Thousands of EU nationals could inadvertently become illegal residents in the UK after Brexit, a report has warned.
Domestic abuse victims and other vulnerable groups could lose their status due to difficulties completing an application and providing the necessary evidence to secure residency, according to the Migration Observatory.
It also warns that other EU citizens, particularly elderly people and children, could lose their status because they simply do not realise that they are covered by the new regulations and need to apply for “settled status” (SS).
To acquire SS, EU citizens will need to show that they started living in the UK before the cut-off date – currently scheduled for 31 December 2020 – and will need to complete five years of residence in the UK.
Despite efforts by the government to ensure that this process is as inclusive as possible, the report shows that several groups of EU citizens are at risk.
These include people who are already vulnerable for other reasons, including women who are victims of domestic abuse, especially if they are not working and rely on their partner for evidence that they have been living here, such as utility bills and leases.
Official data provided to the Migration Observatory shows that EU citizens are less likely to report experiencing domestic abuse than UK or non-EU citizens, with the same data suggesting that more than 50,000 EU citizen women experienced domestic abuse in the UK in 2016-2017.
Other vulnerable groups of EU citizens in the UK include children in care and victims of trafficking, although there is no reliable data on these groups.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “The Home Office is clearly keen to create a system that is easy and straightforward to use, and most EU citizens should be able to sail through a simplified application process with little difficulty.
“But for a minority of people, the process will be more difficult. Many of these are already society’s most vulnerable—whether it is because they are socially isolated, have been victims of exploitation, or face personal barriers such as mental health or poverty.”
The report identifies larger, if less vulnerable, groups of people who may simply not realise that they need to apply. These include more than 140,000 people who have lived in the UK more than 30 years and 56,000 elderly people (age 75+).
There are also more than 900,000 children of EU citizens living in the UK whose status will depend on their parents knowing that they need to apply. Available data suggest that there could be tens of thousands of children born in the UK whose EU citizen parents mistakenly believe that they are automatically UK nationals.
Ms Sumption said the biggest challenge if the government aimed to include all EU citizens in the settled status process would be lack of awareness.
“We know from other government programmes like child benefit that people often don’t apply for something even when it’s really in their interests to do so,” she said.
“When the deadline arrives, people who haven’t applied lose their legal status. This means that one of the biggest policy questions is what will happen to people who were eligible but didn’t apply in time.”
The EU-UK agreement on citizens’ rights states that where there is a “good reason”, a “proportionate” approach will be taken to people who do not apply within the deadline. What this means in practice has not been set out in detail.
The report will stoke concerns that vulnerable groups will be negatively affected by Brexit. MPs warned last week that leaving the EU could be “disastrous” for disadvantaged groups due to the loss of the European Social Fund (ESF), which provides £500m per year of EU funding to “vital” services.
A report by the Work and Pensions Committee stated that programmes providing support for people who are poorly served or neglected by mainstream provision, including disabled people, offenders and prison leavers, risked being “bankrupted” as a result.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Throughout the negotiations, it's been our priority to secure the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and in December we reached an agreement with the EU that does this. Away from the negotiations, we have been working hard to build a new, simple digital application system for settled status and drawing up the rules that will underpin it.
”We are well aware of the challenges of ensuring that three million EU citizens and their family members living here understand the need to apply and have the ability to. That is why we have already launched a national awareness campaign, are holding monthly meetings with EU citizens' representatives to understand their needs and are planning a range of support for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children and families, victims of domestic violence and those with English as a second language."
The spokesperson added that they would be setting out further details before the summer and that EU citizens would have "plenty of time" to make an application.
"But we have also been clear that we will exercise discretion if there are good reasons why someone has not been able to make an application before the June 2021 deadline," they added.
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