Six months after the EUSS was piloted in November 2018, the Migration Observatory published their initial report analysing which EU Citizens were at risk of failing to secure the rights to which they are entitled after Brexit through the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). As time passed, it became increasingly clear that the EUSS process had many flaws, including the double-counting of applications, inaccurate estimates of the number of EU nationals living in the UK, and the Home Office’s inability to ensure vulnerable communities actually know about and apply to the Scheme. Now, with less than 12 months left before the closure of the Scheme on 30 June 2021, many cracks in the EUSS system still remain. Vulnerable applicants especially, whether at risk of missing the deadline due to their age, language abilities, technological abilities, health issues, home circumstances or something else, are still not applying in as great of a number as they should be.
The lack of outreach to certain vulnerable communities, and the challenge the EUSS in its current form poses to them, is a real problem for many individuals who have been living in the UK for years. One example of such a vulnerable community is the Roma people, of which it is it is estimated that there are at least 200,000 living in the UK, the vast majority in England.
The Roma community is made up of people from different sub-communities, from different countries and nationalities across Europe. They speak different languages and often interact mainly with people from their known, relatively closed network. Combined with a low literacy level within their community, this makes it hard to spread information about external issues like Brexit and the EU Settlement Scheme into their circles.
As such, the Roma Support Group reported that the vast majority of Roma people they interviewed knew about Brexit, but were unaware of specific information on how to apply for immigration status after Brexit. The ones that did know about the EUSS did not acquire that knowledge through the traditional channels of Home Office communication outlets such as adverts, radio, social media, etc. Rather, they get their information from trusted individuals within their community.
Of the Roma people that have already applied to the EUSS, which is only a minority, a significant amount required additional support and time to submit applications; in fact, only 3% of Roma people who have applied to the scheme to date were able to do so completely independently. These extremely low numbers are not surprising when considering that Roma people are less likely to be IT proficient, and more likely to need language support, than other EEA nationals in the UK.
To make matters worse, Roma people’s applications are often amongst the most complex ones. Roma people often encounter difficulties when trying to obtain ID cards, which is one of the requirements when applying under the EUSS. The Roma Support Group reports that Slovak Romas, for example, have difficulties in obtaining passports, especially for their children born in the UK. The waiting times for appointments at the Slovak Embassy is approximately 3 to 4 months, the Embassy operates only in London and due to financial and time restrictions, many Roma are not able to obtain their passports in the UK. Some Slovak Roma have already travelled to Slovakia to apply for passports for their children because that turned out to be easier than obtaining them in the UK.
Even if they do have ID cards, Roma people often have a harder time proving their residency due to their community lifestyle and culture. Examples of complicated applications include Roma rough sleepers and Roma women, who are less likely to be employed, making it harder for them to prove their residency. As a consequence, many of them end up receiving the wrong status. In fact, 15–25% of Roma women and elderly Roma the Roma Support Group engaged with had to apply for pre-settled status despite having lived in the UK for more than 5 years, to avoid the difficulties that they face in providing the documents needed to obtain settled status.
Coram, a legal charity founded in 1981 that works to promote children's rights both in the UK and abroad, states that the Home Office is also failing to recognise a particular gap in applications coming from children in the UK. With more than 900,000 eligible EEA citizen children thought to have been living in the UK in 2017, less than half had been granted status under settlement scheme by 31 March 2020. Of eligible children in the care system, the number of which is estimated at 9000, only about 500 had secured status by that same date.
Many of these children will be British citizens either by birth or through registration, but are not aware that they need to register in order to confirm their citizenship. The children who fail to do so are at risk of losing both their citizenship and their EUSS status after 30 June 2021, warns Coram.
Additionally, Coram highlights the issues that arise form granting vulnerable children pre-settled status, stating that vulnerable children should not be granted short-term forms of immigration status, as these do not offer adequate levels of protection. Short-term immigration status such as pre-settled status not only pose challenges for local authorities seeking to plan for children’s futures, but also very immediate challenges for young people who must undergo a probationary period before being able to settle in the UK. Additionally, children granted pre-settled status may not always understand that they will need to re-apply in order to remain in the UK lawfully. If they fail to do so in time, they are at risk of hundreds of thousands of people falling out of the EU settlement scheme and losing their residency rights.
No child or young person who previously held pre-settled status should fall off their route to settled status in the event that they do not make the settled status application at the right time. To prevent this, Coram asks that the Home Office should at the very least commit to prompting holders of pre-settled status before their status expires and telling them what they need to do to remain lawfully in the UK. Ideally, it would go beyond that and introduce a provision to grant settled status to all looked after children and care leavers who apply to the EU settlement scheme, because grants of pre-settled status are simply not in these children’s best interests.
This is something immigration experts on all sides of the political spectrum have warned for ever since the EU Settlement Scheme was introduced. No matter how much funding the government provides to help vulnerable people apply to the Scheme, it will not reach everyone it needs to, and vulnerable people who fail to apply in time will bear the consequences.
That is why practitioners and third-party organisations campaigned to make the EUSS a declaratory scheme instead of an active application process, in order to ensure that vulnerable groups such as Roma people and children would not be penalised unnecessarily and get the status they are eligible for. These efforts were in vain, as the Home Office reiterated only a few weeks ago that all EU citizens wishing to secure status in the UK will have to apply under the EUSS in its current format in order to remain lawfully resident and not become subject to the hostile environment rules.
EU support groups have since scaled back their recommendations. Coram, for one, have advised that in order to avoid EU children becoming unlawful residents in the UK, the £1012 citizenship fee currently charged to children, which prevents many children from accessing their rights, should be scrapped, vulnerable children to be identified more accurately across the country, and the EUSS deadline should be extended. Disappointingly, the Home Office, on their behalf, has clarified that the government does not plan on extending the deadline, even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the consequences that flow from it. It has not proposed any other clear changes to accommodate children at risk, except clarified that social workers have an explicit duty to apply help children in their care apply under the Scheme.
To avoid a political and moral disaster when it turns out that members of these vulnerable groups have not applied to the Scheme in time, the Home Office will have to give and do more – more outreach, more time, more flexibility, and more humanity.