Digitalisation

Cross-party report urges the UK and EU to ensure that citizens’ rights protections are fully implemented before the end of the year by Charlotte Rubin

A cross-party report published last week urges the UK and EU to ensure that the citizens' rights protections in the Withdrawal Agreement are fully implemented for UK nationals living across the EU and EU citizens in the UK. All recommendations were agreed upon by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union. Broadly, the Report, to which Seraphus submitted written and oral evidence, underlines the necessity of many long-standing demands of professionals and third-party actors in the field of immigration and EU law.

For UK nationals in the EU, the Report makes three key recommendations. Firstly, it states that UK nationals living abroad need to be made aware of what they need to do to secure their rights. The Report calls on the Government, together with the European Commission and each Member State, to increase monitoring of the processes in each state. It also reiterates that the registration/application processes should be simple and avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens.

Secondly, the report states that deadlines for UK citizens to apply should be extended where necessary. In fact, of the thirteen Member States that have decided to require a new application for UK citizens to remain there legally, seven have already extended the deadline beyond 30 June 2021, which is the standard date for the end of such application schemes. The Committee urges other Member States to consider similarly extending the deadline if it becomes apparent that large numbers of UK nationals have not applied. In general, the Committee recommends countries take a pragmatic approach to delays, such as where Covid-19 causes a reduction in their capacity to manage applications.

Thirdly, the Report reiterates that UK nationals should be actively encouraged to register under the system of their host country. Due to free movement laws in operation over the past decades, many Brits living in countries such as Spain, Greece, France or Portugal are not necessarily registered with the local authority. It is almost impossible to estimate how many UK nationals are unregistered. Encouraging registration now, with the end of the transition period approaching, is vital, as it is often the first step in securing rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement.

EU nationals in the UK face similar challenges if they want to stay in the UK lawfully. Unsurprisingly, then, the Report mirrors these requests to protect EU nationals in the UK in the same way as UK nationals abroad should be protected. In sheer numbers, the figures of EU citizens needing to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to remain in Britain is far greater than the number of Brits needing to apply to similar schemes abroad. The concerns for EU citizens’ rights are therefore urgent.

The main issue identified is that although the EU Settlement Scheme has been a significant achievement (with over 4 million applications), it is still unknown how many EU citizens have yet to apply, as there is no clear data on the matter. Following from that, the report expresses concern over the application deadline of 30 June 2021, and what will happen to people who fail to apply before that. The committee urges ministers not to apply an unduly restrictive approach to late applications and to look for reasons to grant status rather than to refuse it.

The report also emphasises the danger for people with pre-settled status not knowing or understanding that they will need to upgrade their status before their pre-settled status expires. It urges the Government to publish guidance for caseworkers on how it will inform citizens with Pre-Settled Status that they are able and required to apply for an upgrade to Settled Status when the time comes.

Another concern highlighted is the danger for vulnerable individuals and groups in the UK. The report is unequivocal in stating that these individuals need more tailored support. Difficulties faced by some EU citizens, for example language or technology barriers, or problems with producing documentary evidence of their residence, are not uncommon. Communication with, and support for, these citizens, either directly from Government or through existing community organisations, must be prioritised as the 30 June 2021 deadline approaches.

There remains a lot of work to be done concerning communication and outreach, and that is why the report also recommends for funding to organisations providing support and advice to EU citizens to be extended beyond the end of this financial year (March 2021) as the government previously promised.

Finally, the Report argues that EU citizens in the UK should be able to apply for a physical document proving their legal residence in the UK. At the moment, EU citizens who successfully apply to the EU Settlement Scheme merely receive a digital confirmation. They have to log in and access their status online every time proof of legal residence is required, for example when opening a bank account, accessing benefits, renting a flat or changing jobs. The report urges the government to reconsider this, as it risks discriminating against EU citizens. This is because from 1 January 2021, identity checks will be performed online instead of through the familiar ID or passport check, only for EU citizens. For non-EU citizens, the same checks will be carried out in a way that is already known and familiar. The Government is urged to set out how it will monitor and review the rollout of these digital checks, parallel to the physical checks for third-party nationals. It also asks the Government for an update on progress establishing the planned Independent Monitoring Authority. This recommendation is especially relevant after last week’s debate in the House of Commons, where the government voted against a proposal to give EU citizens physical proof of status.

The key theme running through the entire report is the need for transparency and clarity. A lot of the recommendations are about outreach, awareness and simplicity of proving status. These are all things the government have been doing, but not enough. EU citizens in the UK as well as UK citizens abroad need to be made aware of what is expected from them, so that the end of the transition period can happen as smoothly as possible.

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After Brexit, after the pandemic, which EU citizens are at risk of failing to secure their rights? By Charlotte Rubin

In their most recent report, the Migration Observatory confirms what many lawyers and people working in the immigration field feared: no matter how much outreach and campaigning the Home Office plans to do, thousands of EU citizens in the UK are still likely to miss the EU Settlement Scheme deadline, which is set on 30 June 2021, and lose their lawful residence. These are not necessarily vulnerable individuals, but often simply people who do not realise that they need to apply to the Scheme. Broadly, the people most at risk of missing the deadline fall into five categories.

Firstly, those who are simply not aware that they need to apply. A perfect example of this are very long-term residents, who might think that they do not need to apply because they have lived here for so long, or EU citizens with permanent residence. In absolute numbers, tens of thousands of EU citizens fall under those categories. We know that at least 145,000 non-Irish EU citizens have been granted permanent residence from 2004 to 2019, who are not (yet) UK citizens. Many of these do now know that their permanent residence is not enough to warrant their continued lawful residence after Brexit.

Similarly, children of EU citizens whose parents do not themselves apply might not realise that their children need to do so, or mistakenly believe that their UK-born children are automatically UK citizens. In absolute numbers, this means a big group of children are at risk, as there are an estimated 689,000 children living in the UK with non-Irish EU citizenship. Other people who may not be aware that they need to apply to the Scheme are people who have been rejected for permanent residency or who were previously ineligible, and who do not realise that the criteria to obtain status under the EUSS have been made less restrictive. Additionally, people with criminal records and people who have been removed in the past might be reluctant to apply due to fear of being refused status or not meeting the suitability requirement), even if they are in fact eligible. In prison specifically, EEA citizens are in theory entitled to apply, but in practice unaware of the scheme or unable to submit their application due to practical difficulties.

The second category comprises of people who already face some kind of social exclusion, or who enjoy reduced independence or autonomy. Again, children are part of this group, specifically children in care and care leavers eligible to apply. According to Home Office estimates, there are around 5,000 children in care and 4,000 care leavers who would be eligible to apply to the EUSS, but some local authorities might not have information about their citizenship and hence do not apply on their behalf. In addition, some children might lack a valid ID and/or might not be able to provide evidence of their residence in the UK before coming into care. Other vulnerable groups include rough sleepers, victims of domestic abuse, victims of modern slavery and migrant Roma communities. According to government statistics, which tend to underestimate population numbers, there are currently at least 4,250 EEA nationals who qualify for homelessness assistance, 101 000 victims of domestic abuse, 1,400 victims of modern slavery and 200,000 Roma people, respectively. The numbers add up quickly.

Thirdly, some people might know about the EU Settlement Scheme, but struggle to navigate the application process. This could be due to practical difficulties such as language barriers, mental health problem or people with cognitive disabilities. It could also be due to technical difficulties, for example low digital literacy, low general literacy, or age. If we do the math again, these categories account for at least 600,000 vulnerable individuals: 244,000 people with language difficulties, 15,000 individuals who say their mental health impacts their daily activities, 42,000 people who have never used the internet before, 300,000 EEA citizens who have no formal qualifications, and 58,000 people aged over 75.

Lastly, people who lack evidence to prove their eligibility will also fail to acquire status, even though they might qualify for it. The biggest groups here are people who lack identity evidence to demonstrate their EEA nationality, of which there are at least 100,000 in England & Wales, and people who lack evidence of their relationship to a qualifying EU citizen. These people cannot simply rely on their residency in the UK to acquire status under the settlement scheme, but also need to prove that their relationship with a qualifying citizen is genuine. The number of people qualifying for status based on their family members is unknown.

Finally, an important group to mention are the people who may have acquired pre-settled status now, but who might now know or forget to upgrade that status to settled status once they have reached the five-year continuous residence requirement.

Need I go on? The report shows that traditionally vulnerable groups, be it people in poverty, social isolation, or living in precarious conditions, are more likely to miss the Scheme deadline than other EEA nationals. People without bank accounts, or leases, or bills in their name. It also shows how enormous that group of people is, and how many people may therefore end up without a status. This is why immigration practitioners call the EU Settlement Scheme a “Windrush Scheme on steroids” in the making. The Scheme is set up to reinforce existing inequalities, and filter out applicants who are perceived as less useful or desirable in British society, as people from challenging backgrounds are most likely to slip through the cracks and end up being in the UK unlawfully through no fault of their own. no matter how much money the government throws at their EU Settlement Scheme outreach campaign, not everyone that needs to know about the Scheme will be made aware of it.

Immigration practitioners have cautioned about this since the Brexit vote; the Migration Observatory report confirms it yet again. Meanwhile, the government knows about it, yet does nothing to ensure change. That should tell any layman enough about the intentions and goals behind the Scheme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With less than 12 months left until the EU Settlement Scheme deadline, it is still failing vulnerable applicants by Charlotte Rubin

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.







Court of Appeal rules immigration checks by landlords discriminatory, yet not unlawful, by Charlotte Rubin

The "Right to Rent" scheme was introduced as part of the hostile environment rules aimed at restraining illegal immigrants from entering and living in the UK, and came into force in 2016. The policy requires landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants. If they fail to do so, and end up renting out property to undocumented migrants, they can be charged unlimited fines or even a prison sentence.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), a London-based charity, is challenging the lawfulness of this policy in court. Last year, the High Court ruled the scheme unlawful, racially discriminatory, and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government appealed this decision, and on Wednesday, the Court of Appeal allowed the Secretary of State's challenge, finding that although the Right to Rent scheme does lead to discrimination against those who do not hold British passports and those who do not have traditionally ethnically-British attributes, it is an indirect consequence of the scheme’s otherwise legitimate goal to control and curb immigration, and therefore, the policy itself is not unlawful.

Lord Justice Hickinbottom stated: “The discrimination is entirely coincidental, in that the measure does not unlawfully discriminate against the target group but only collaterally because, in implementing the Scheme, as a result of the checks required by the Scheme and the possible sanctions for letting to irregular immigrants, landlords engage in direct discrimination on grounds of nationality; and section 33 and the Discrimination Code of Practice clearly recognise and seek to address that discrimination by landlords."

In short, the Court of Appeal agreed that the Right to Rent scheme causes discrimination but did not rule that that discrimination amounted to a human rights violation, because it is indirect, and only “some landlords” may participate in it. The court leaves it to the government to decide whether the racial discrimination is “greater than envisaged”.

To advocates and immigration lawyers, it is clear that whatever was envisaged, any amount of racial discrimination is unacceptable. The Home Office’s own research has shown that 25% of landlords would not be willing to rent to anyone without a British passport, whilst the Residential Landlords Association found that more than half of landlords were less likely to rent to those with limited time to remain in the UK. Effectively, the Right to Rent scheme turns landlords into border patrol, as they are forced to evaluate who does and does not have the right to be in the country. Needless to say, landlords are not properly trained or qualified to do so.

Chai Patel, the JCWI’s legal policy director, said that, “At a time when our lives depend on our ability to stay at home safely, ethnic minorities and foreign nationals are being forced by the government to face discrimination in finding a safe place for them and their families to live.” The JCWI has said that they are planning to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, the policy is still in place, and the people affected by it remain at risk.

You can support JCWI's work by donating here.

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