The Home Office published guidance for EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) applicants in or outside the UK who have been affected by restrictions associated with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
The general rules of the Scheme are clear – for an applicant to be eligible for status, for them to be able to remain in the UK after the 31st of December 2020, they will need to confirm and prove a period of continuous residence in the UK. Depending on how long that period of residence is, the applicant will be granted either settled or pre-settled status.
To obtain settled status, or indefinite leave to remain, the applicant has to have been continuously residing in the UK for five years. The five years need not be ongoing; applicants who are not currently living in the UK may apply based on their historic residency, as long as they have not been outside the UK for a continuous five-year period immediately after the five-year qualifying period of residence on which their application is based.
If a person has been in the UK for less than five years, they will receive pre-settled status, which they will need to maintain until they reach the five-year continuous residence threshold to qualify for settled status. Continuous residency is calculated on a rolling basis, not based on calendar years, meaning that the applicant must be living in the UK for more than six months out of every twelve-month period.
The general rules state that applicants are permitted one period of absence of more than six months (but which does not exceed 12 months) for an important reason such as study or serious illness without losing their pre-settled status. This period of absence must be explained and proven when the applicant submits their settled status application. If an applicant is absent from the UK for longer than six months (but under 12 months), and it is not for an important reason, the absence will break their continuous residence, and they will not be able to apply for settled status.
Until today, it was unclear how the Home Office would deal with absences due to COVID-19 related reasons. The guidance published today confirms that they do not intend to be very flexible, but unfortunately does not clarify not much more than that, as it is not very detailed.
For applicants who were outside of the UK for a few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Home Office essentially applies the general exception rule. The guidance confirms that if an applicant was impacted by coronavirus public health restrictions and could not travel as a consequence, this will count as an exceptional circumstance which may justify absences from the UK of over six, but under 12, months. Examples given include if the applicant contracted coronavirus overseas and could not return to the UK because they were ill or in quarantine, or if imposed travel restrictions led to an increased absence from the UK for longer than planned.
In all cases where the applicant was prevented from travelling due to COVID-19 related reasons, they will have to provide a supporting letter explaining and outlining the various details of their time abroad – when they were ill or quarantining, when their flights were cancelled, and any other important dates. No additional detail is given about the standard or expectations of proof. In any case, an applicant is only allowed a single absence exceeding six months (but not exceeding 12 months) for an important reason in their five-year continuous qualifying period, meaning that if an applicant already had an important reason for which they had to leave the UK for more than six months before the pandemic hit, their counter for number of years with continuous residency will have to be reset to include only the latest period of absence.
An example could be a student who arrived in the UK in 2016, studied abroad from September 2017 until June 2018, for which they planned to use the “important reason” exception, and who in the past 12 moths has spent seven months abroad due to a combination of pre-covid trips, and a five-month lockdown which they spent in their home country. This applicant would not be able to claim an “important reason” both for their period abroad in 2018, and for their prolonged absence in 2020. As a consequence, they would have to “reset” their counter to when they returned to the UK after their year abroad, and will only be eligible to apply for settled status in 2023 instead of 2021, as they would have been under normal circumstances.
Another issue addressed in the guidance is that of people who need certain evidence of their identity and nationality to apply to the EUSS, but are unable to obtain it due to circumstances beyond their control specifically related to coronavirus public health restrictions. Examples given include the closure of embassies or consulates, or the inability to travel to the closest consular services which may mean that it is impossible to obtain the conventional identification documents. In these circumstances, the Home Office may accept alternative pieces of evidence of nationality such as expired passports or ID cards, another official document issued by the authorities of your country of origin or of the UK which confirms your identity and nationality or previous Home Office communication evidencing your nationality. People who apply to the EUSS with alternative means of identification documents must apply on a paper application form, applications which generally take longer to resolve than the electronic ones.
Both for applicants relying on alternative evidence of nationality and for those justifying a prolonged absence from the UK based on COVID-related public health restrictions, the Home Office evaluates claims on a case-by-case basis. There is no provision for leeway or discretion in any circumstance, for example if an applicant is only missing a few days to reach the official six-month threshold, nor is there any detail on how an applicant is meant to prove the reasons for their absence.
If you need assistance you can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211 or send us a question on WhatsApp.
In order to stay in the UK lawfully after the end of the transition period, all EU citizens in the UK have to apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme. Under the Scheme, EU citizens will be given either pre-settled or settled status. To obtain pre-settled status (which gives EU citizens temporary residence in the UK for a limited period of five years), an applicant does not have to prove much: they must simply show that they have arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020. For settled status (which gives EU citizens permanent residence rights in the UK), it is a different story.
An applicant wanting to obtain settled status will have to demonstrate that they have been continuously resident in the UK for five years. What does that mean exactly? In this post, we have a look at the law which applies in this scenario to try and get a better idea.
The way Appendix EU to the immigration rules, which sets out the legal framework for the EU Settlement Scheme, defines continuous qualifying residence for the acquisition of permanent residence is based on the idea of a 6 month out of 12 months “rolling” residency. The definition of “continuous qualifying period” in Appendix EU states:
a period of residence in the UK and Islands…
(b) during which none of the following occurred:
(i) absence(s) from the UK and Islands which exceeded a total of six months in any 12-month period [emphasis added]
Imagine a scenario where an applicant, Serge, moved to the UK from France in April 2016. Until June 2019 he only went home for a few weekends and holidays, so he does not have to worry about his absences for his first three years of residence. In July 2019, his fourth year of residence, however, Serge went back to France for the summer and was absent from the UK until the end of September (three full months). He then came back to London, until January 2020, when he went back to France. He was supposed to return to London in February, but ended up staying abroad until May 2020, facilitated by him working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an absence of four full months in the calendar year of 2020.
But Appendix EU does not work in calendar years. Rather, it analyses periods of residence on a 12-month rolling basis. As a consequence, Appendix EU would interpret the above-mentioned scenario to mean that Serge has broken his continuous qualifying period on account of combining the three months absence in year 4 with the four-month absence in year 5 resulting in a combined absence of seven months in a 12-month period. The drafting of the criteria does not allow the citizen to demarcate the absences into separate 12-month periods.
When it comes to COVID-19 related absences, the Home Office have said that they will be flexible, and consider it as an exception to the 6-month rule if need be. Serge might then be able to rely on this exception when he applies for settled status in April 2021. However, the validity of this exception is not guaranteed, but rather subject to Home Office discretion. In addition, not all applicants will be able to do the same
The Court of Justice of the EU has held that periods of continuous legal residence confer on EU citizens the right of permanent residence with effect from the actual moment at which they are completed. This means that the continuous period of five years legal residence that leads to the acquisition of the right of permanent residence is to be counted from the moment the EU citizen takes up residence in the host Member State in compliance with the residence conditions of the Free Movement Directive.
In fact, the definition of “continuous qualifying period” in Appendix EU does not comply with provisions regarding continuous residence in the EU Free Movement Directive and the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. The rule from those legal instruments is that an EU citizen may have temporary absences not exceeding a total of six months within each year leading up to the acquisition of the right of permanent residence, and that each year starts on the anniversary of the date when the EU citizen took up residence in the host Member State in compliance with the residence conditions of the Free Movement Directive, meaning that absences in different years must not be added up.
It should be noted that the way the Home Office calculate qualifying residence for permanent residence under the EEA Regulations (implementing the Citizens’ Directive in domestic legislation), is not clear on this matter as there has been a change in Home Office guidance instructing case workers how to assess the continuous residence requirement. Former guidance stated that the Home Office would consider absence is based on a year 1 to 5 from when the EU citizen began their UK residence. Current guidance states that a six months absence in any 12-month period would break continuous residence without reference to calculating this on a year by year basis. Therefore, the current interpretation of continuous residence under the EEA Regulations is in conflict with Appendix EU. This could easily be remedied by changing the guidance back, and ensuring that EU citizens get the status they are entitled to.
If you need assistance you can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211 or send us a question on WhatsApp.
Thousands of refugees and migrants were forced to flee the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos after multiple fires erupted on Tuesday night. Due to the flammable nature of refugee housing at the camp, the fire spread rapidly and by Wednesday morning, most of the containers and tents as well as other facilities had been burned to the ground.
Charity and activist groups on the grounds have confirmed that returning to Moria is not an option, since the camp was effectively destroyed by the fire. Those who were living in Moria are now left with nothing; already traumatized by their experience traveling to Europe, they have now lost the few belongings they still had, with no idea of where they will end up next.
Greek authorities were quick to accuse migrants of deliberately starting the fire as a reaction to COVID-19 related lockdown measures which had just been implemented after 35 people at the camp tested positive for the virus. But the real culprits are not the refugees living at the camp – it is the EU policies that enabled circumstances under which such a blaze or other catastrophe seemed unavoidable.
There have been concerns about poor conditions and overcrowding at Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, for years. In theory, it has the capacity to house about 3000 migrants. In reality, it was sheltering over 25000 people at its busiest time. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, that number was halved to about 12000, of which at least 4000 were children and young adults. A number of young unaccompanied migrants were relocated to other EU member states, including the UK (https://www.seraphus.co.uk/news/files/9ceb468e732f0163c7ddd1f8de1d7596-30.php). Even so, the camp was still housing more than four times the number of people it was designed for in abysmal conditions, with many of them sleeping in self-made tents or even in the open air.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, conditions worsened, as it quickly became clear that social distance and good hygiene are impossible to maintain in the overcrowded camps. Doctors Without Borders accused the Greek government and EU leaders of using the pandemic as an excuse to exert control over migrants and refugees. The Doctors without Borders spokesmen went so far to state that the conditions that allowed for this fire to happen were not accidental, but rather a deliberate policy put in place by the EU to deter migrants from coming to the island, which is located just 10 kilometres from the Turkish coast.
This policy failure goes back to the 2015 migration “crisis,” when Germany emerged as one of the only EU countries taking action on the issue by accepting over one million refugees into Germany instead of looking the other way or fighting with other Member States. After the Moria fire, Germany rose to the occasion again, as Armin Laschet, the governor of a region in western Germany, said he was willing to admit up to 1000 refugees from the camp as part of a wider European resettlement programme that has yet to be developed.
That programme is long overdue. Earlier this year, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised a new migration pact proposal "right after Easter." It never materialised, because the same disagreements from 2015 persist and grow deeper as time goes on. Greece, Italy and other Southern countries have long sought a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers across the EU (which could help empty overcrowded camps like Moria) while Central and Eastern countries like Hungary and Poland are implacably opposed to such compulsory relocations. Now, the proposal is expected to be presented at the end of September, to be discussed by EU ministers during the fall, and be implemented in 2021. Previous delays have come at a great humanitarian cost – and there is no guarantee that this time, the proposals will fare any better.
Ironically, Brussels now said it would help with the immediate relief effort for the Moria camp. European Council President Charles Michel said his "thoughts go out to all those who have been put in danger" while Commission Vice President Margaritas Schinas is due to travel to Greece on Thursday for an emergency meeting.
These empty words are not enough. The EU may not be responsible for all the conflicts that force people from their homes, but there is no doubt about who is to blame for the 12000 displaced people who are homeless following the fire. The EU, with its lack of coherent policy on migration, is fully responsible for the erosion of key humanitarian protection systems, the heightened border security regime, the criminalisation of rescue ships, and for making life in reception camps unbearable for vulnerable people.
If you need assistance you can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211 or send us a question on WhatsApp.
For an applicant to the EU Settlement Scheme to receive either pre-settled or settled status, they will have to fulfil three key criteria. Firstly, they will have to prove that they are eligible to apply by evidencing their identity and nationality, and if necessary, their family relationship. Secondly, they will have to answer a few questions about criminality to see whether they are suitable for (pre)settled status. Finally, they will have to confirm and prove a period of continuous residence in the UK. This is the requirement that defines whether the applicant will be granted pre-settled or settled status, the latter obviously being a stronger and more permanent status for the applicant.
To obtain settled status, an applicant has to have been continuously residing in the UK for a five-year period. Applicants who are not currently living in the UK, but are applying based on their historic residency, will have to maintain their eligibility by proving that they have not been outside the UK for a continuous 5 year period immediately after the 5 year qualifying period of residence on which their application is based.
If a person has continuously resided for less than 5 years, they will be on course for pre-settled status. Once they obtain pre-settled status, they will need to continuously reside in the UK to maintain their status and further down the line, to reach the five-year requirement to qualify for settled status.
They can maintain their continuous residence by living in the UK for more than six months out of every twelve-month period. Applicants are permitted one period of absence of more than 6 months (but which does not exceed 12 months) for an important reason such as childbirth, serious illness, study, vocational training, overseas posting, or compulsory military service, without losing their pre-settled status. If the absence is longer, and it is not for an important reason, it will break continuous residence, and they will not be able to apply for settled status.
This might be the way the Home Office decides to deal with COVID-19 related absences – either it’s an important reason and the applicant “uses” their exception for it, or they return to the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 so they can re-start a new period of residence in the UK.
But this pre-existing rule is not enough, and does not cover every scenario where absences will affect those under the EUSS.
There are two key dates in relation to the EU Settlement application process: the eligibility deadline and the application deadline. The application deadline is 30 June 2021, but a person has until 31 December 2020 to become a person eligible to apply. This means that for EU citizens, residence in the UK must commence before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order for them to qualify for status. Similarly, for most family members, the relationship must exist before 11pm on 31 December 2020 for the relationship to be considered under the EUSS.
As a consequence, absences can affect both EU citizens and family members in different ways. For example, imagine a Bulgarian national intends to come to live in the UK and would like to do so under the EUSS. They must move to and commence residence in the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order to get pre-settled status, which after five years of residence can then be “upgraded” to settled status. If they cannot move before 31 December 2020, then they will have a much more difficulty immigration process to get through in the new 2021 immigration system. This is quite a straightforward scenario – EU citizens know that their time to enjoy free movement and move to the UK is running low.
More pressing will be the ability to establish a family relationship before 11 pm on 31 December 2020. Imagine a French national who is intending to marry a Cameroon national. Imagine the couple have not known each other for very long, so they are not entitled to the status of “durable partners,” but they intend to get married in April 2020. Due to COVID-19, the marriage was delayed; it could not take place either in the UK or Cameroon due to the travel restrictions and social restrictions, most importantly because neither party to the marriage could travel. As a consequence, come the EUSS deadline for eligibility of 31 December 2020, the couple will be unable to establish their relationship existed (in the strict sense of the rules) before 11 pm on 31 December 2020, and as a consequence the Cameroon national will not be able to bring herself within the scope of EUSS status.
The couple will be locked out of the easier EUSS family permit route and will instead need to consider the strict rules for entry as a spouse, which are much more complicated. If the French national has previously obtained settled status under the EUSS, they will be able to sponsor their Cameroon partner under the spouse visa rules. If the French national merely has pre-settled status, however, this will be impossible. They will be separated from each other for a considerable period of time until the French national acquires settled status and then applies to bring their spouse in on a spouse visa.
These types of situations are not just typical for married couples. Unmarried (durable) partners must be in their relationship with their EEA partner before 31 December 2020 as well. To be eligible to apply for (pre-)settled status as a durable partner, the durable partnership must first be assessed as genuine by the Home Office. “Genuineness” is generally hard to prove. In the case of a durable relationship, the Home Office requires durable partners to apply for a document under the EEA Regulations to evidence their relationship. That document must be issued and received before the durable partner can then apply for status under the EUSS, meaning that if you’re an unmarried partner (i.e. durable partner) an application for that document must be made before 31 December 2020. If you’re a dependent relative (other than someone in the ascending lines of the EU citizens, spouse, or civil partner of the EU citizen), again, you must hold a relevant document for which an application must be made before 31 December 2020.
So, if COVID-19 prevents an applicant from being able to travel and/or apply for the necessary documentation in time, then they will be locked out of the EUSS. There are countless scenarios where this could go very wrong. For example, if an EEA national has died due to Covid-19, then their family members who are left behind should be able to apply for pre-settled or settled status. But under the current rules, those family members would only be eligible for status if they lived with the EEA national for at least one year immediately before they passed away. Setting aside the tragedy and trauma of losing a family member without even being able to say goodbye to them, what happens if the family member was unable to return to the UK in time due to travel restrictions, and they could not reach one year of living together? They will be locked out of the EUSS.
Or what if an applicant wants to retain their residence rights after divorcing their EEA partner? In order to do so, the marriage needs to have lasted for at least three years before starting the divorce proceedings, and both partners must have been living in the UK for at least one year before they apply. Again, if COVID-19 prevented the applicant from reaching that one year threshold before 31 December 2020, they will be locked out of the EUSS and it will not be possible for them to retain their rights.
This would simply be unfair. COVID-19 has had an impact on virtually every aspect of society and government. The immigration system is no different. The process of Brexit has been halted, slowed and changed by the virus as well. That is why the Brexit Civil Society Alliance wrote a letter to the Home Secretary asking for exemptions to the rules to deal with any breaks in continuous residency caused by COVID-19, so that no EU citizen is forced out of status through absolutely no fault of their own.
The Home Office replied stating that "continuity of residence by EEA and Swiss citizens applying to the scheme and who may have been stuck overseas as a result of COVID-19 is one of a number of issues the Home Office is working through. We are taking a pragmatic approach to ensure individuals are not penalised for issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic."
Based on this response and our internal discussions with the Home Office, it doesn’t appear that COVID-19 will kill applications under the EU Settlement Scheme. In fact, the Home Office have confirmed verbally that absences due to Covid-19 will be considered as a serious reason for those who are on course to apply for or have received pre-settled status. This means that one absence of more than six months but not more than twelve for COVID-19 related reasons will not be considered to have broken continuous residence.
Although it is a step in the right direction, this is the only flexible approach the Home Office have referred to, and it fails to cover all of the other possible scenarios where absence will cause other problems.
Home Office policy on absences affecting those under the EUSS is yet to be determined because, they stated, COVID-19 related absences is an issue that affects all immigration categories and not just the EUSS, so they are trying to work out a holistic approach throughout the immigration system. It might be that the Home Office are taking this issue seriously, and it’s therefore taking time to put together a comprehensive, flexible and compassionate policy to deal with it. However, it might also be that part of it was a wait and see approach to see how serious of an issue absences might be for some visa categories.
But a wait and see approach will not suffice. As EU free movement law fully applies during the transition period, the issue of absence has to be assessed under Article 16(3) of the Free Movement Directive in the same way as for mobile EU citizens having their residence in an EU Member State. A longer absence due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis should be treated as force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract) and should not, therefore, be deemed to break continuous lawful residence.
In the meantime, any absences due to Covid-19 must be documented and evidenced, as the Home Office never takes an applicant’s word for truth. If your continuous residence is endangered due to COVID-19, you are going to need to have evidence that the enforced absence is linked to Covid-19 as well as that your return to the UK was completed as soon as it was safe and reasonably possible. The reality is that unless the Home Office decide to declare COVID-19 as an event of force majeure, the burden is going to be on applicants will need to put their case to the Home Office in order to have the best chance that discretion will be exercised in their favour.
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.
The Home Office are continuing to adapt the ways they work during the coronavirus crisis and have provided the following key updates to services for asylum seekers.
UASC SEF and Witness Statement returns
As part of a focus on minors applications, including planning to facilitate the restart of asylum interviews, we have contacted legal representatives in all cases where SEFs and Witness Statements are outstanding in order to request their completion and return at the earliest opportunity. Where there are obstacles to SEF and Witness Statement completion and return, we ask that representatives contact their local asylum office to explain the issues faced, plans for resolution and expected timeline for completion and return.
The Home Office remains committed to working with legal representatives to resolve issues, reduce delays and progress minors claims in accordance with the Immigration Rules.
Resumption of Asylum Substantive Interviews
As you will be aware, substantive asylum interviews were paused on 19 March 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19. More recently, Asylum Operations has been working to enable substantive interviews to restart with safety as our priority for all attendees, initially through the use of videoconferencing. We have now published guidance on the resumption of substantive asylum interviews on Gov.UK. This guidance should be read in conjunction with the Asylum Interviews guidance as normal.
COVID-19 makes it difficult, if not impossible to operate a normal immigration system. Travel restrictions make entering or leaving the UK a complex process, implementing ordinary work or income requirements for visas can undermine public health messages, and to make matters worse, the Home Office itself has been heavily impacted by the government-imposed lockdown, as their staffing levels have suffered and their workload is constantly changing. It is therefore not surprising that numerous changes aimed at ensuring that the UK’s immigration and visa systems continues to function properly have been announced in the past few months. Last week, a cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on the Home Office response to the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration and visa systems.
In the report, the Committee welcomes the government decision to scrap the immigration health surcharge for all NHS and social care workers, calling it “a recognition of the contribution made by the front-line workers fighting COVID-19.” However, it is said not to go far enough. Committee Chair Yvette Cooper MP said: “It is very welcome that the Government has agreed to waive the Immigration Health Surcharge and extend the bereavement scheme for NHS and social care workers. However, most care workers and low-paid NHS support staff are still excluded from receiving the free one-year visa extension granted to clinical staff, and as a result could be facing costs of hundreds or thousands of pounds this summer.
The Committee therefore recommends to open free visa extensions to the same range of employees as they have done for the immigration health surcharge waiver. It also recommends simplifying (and lowering the price tag) of paths to British citizenship and permanent residency to those health and social care workers who risked their lives during the pandemic.
“Excluding the care workers who hold dying residents' hands, the cleaners who scrub the door handles and floors of the COVID-19 wards, or the porters who take patients to intensive care is just wrong. The Government must ensure that all measures of support for NHS and care workers apply to all frontline staff equally, irrespective of grade or job title.”
The Committee also evaluated visa extensions for non-NHS staff. When announcing the Home Office policy change which allowed all visas due to expire before 31 July 2020 to be extended, the Home Secretary said that “nobody will be punished for circumstances outside of their control”. To make good on that promise, the Committee recommends that the Home Office implement automatic, blanket visa extensions instead of making individuals apply for them via email, to ensure that individuals do not overstay their visa unintentionally.
Highlighting a concern which lawyers and immigration experts flagged up immediately after the visa extensions were made public, the report reiterates there is currently no legal basis for any of these extensions. Individuals relying on government policy announcements (which can be changed at any given time and lack legal foundation) need legal reassurance that their extension is lawful and valid and that they can continue to live and work in the UK. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office implements a statutory instrument (a form of secondary legislation) to clarify the legal basis of both the extension of leave for all individuals who are unable to leave the country before the expiry of their current visa, and for the automatic extension of leave offered to NHS staff.
Analysing the financial impact of the coronavirus on the visa system as a whole, the report acknowledges the disruption and economic impact of COVID-19, recognising that many individuals have lost their jobs or seen their income significantly reduced through no fault of their own. It is within this context that the Committee recommends adapting visa requirements such as the Minimum Income requirement to take loss of income due to COVID-19 into account when evaluating applications. In order to ensure public health and safety for all, the Government is also urged to lift the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions, which caused turmoil a few weeks ago when it seemed like the PM was not aware of the policy’s existence. The Committee Chair said the government “needs to make sure that these exceptional Covid-19 circumstances aren't pushing families into desperate hardship because of the NRPF rules which prevent them getting the urgent support they need.”
Last but not least, the Home Affairs Committee evaluated the impact of the coronavirus on the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), calling upon the Home Office to step up their efforts to identify vulnerable persons who may not have applied to the EUSS yet.
The report shows that COVID-19 has exacerbated the underlying problems of the EUSS. One of those problems is the lack of information on how the Home Office will approach late applications (applications made after the deadline of 30 June 2021.) The Home Affairs Committee recommendations include a clarification of what support will be provided to assist vulnerable individuals in applying, especially for children in care, given that there is a low application rate for that particular group of people. At the minimum, it is said local authorities should increase their work to identify EU children in care who have not yet applied to the scheme, but ideally, more comprehensive measures should be implemented. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office grant automatic Settled Status to all children in care and care leavers, without requiring them to explicitly apply.
The Committee also calls on the Home Office to clarify the legal position of those with pre-settled status. During the pandemic, people with pre-settled status have questioned whether they are able to access all public funds, specifically whether they can get benefits, or whether those rights are reserved for people with indefinite leave to remain only.
To sum up, just like many experts in the area, the Committee is willing to cut the Home Office some slack in these unprecedented times. It is appreciated that going through the normal routes to introduce new policies is made complicated by circumstances outside of the government’s control. However, it is in times like these that guidance needs to be clear, unambiguous, and publicly available so that practitioners know the law, visa holders feel secure, and the Home Office act legally to address the issues we face.
Whilst waiting to find out if their asylum claim is accepted, asylum seekers are often stuck in the country where they lodged their claim for months. In the UK, they are not allowed to work during this time, yet they have to provide for themselves. To help alleviate their financial burden, the government provides them with “Asylum Support” which includes housing and a small cash allowance for essential products such as clothing, food, and toiletries.
The government guidance on eligibility and access to this support is clear. To qualify for accommodation, an asylum seeker will have to prove that they have nowhere else to stay. For the cash allowance, they will have to prove that they do not have the means to survive. Applicants should fill in form ASF1, which asks about their financial situation and that of their relatives, await a decision, and then receive the support they qualify for.
In practice, however, the decision-making process is slow, leaving applicants in limbo for weeks if not months before getting the support they need. Housing is scarce, and there is often a waiting list for accommodation. The cash allowance is minimal: asylum seekers are expected to make do with just over £5 a day. To make matters worse, they are often forced to spend a significant part of that sum on public transport, as they have to report once a week to the immigration authorities whilst awaiting the outcome of their application. This makes it very hard for asylum seekers and their families to make ends meet.
A number of charities have challenged this allowance in the past, arguing that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to survive on that little money. They argue that asylum support should be more in line with Universal Credit rates, which are more than twice as high as the Asylum Support allowance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these charities’ voices were amplified. As prices are rising in general, and all citizens are expected to invest in basic hygiene products such as hand sanitiser, masks and pain killers to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the economic hardship imposed on asylum seekers has spiralled out of control. That is why on June 8th, the Immigration Minister Chris Philp announced that from June 15th, the stipend or Asylum Support rates would increase - from £37.75 to £39.60 per week, to be precise. Effectively, that amounts to an increase of 26p a day. If that does not sound very ambitious, that’s because it isn’t. If before the pandemic, asylum support rates were already significantly lower than mainstream benefits, the gap has now widened beyond belief, as they are now barely equal to 40% of the allowance people over 25 receive on Universal Credit.
With the prospects of inflation and an economic crisis on the horizon, over 250 organisations, faith groups and community leaders wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel to ask her to urgently reconsider her decision. They called the proposed changes to the Asylum Support Rates “an insult, not an increase”, and instead requested an increase in line with the recent changes to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit, which were increased by approximately £20 per week as part of the coronavirus relief measures. As of yet, there has been no response from the Home Office.
When lockdown measures were introduced in March, the Prime Minister stated that the UK “will look after all the most vulnerable in society” including asylum seekers. On 23 May, he stated that, “we will make sure that nobody in this country, let alone asylum seekers, is ill-treated.”. Ensuring that people seeking safety in the UK are able to meet their essential needs and stay safe, and making up to those promises, however, will take more than a 26p increase in funds.
After the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer, protests against police brutality and institutional racism erupted in the US and around the world. The US now finds itself in a period of political unrest and upheaval not unlike after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In the UK, George Floyd’s death resonated with many, mobilising thousands in London, Manchester and Cardiff to march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a movement dedicated to ending violence and systemic racism towards black people.
Highlighting the racism and unfairness engrained in the American justice system is important, but it is easy to judge what happens abroad without looking inward. The reality is that Britain is not innocent when it comes to institutional racism or police brutality – far from.
When it comes to UK immigration, the dissonance between how white (Western) immigrants and immigrants of colour from the Global East and South are treated is painstakingly stark. The culmination of these double standards was the 2018 Windrush Scandal, which erupted after Theresa May introduced the hostile environment rules in 2012. Under the hostile environment, those who lack documents evidencing their lawful residence become subject to the hostile environment checks. They are no longer allowed to work, rent or even open a bank account in the UK.
Many people of colour who came to the UK in the 50s, 60s and 70s from Commonwealth countries were granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971 but when the hostile environment kicked in, thousands of them were not able to prove their status, and as a consequence, were wrongly told that they were in Britain illegally. Hundreds were detained, and some of them deported, despite living and working in the UK legally for decades.
Although Windrush victims are now able to apply for compensation under the Windrush Scheme, the number of applications has been remarkably low, and internal reviews confirmed that the government’s hostile environment immigration policies still have devastating impacts on the lives and families of black citizens in the UK. With the new Points-Based Immigration system, set to come into force in January 2021, that impact is set to worsen. Requirements like visa fees (UK fees are among the highest in the world), income thresholds (the minimum salary under the PBS is set at £25,600) and health surcharges (recent controversy on the NHS surcharge led the government to scrap it for migrant NHS staff) have been found to predominately affect those from the East or South, as they are less likely to be able to meet financial requirements. The new points-based system thus builds on existing discriminatory structures instead of breaking them down. That is not a coincidence.
Don’t be mistaken - Windrush was a direct result of an immigration system set up to discriminate against some but not others. It was not just a profound institutional failure or mistake of government. It was not a mistake at all, but rather simply the hostile environment rules put into practice. The points-based system is a continuation of that. It is institutional racism at its peak, rearing its ugly head yet again, here in the UK.
When the then Prime Minister Theresa May (yes, you read that right - the same person who introduced the hostile environment in the first place) apologized for the catastrophe of Windrush in April 2018, she insisted it was not her government’s intent to disproportionately affect people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds in the operation of her hostile environment policy. That statement shows exactly what the government fails, or refuses, to understand, namely that racism is much bigger than discrimination with intent, that it encompasses more than active and direct discrimination. It is about institutional neglect of certain parts of the population, certain neighbourhoods, and certain ethnic minorities, creating and feeding into more hardship for those groups compared to their white British counterparts. The public health crisis that we are currently dealing with is only the latest of an endless string of examples.
People of colour are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK. For the black Caribbean and African population, that number goes up to three against one. This is partly because BAME communities are more exposed to the virus, as a third of all working age black Africans and black Carribeans work in key worker roles (that is 50% more than white British people), whilst Indian men are 150% more likely to work in health or social care roles than their white British counterparts. It is also because BAME communities are more economically vulnerable to the current crisis than white ethnic groups, and not enough is done to actively help them bridge that gap.
To make matters worse, people of colour are not only more likely to die of the virus once they get it, but they are also 54% more likely to get fined for violating lockdown rules than the white majority British population. More broadly, in our criminal justice system, Metropolitan Police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population.
It is true that the UK is not a nation of gun ownership like the US. It is true that British police officers do not carry weapons. And it is true that these things play a part in limiting violence and abuse of power. But we cannot trick ourselves into believing we are so much better, and that it could not happen here. The US might be a land of extremes, and the UK a country of covertness, but the foundational institutional challenges we face are the same.
Measures taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are causing major societal and governmental upheavals not only in the UK, but everywhere around the globe. Individuals who are applying for a UK visa, and those who already hold one, are naturally concerned about various challenges posed by the pandemic. This post is an attempt at giving you an overview of the most significant ways in which the coronavirus affects immigrants in the UK, up to date as of 1 June 2020. Information changes frequently, so make sure to keep an eye on the government website, but also our twitter page and the freemovement website to stay fully up to date.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us here or book an online legal consultation with us here so that we can help you further.
Visitors and short-term stays
The Home Office has stated that “no individual who is in the UK legally and whose visa expired after 24 January 2020, or is due to expire before 31 July 2020, will be regarded as an overstayer or suffer any detriment in the future if they cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19
Which measures have been taken to ensure this in practice?
- If you’re in the UK and your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020, your visa will be extended to 31 July 2020 if you cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19). All you have to do is request an extension (which will be granted automatically) by updating your records with the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) and the extension will be granted. You will be expected to return to your home country as soon as it is safe to do so.
- If your visa was previously was previously extended until 31 May 2020, it will automatically be extended further until 31 July. You do not need to do anything further – this additional extension is automatic.
- If you plan on staying in the UK longer-term, and the visa you are currently on expires before 31 July 2020, you can apply to switch to a long-term UK visa that date. This includes applications where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.
You should apply under these temporary concessions if you are currently stuck in the UK and had leave to remain as a visitor, or under any other short-term category of the rules, which expired after 24 January 2020.
Are Visa Application Centres open?
After 10 weeks of lockdown, some UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are starting to resume services, where local restrictions allow. However, ongoing global restrictions mean some UKVI services will remain closed. Contact your local VAC to find out the latest status:
- TLS contact if you’re in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East
- VFS global for all other countries
How do I schedule an appointment at a VAC?
If you had an appointment scheduled before lockdown measures came into force, you should receive an email from UKVCAS rescheduling your appointment. Due to the volume of appointments that will need to be rescheduled, it may take UKVCAS some time to contact you.
Anyone needing to make a new appointment will need to wait until these become available. People with previously scheduled appointments have priority.
What happens if I cannot get an appointment before my leave expires?
If your online immigration application was submitted when you had leave to remain in the UK, you will continue to be lawfully in the UK whilst waiting for a rescheduled or a new appointment. The same conditions of stay will remain in force.
Can I start working if I have not received a decision on my Tier 2 or Tier 5 application due to coronavirus-related delays in application processing?
If you’ve applied for a Tier 2 or 5 working visa and are waiting for a decision on your application, you can start work before your visa application has been decided if:
- you have been assigned a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the job you start is the same as the one listed on your CoS
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused your sponsor will stop sponsoring you and you will then have to stop working for them.
What if I am an NHS worker?
Some frontline health workers and their families will get their visas automatically extended because of coronavirus. There are also changes to the conditions of visas for some frontline health workers. These changes will apply to you if you work for the NHS or independent health and care providers as a:
- biological scientist
- dental practitioner
- health professional
- medical practitioner
- medical radiographer
- occupational therapist
- social worker
- speech and language therapist
- therapy professional
Check with your employer if you’re not sure whether you work in an eligible profession.
Can I volunteer or work with the NHS if I do not have a working visa?
There is no longer a limit on the number of hours you can work or volunteer each week if you are a Tier 4 student, Tier 2 worker with an NHS job as a second job, visiting academic researcher, or a holder of a short-term visa which normally holds working/volunteering restrictions
Access to public funds (and the Furlough Scheme)
The “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) rule is imposed on people with limited leave to enter or remain in the UK. It prohibits the person holding limited leave to remain from accessing certain defined public funds, such as Universal Credit or benefits. A person who claims public funds despite such a condition is committing a criminal offence. Such an offence may well carry future immigration effects, as any existing leave can be curtailed, and any future application refused as a consequence. Recently, the High Court has ruled that the government must make it easier for migrants to access the welfare system if they are about to become destitute, declaring part of the no access to public funds unlawful.
What does this mean for the Furlough Scheme? Can I get furloughed if I have limited leave to remain?
The Home Office has confirmed that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can be used for migrants. They have to meet the same eligibility requirements as other employees.
This is because Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is not defined as ‘public funds’ in the Immigration Rules (Part 6 ‘Interpretation’). Therefore, migrants who are placed on furlough will not be in breach of their conditions of stay. However, it is important that they do not also claim any benefits which are defined as public funds.
New overseas applicants
Most visa application centres overseas are currently closed. The websites of VFS Global and TLScontact contain further information on specific locations.
Can I come to the UK I I obtained my visa before lockdown measures came into force?
Unlike other EU countries, the UK has not closed its borders – although flights and trains are limited – so you can travel to the UK if you already have a visa or you do not need one.
You should be advised that from 8 June 2020, people travelling to the UK (except from Ireland) will need to provide their journey and contact details by filling in an online form before they travel. After arriving in the UK they will need to self-isolate for 14 days. There will be exemptions for diplomats, transport workers and others.
Can I apply for a new visa?
It depends. UK visa application centres in most countries are closed but they are gradually starting to reopen.
You can still submit an online visa application, which is the first step of the visa process. You can also prepare your application so that it is ready to submit as soon as the visa application centres reopen in your area.
What if I am a Tier 4 student and my course is starting before I receive my visa?
You can start your course or studies before your visa application has been decided if:
- your sponsor is a Tier 4 sponsor
- you have been given a confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the course you start is the same as the one listed on your CAS
- you have a valid Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate if required
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused you must stop your course or studies.
Before I submit my Home Office application I have to pass an English language test and/or the Life in the UK test but the test centres are closed. What do I do?
Test centres are gradually starting to reopen but it may not be possible to get an appointment before your visa expires.
Even if you cannot get an appointment in time, you should still submit your Home Office application before your visa expires. Do not book your UKVCAS appointment until the English language / Life in the UK test centres have reopened and you have been able to pass the test(s). You may not have met the English language / Life in the UK requirement on the date you applied but if you meet it on the date of your appointment it would be unreasonable for the Home Office to refuse your application in the current circumstances.
Absences from the UK due to COVID-19 and their impact on residency (Indefinite Leave to Remain Applicants, EEA citizens, etc.)
What if you have a long-term UK visa (with a view to get indefinite leave to remain), but you are stuck outside the UK for several months?
If you have a visa which leads to indefinite leave to remain you cannot normally spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. This rule does not apply to every visa category and the way it works depends on the date when your visa was issued.
The 180-day limit is usually strictly enforced. However, the Home Office considers granting indefinite leave to remain if your absences are over the limit but justified due to serious or compelling reasons. According to the Home Office guidance, serious or compelling reasons will vary but can include serious illness of the applicant or a close relative, a conflict, a natural disaster, for example, volcanic eruption or tsunami.
The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason in this context, but it seems logical that it will.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.
What if I have pre-settled status and I need additional years of residence in order to qualify for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme?
For EEA citizens wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme, the same thing applies as for other applicants wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain via other routes. Normally, if you want to obtain settled status, you cannot spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason justifying exceptions for this rule in this context, but it seems logical that they will as it will be in accordance with EU law principles.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.
Since the EU Settlement Scheme has fully opened on 30 March 2019, there have already been more than 3.5 million applications from EU, other EEA and Swiss citizens, and their family members. Applying to the scheme is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until the 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply on time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK.
Just like every other aspect of life, and every other government service, the EU Settlement Scheme has been heavily affected by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The (temporary) closures of phone advice lines, local scanning centres, and the inability to send in documents have had a severe impact on the reach and success of the EUSS.
When the UK lockdown measures came into force on 23 March 2020, all face-to-face support services for EUSS applicants were shut down. Visa centres and passport scanning locations closed. The postal route for making applications, which those without biometric passports or access to the mobile scanning application have to use in order to apply, temporarily stopped operating.
Additionally, many national embassies and consulates remain closed except for emergencies. This means that EU nationals who need to request or renew their ID documents in order to apply to the Scheme cannot do so. Even when those consulates reopen, there will be a backlog of applications, putting those who do not have a valid form of ID at an increased risk of missing the EUSS application deadline of 30 June 2021.
EEA nationals currently stranded abroad due to lockdown measures around the globe are also increasingly at risk of falling through the cracks. If an EEA national wants to obtain settled status under the EUSS, they will have to prove five years of continuous residence in the UK. Continuous residency means that they do not have more than six months of absences in any 12-month period. The general rule is that the Home Office allows for one longer absence from the UK for an ‘important reason,’ such as illness, but no pandemic-specific guidance has been given. As travel remains disrupted and discouraged across the globe, EEA nationals looking to apply for settled status in the next five years risk breaking their continuous residency and jeopardizing their future immigration status if the Home Office do not operate a flexible approach to absences. Although, the European Union perspective is that absences as a consequence of the pandemic should be disregarded entirely.
This week, Home Office support services and application routes are slowly but surely starting to reopen. In addition to a range of online, telephone and email support for those who have questions or need help applying, the postal route for making applications has now reopened, meaning that those without biometric passports or access to the scanning app can make their applications and send their ID documents to the Home Office. The ID scanning locations, however, remain closed.
Community groups across the UK have tried to make up for the reduced services, and continue to work with vulnerable EU nationals during the lockdown, but there is no denying that webinars and online assistance are less effective than the real thing. As a consequence, new applications to the EUSS halved in April, bringing them to their lowest since the launch of the Scheme. Yet, the Home Office has confirmed that they do not plan on extending the EUSS deadline, making EU citizens increasingly worried they might lose their ability to secure their right to long-term residence in the UK because of the pandemic.
On Monday, a group of 52 asylum seekers and refugees, including 16 unaccompanied minors, flew from Greece to Britain to be reunited with their families in the UK. The transfer had been delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Under the EU Dublin III Regulation (the Dublin Treaty), family reunifications are facilitated if a close relative is already in the country of destination. As such, section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 provides that unaccompanied refugee children can lodge an asylum claim to come to the UK from another Dublin State if they have family in the UK to be reunited with. The burden of responsibility for those children lies on the State in which the child has family ties, in this case the UK, and it is up to that State to make arrangements to transfer the child.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, family reunification has been suspended across much of Europe as a natural consequence of closed borders and cancelled flights. After a six-week corona-related delay, a joint effort by the UK and Greek governments allowed a flight with over 50 migrants to go ahead and bring over 50 migrants to the UK from Athens on Monday. The individuals on the flight included people from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of them have been living in Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps for months, alone and in problematic sanitary conditions. There are currently 42.000 people on the Greek islands. Amongst these are at least 1500 unaccompanied minors, in addition to another 3500 unaccompanied children who are stranded on the mainland.
The UK and Greece recently committed to a Joint Action plan on migration in which they focus on family reunification, and specifically on the best interests of unaccompanied children in Greece. Monday’s flight can be considered a first direct product of this pact. Although this renewed commitment to family reunification efforts under the Dublin treaty is welcome, the pact comes with significant shortcomings.
On the one hand, the Action Plan is only valid for “as long as the UK remains bound by the Dublin Regulation.” In other words, it will only stay in force until the end of the transition period – which is less than eight months away. Once the transitional period ends, and the Dublin Treaty is no longer binding on the UK, there is no guarantee that unaccompanied minors will still be able to join their family members in the UK. Additionally, the pact only addresses unaccompanied children who qualify for family reunification. It does not satisfactorily deal with the relocation of other unaccompanied children stuck in Greece. In order to protect all children refugees adequately, relocation efforts for unaccompanied children in Greece’s refugee camps who do not have family members or relatives in the UK should be in addition to the UK’s pre-existing legal obligations under Dublin III. There is no mention of that in the Joint Action Plan.
The success of this particular flight was a result of intense advocacy by refugee families in the UK working with charities such as Safe Passage, a campaign group which fights for family reunification and two cross-party members of the House of Lords, Lord Alf Dubs (Labour) and the Earl of Dundee, a Conservative peer with responsibility for child refugees at the Council of Europe. Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of the refugee charity Safe Passage International, said in a news release: “The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties.”
Let’s hope they keep doing so in the future.
In March, the PM promised that destitute migrants would receive the necessary accommodation and funding during the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks later, food banks are struggling to meet demands, asylum seekers are moved out of their flats without warning, and local authorities fail to offer guidance on how to offer shelter to rough sleepers during the crisis.
Under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” rules, individuals without immigration status in the UK do not have access to public funds. The hostile environment prevents them from accessing many benefits, ranging from healthcare to housing to public authority assistance of any kind.
In an open letter to the Government, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) asks the Prime Minister to grant all immigrants who currently do not have status a period of Leave to Remain for the time of the pandemic, to avoid the hostile environment’s detrimental effect on public health. The letter is signed by over 30 organisations and charities who work with asylum seekers, refugees and other individuals with insecure immigration status, including Bail for Immigration Detainees, Women for Refugee Women and many others.
The JRS’ letter asks the PM to “to grant a period of leave to remain, with recourse to public funds and access to the labour market, to all those with insecure immigration status,” stating that “This is a vital step to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when public health demands that everyone has ready access to housing and healthcare, insecure immigration status acts as a barrier and puts everyone’s health at risk.”
Although the government has made all COVID-19 treatment free of charge irrespective of the patient’s immigration status, many people with precarious status are reluctant to get help. They fear that data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office, another pillar of the hostile environment policy, will lead to their deportation if they go to the hospital. If they think they might be sick, many migrants prefer staying under the radar so as to avoid the risk of getting into trouble, leading infected people to remain untested and at large.
In order to avoid a crisis of exploitation, destitution and homelessness on top of the coronavirus emergency we are already going through, all migrants should be encouraged to access public funds and especially healthcare.
As charities which normally support vulnerable asylum seekers have been forced to shut down, destitute and vulnerable asylum seekers have been left out in the cold. A #HumaneMigration system including temporary amnesty and leave to remain for migrants who are in the UK during the pandemic is the only viable solution not only to help all the people who are currently slipping through the cracks, but also to limit the spread of the virus in the wider community. Only unprecedented measures can reflect the unprecedented nature of this crisis, and ensure the health and safety of the nation as a whole.
On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds welcomed a healthy baby boy to this world. The birth of the PM’s son brings some uplifting news in difficult times, as the PM comes out of a tough personal recovery from coronavirus, whilst facing a daunting national crisis for the weeks and months to come. But the PM might not be out of the woods yet. COVID-19 might impact the Prime Minister on a personal level yet again – not by infection this time, but in relation to his new-born son.
In the UK, there is no central government authority to register births. Instead, this has to be done in the area the child was born. Ever since all local authorities closed down their offices on 23 March, birth registration appointments are no longer carried out. Parents of new-born babies in the UK are therefore unable to register their child as normally required, with potentially unduly harsh consequences.
The general rule is that parents need to register the birth of a child with their local authority within 42 days of birth. If they fail to do so, they risk a fine or some other form of reprimand. Fortunately, this rule has been relaxed due to the coronavirus outbreak: government guidance states that no action will be taken against parents who fail to meet the deadline due to no fault of their own. In addition, parents can exceptionally make claims for child benefits and/or universal credit prior to obtaining official birth certificates.
These are welcome changes, but they are not enough. In order to issue ID cards and travel documents, embassies have to see the birth certificates of children born in the UK. As ID cards are currently not being issued, parents cannot obtain passports or ID cards for their new-borns. In other words, the suspension on issuing birth certificates contributes to citizens ending up without identification and travel documents.
For non-British citizens, these concerns are exacerbated even further. In a global pandemic, emergency situations are not rare occurrences. Yet, because new-borns cannot get IDs under the current circumstances, parents cannot travel abroad in those emergencies unless they leave their new-born child behind.
Not only are all non-British parents unable to travel with their children should they need to do so, they also face additional challenges when applying for immigration status in the UK. EU citizens, specifically, will find that applying to the EU Settlement Scheme without a form of ID is a complicated endeavour.
When asked to clarify on these pressing issues, a Home Office official wrote that his office will evaluate on a “case by case basis” any application where a parent is unable to obtain an identity document for their child from an EU27 embassy due to circumstances beyond their control. Concerning the EU Settlement Scheme, the Home Office employee reiterated that the deadline to apply under the scheme is not before 30 June 2021, and, assuming that local authorities will resume their functions soon enough, parents therefore have plenty of time to apply before then, should they be unable to do now.
The case-by-case evaluation proposed by the Home Office is at their discretion and therefore, does not offer a solution to the structural consequences of suspending birth registrations.
In theory, this chaos affects everyone in the same way. One cannot help but wonder whether the PM will face similar obstacles when registering the birth of his son. Might that prompt the Home Office to find a temporary solution to avoid that more citizens, British and European alike, end up without IDs?
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.
The UK is one of many countries that has implemented lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These measures include strict travel restrictions, and in over 50 countries around the world, they go as far as a complete aerial lockdown.
Immigration detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal. With borders closing worldwide and flights suspended, that prospect is non-existent. That is why Detention Action, an NGO which fights for immigration detainees’ rights in the UK, issued judicial review proceedings on 18 March 2020. The proceedings challenged the lawfulness of continued detention, in particular of persons with medical conditions placing them at increased risk from COVID-19.
In response, the Home Office has committed to reviewing all detainees’ case files to release as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, unless they pose a grave danger to the public. When the government began their case-by-case review, one case of COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Yarl’s Wood IRC, two cases had been reported in Brook House, and symptoms were recorded in most other removal centres.
Under the current circumstances, detention centres are at risk of becoming hotbeds of coronavirus spreading, as both detainees and staff are constantly in close contact with each other and amongst themselves. In efforts to prevent the virus from spreading within the centres, some facilities have isolated detainees and barred them from leaving their rooms, effectively turning their bedroom into a prison cell.
Nevertheless, Detention Action lost their case in the High Court, and the Home Office still refuses to systematically release all individuals currently held in detention, putting all individuals involved in this system at continued risk of ill health.
Government action, however, shows awareness that keeping detainees locked up could come back to bite them. Since Detention Action launched their claim, the Home Office released over 350 people held under immigration powers. The courts are also playing their part, as a solicitor from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), a London-based charity, reported that ever since the travel restrictions and lockdown were enforced, 13 of his clients were granted bail and no applications were refused.
This is good news, but it is not enough. People currently held under immigration powers still need to go through the process of applying for bail if they are to be released, a process which has been made significantly more complicated by the pandemic itself.
On 20 March 2020, visits to immigration detention centres were indefinitely suspended as part of measures to contain the virus. This does not only have devastating implications for detainees on a personal level, as they can no longer see their loved ones. It also means that lawyers can no longer visit their clients in immigration removal centres.
Meanwhile, the Tribunal has started holding hearings remotely, but it seems that the courts do not lean itself to the online sphere easily, and their infrastructure is not ready to make the transition. This failure of court proceedings weakens detainees’ access to justice even further, as bail hearings are frustrated by the practicalities of online hearings.
This situation is not sustainable. After calls from Strasbourg and the Council of Europe to release immigration detainees in the face of this crisis, it is time to release everyone currently held under immigration powers, close detention centres and ensure that every individual receives the necessary care and support they need and deserve during these unprecedented times.
Just a month ago, when the government introduced its new points-based immigration system, a lot of workers in the health, food production, and transport industries were considered unskilled workers, and unwelcome in post-Brexit Britain.
The basics of the proposed points-based system are clear. If a worker does not have a secondary school diploma, does not speak English, or their salary falls below £25,600, the door to the UK is closed for them. As it turns out, a lot of these “low-skilled” workers are now considered essential in the fight to manage, control and survive the coronavirus crisis. In the current circumstances, they have been put under additional strain.
The trend to bulk buy has put staff in supermarkets and grocery stores under significant pressure, with one employee writing that him and his co-workers have been working long days on their feet, anticipating the next few weeks to be “a nightmare,” and advising against panic buying. There is no reason to bulk buy: there are no food shortages anywhere in Europe, and supermarkets are staying open throughout nation-wide lockdowns as they are part of a (small) group of essential businesses which are exempt from the new rules.
But this may soon change. Agricultural workers from eastern Europe usually fill the majority of jobs on farms. The combination of Brexit caps on seasonal workers with strict coronavirus travel restrictions has slowed recruitment in agriculture, and the EU labour force is simply not coming through. UK farmers find themselves in a crisis and could face a shortage of 80,000 labourers this summer if the Government fails to intervene. These spots as fruit pickers need to be filled by British workers or fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked, and stocks could be put in danger.
Jobs now classified as “key workers” include NHS staff, social workers, the police and military, and those working in food distribution, energy, utilities and transportation. In other words, the people sustaining essential businesses are, by extent, deemed essential workers, as they help feed and care for a country in standstill.
Only a few weeks ago, Johnson’s government described these people and the jobs they filled as “low skilled”, stating that the government “intends to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy.” If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the stark dissonance between this government’s policy on who is key in keeping the economy running and the truth on who is actually keeping the country together. It proves that “low-skilled” labour does not equate low-value labour. Recognising these workers as “key” or “essential” is a step towards recognising that they form the backbone of our society and without them, British civilisation would have already collapsed. The question remains whether this will be reflected in immigration policy when all of this blows over, and the pandemic finally dies down.
These are times of uncertainty and while the primary concern is for public health, without further assurances from the UK Government, the vulnerability of being subject to immigration control can compound other worries during any crisis. The large-scale postponement, suspension and cancellation of social activity, including working and studying commitments, poses some important questions about satisfying the conditions of student visas.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requires all Tier 4 institutions (schools, colleges, higher education facilities and universities) to keep a record of sponsored Tier 4 students including their attendance levels. This is required in order to meet their sponsor duties towards the UKVI when sponsoring students to study with them.
There are consequences to students who are absent from studies or cannot complete their studies before their Tier 4 visa expires. If a student misses 10 consecutive expected points of contact, without the Tier 4 institution’s authorisation, the guidance normally requires them to withdraw their sponsorship of the student. If their sponsorship is withdrawn from the student, the student will have no longer be able to continue their studies in the UK.
What about absences due to Covid-19?
The current circumstances being exceptional, specific government guidance that addresses Covid-19, last updated on 27 February 2020 and since overshadowed by other announcements, has been issued (last updated on the 27th February) gives us some parameters to work with:
‘Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 employees may be prevented from attending their studies or employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by coronavirus’.
This covers students who are taken ill by Covid-19, with absences authorised by the institution, as well as those whose movements have been restricted due to the threat. It goes on to say:
‘The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason. The Home Office will keep this under review, especially if the length of absences mean a potential repeat of period of studies become necessary’.
This means Tier 4 institutions do not need to report students who are absent due to Covid-19, as long as those absences are authorised by them. This also means the institution should not withdraw their sponsorship of the student.
In light of the guidance and given that the situation is developing and changing constantly, it is advisable that students keep a record of any emails or letters sent by their institution, which confirm (in writing) the latest advice on, or authorisation of attendances, while Covid-19 is posing health and logistical issues to life in the UK.
What about institution closures or online studying?
The above guidance would apply if a Tier 4 institution decides to close completely or partially. This will be fine for short-term absences due to closures. Some Tier 4 institutions are deciding to close premises and transfer all teaching online – in these cases, they need to ensure they are confident the students are ‘attending’ online sessions in order to maintain their UKVI duties.
However, if the absences become so long that the student is unable to complete their studies before their visa expires then the institution will have no choice but to cancel their sponsorship. No one should be in this situation yet and we expect - given that this appears to be a long term situation - the above government Covid-19 guidance to be updated to inform us how they intend to deal with longer term absences.
We will update you when the government’s Covid-19 guidance is updated.