THEY’VE had five years to mull it over, was the essence of Boris Johnson’s response to questioning by Ian Blackford MP in the House of Commons about those EU passport holders struggling to make the deadline to apply for settled status.
Wednesday night at midnight and Cinderella’s freedom of movement turned into a pumpkin, with no crystal slipper to rescue her from theoretical deportation.
While EU citizens might have had five years’ warning that Britain would be exiting the EU, they’ve had two years to submit their applications for settled status.
Despite the long run up, more than 50,000 made last minute applications for settled status on Wednesday, in a rush to beat the midnight deadline. As the computer system slowed and long queues built up, the Home Office gave a generous extension til 9am the following morning.
The response from some quarters – the prime minister included – has been of scorn. How on earth can people have two years to fill in a form vital to their jobs, place of residence and healthcare, yet leave it til almost literally the last minute?
Since applications opened in 2019, some 5.6 million EU and European Economic Area citizens have applied for the right to remain permanently in the UK. Given the volume of successful applications, there’s no denying this has been a technical success.
The Home Office, incidentally, had predicted numbers to be between three and four million, so the final tally shows a whopping population underestimate. Or perhaps wild over optimism about how many Johnny foreigners might do the right thing and leave.
As with all things bureaucratic, people will have misunderstood the guidance. Some of that last minute rush will be people who, say, hadn’t realised they had to fill out applications for individual children and assumed they would apply as a family.
Some will be people who listened to Mr Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove in 2016 say that “EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK” and not thought twice about it.
We shouldn’t be getting hung up on the people who left it to the last minute though. We should be worried about the people who still haven’t applied at all – an estimated 150,000.
Many of those will be vulnerable or lacking access to internet services. As always, the third sector has stepped in to fill gaps in provision.
In Govanhill, on the south side of Glasgow, charities have been working to ensure that the area’s large European community had their forms filled on time. The area has several large Roma populations and local third sector organisation, Community Renewal, said “many lack digital access or struggle to understand the evidence requirements” and so hands-on support has been needed to help residents apply.
Estimates of the Roma populations vary but are at least several thousands. Community Renewal, Govanhill Community Development Trust and Positive Action in Housing said they have helped 150 people to apply. It’s good work but there are clearly still going to be some people left behind and this population – not only in Glasgow and not only of Roma people – will not be immediately apparent.
It is going to be a problem that reveals itself in the coming years, particularly as the Home Office has outsourced much of its tracking work to private landlords and employers who are supposed to, but of course don’t always, check immigration status. Post-Brexit the system is now more complex – the right-to-work guidance is 59 pages long – and employers and landlords are being reminded not to discriminate against EU residents.
It remains to be seen how the government will respond to those who have not sorted out their paperwork in time.
Given those who have not managed to apply are likely to be the most vulnerable groups, will they be afforded leniency or, dare we be so naive, compassion? Or will they be afforded wriggle room because they are European and escape being targets of this government’s hostile immigration policies?
Bit of a bind for the Home Office, not that it seems to care about keeping up appearances. If dawn raids begin on unfortunate Europeans who simply haven’t filled in the forms there will, rightly, be an outcry.
Yet if those same dawn raids are saved purely for those coming from Africa or the Middle East then we’ll have a starkly two tier immigration system with sympathy for some and cruelty for others.
There’s already a hint of this. The immigration minister, Kevin Foster, said the government will be flexible and lenient towards EU citizens. But not towards any non-EU residents.
One way of resolving the issue of residual leave to remain applications is to scrap the deadline. The vast bulk of applications have been made, there is a backlog but the backlog will be worked through. Keeping the threat of punitive policies for those who haven’t applied is of benefit to no one.
The people who are here, are here. Stopping them working or renting or accessing the NHS due to a lack of paperwork is pointless. The Home Office has said those who haven’t applied will be issued with a 28 day warning notice and told of the consequences for their healthcare and employment. Should it be discovered an EU citizen resident in the country for five years or more hasn’t made an application to remain, allow them to complete the application without threat.
While we focus on the practical aspect of the situation, there is also the less quantifiable effect of Monday night’s deadline. It shifts people’s relationship with their home. While once they were welcomed unequivocally, now they may stay only with caveats.
From having automatic right to make the UK their home, they are now part of a hostile immigration system. That’s an unpleasant, unwelcoming shift and it’s no wonder EU citizens have been speaking of anxiety and stress and feeling unwelcome.
Loss of freedom of movement is not only about physical borders but about the erecting of an intangible barrier between loved ones and friends and friends, one much harder to resolve with neat paperwork.