Tens of thousands of EU nationals who have made their homes in the UK could lose their right to stay after being forced to return to their home countries due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new report has warned.
After as many as 1.3 million foreign workers left the UK last year – the largest exodus since the Second World War – campaigners fear that many may have intended to return to homes and jobs in Britain, but have lost their rights because they felt unable to come back within six months, at a time when Europe was under public health restrictions and travel ground to a virtual halt.
Official Home Office guidance states that an absence of more than six months from the UK as a result of the coronavirus outbreak will “not necessarily” affect a claim for “pre-settled status”, but guarantees this only for individuals whose return was delayed because they were personally ill with Covid-19, in quarantine or studying. Absences of longer than 12 months will mean that any previous residence in the UK can no longer be counted towards an application.
The report by the campaign group Right to Stay – a joint initiative of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Another Europe is Possible – warned that these were among the victims of a post-Brexit system which they describe as a “time bomb” of uncertainty for millions of people who have lost the freedom of movement guaranteed by EU membership.
Among them are potentially tens of thousands of long-term UK residents – including key workers on the pandemic front line – who will suddenly find themselves subject to a “hostile environment” because they inadvertently fail to apply for settled status by the deadline of June this year, the report warned.
It called for the deadline to be scrapped and automatic right to stay granted to all. And it demanded a review of the requirement for continuous residence to take into account the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid outbreak.
Settled status grants an EU national with five years’ residence in the UK the right to remain, while pre-settled status allows any living here before 31 December 2020 to stay until they reach the five-year mark, when they will be required to make a new application.
The report warned that more than 1.9 milion people allotted pre-settled status now face “huge uncertainty” stretching for years before they know whether they can stay for the long term.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster dismissed the report’s claims as “exaggerated” and warned that they could have the effect of deterring people from applying for the right to stay.
He pointed to the Home Office’s success in granting settled or pre-settled status to more than 4.5 million of the 5 million people who have applied to the EU settlement scheme (EUSS).
But the Right to Stay campaigners said that the government does not know the exact number of EU nationals resident in the UK.
If just 1 per cent of them “fall through the net” that would amount to tens of thousands of people potentially facing loss of benefits, detention and removal from the country, they said.
According to a JCWI survey cited in the report, some one in seven European nationals working in the care system did not know about the EUSS scheme and one in three did not know the deadline to apply.
Already, the report warned that the introduction of a new immigration system months before the June deadline has led to confusion over EU nationals’ rights.
Some have been wrongly asked for proof of status to access jobs, education and others have been wrongly charged for healthcare, despite official Home Office guidance stating that nothing should change until 1 July, said the paper.
Among cases cited in the report was a Bulgarian woman called Anna who first came to the UK with her partner in 2016 to work on a farm and later settled and found a job in Manchester. They returned to Bulgaria for Anna to have a baby shortly before the pandemic began last year, and did not feel comfortable to return until January this year.
As a result of being away for more than six months and missing the 31 December cut-off for starting a new period of residence, they lost their right to apply for pre-settled status despite having been in the UK lawfully, working and paying taxes, for several years.
The Right to Stay report warned: “As it stands, tens of thousands of people who have ended up abroad because they lost their jobs, wanted to be closer to their family or felt unsafe in the UK will still have lost their right to a settled status.
“Some people – those who managed to apply for status before the pandemic - will return and be able to live and work in the UK until their pre-settled status runs out. However, they will discover that they have already lost their right to apply for settled status and will have to leave and then seek an alternative route in. Others, like Anna, have already lost their right to take part in the EUSS scheme altogether.”
But a Home Office spokesman said that the rules made clear that an individual living in the UK before 31 December is entitled to up to 12 months away from the country for an important reason such as childbirth.
The campaigners claimed that the settled status scheme broke Boris Johnson’s promise in 2016, when he was heading the Leave campaign, that after Brexit “there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident here. These EU citizens will automatically be granted Indefinite Leave to Remain and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”
The report’s author, Alena Ivanova of Another Europe is Possible, said: “Even if there is a 99 per cent success rate in applications, that means that tens of thousands of EU nationals face losing their right to be in the UK.
“But what we have now uncovered in this report goes way beyond that: the pandemic, and the government’s failure to account for its impact, will leave many people without rights; residents are already being wrongly denied access to work, housing and services; and the use of pre-settled status is in effect a time bomb which may result in huge numbers of people losing their status later on. The entire scheme is on the brink of collapse.”
And the JCWI’s Caitlin Boswell said: ”With just over four months till the cut-off point and the UK still in the grips of the Covid pandemic, it couldn’t be more urgent that the government acts now and lifts the deadline.
“This is the only way to avoid tens of thousands of our EU friends and neighbours becoming vulnerable to harmful hostile environment policies - including detention and removal - overnight.”
But Mr Foster said: “With more than 5 million applications already received and more than 4.5 million grants of status already made, the EUSS is a major success. Given these facts the suggestion it is ‘on the verge of collapse’ is wildly inaccurate and the only effect of doing so could be to deter people from applying.”
“We will not be distracted by these types of exaggerated claims from our work to ensure our friends and neighbours who arrived in the UK during the time of free movement get the status they deserve, with support available online, on the phone and through our 72 grant-funded organisations.”
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