at least 100,000 in England & Wales, and people who lack evidence of their relationship to a qualifying EU citizen. These people cannot simply rely on their residency in the UK to acquire status under the settlement scheme, but also need to prove that their relationship with a qualifying citizen is genuine. The number of people qualifying for status based on their family members is unknown.
Finally, an important group to mention are the people who may have acquired pre-settled status now, but who might now know or forget to upgrade that status to settled status once they have reached the five-year continuous residence requirement.
Need I go on? The report shows that traditionally vulnerable groups, be it people in poverty, social isolation, or living in precarious conditions, are more likely to miss the Scheme deadline than other EEA nationals. People without bank accounts, or leases, or bills in their name. It also shows how enormous that group of people is, and how many people may therefore end up without a status. This is why immigration practitioners call the EU Settlement Scheme a “Windrush Scheme on steroids” in the making. The Scheme is set up to reinforce existing inequalities, and filter out applicants who are perceived as less useful or desirable in British society, as people from challenging backgrounds are most likely to slip through the cracks and end up being in the UK unlawfully through no fault of their own. no matter how much money the government throws at their EU Settlement Scheme outreach campaign, not everyone that needs to know about the Scheme will be made aware of it.
Immigration practitioners have cautioned about this since the Brexit vote; the Migration Observatory report confirms it yet again. Meanwhile, the government knows about it, yet does nothing to ensure change. That should tell any layman enough about the intentions and goals behind the Scheme.