Earlier this month Boris Johnson invited a group of schoolchildren to No 10 to ask him about key issues facing the country, from the NHS to Brexit. One topic that didn’t come up – the questions were no doubt carefully vetted – was the government’s appalling treatment of some of these children’s classmates from the EU, who are being refused the right to stay permanently in the UK.
The latest figures from the Home Office shockingly reveal that 116,000 children from the EU have been refused permanent residency. That’s around one in three of all under-18s who applied. Instead, these children have only been offered the weaker pre-settled status, which only provides a precarious and temporary right to stay in the UK. This means they will have to reapply for the permanent right to remain later down the line, and they will only be granted it if they have paperwork to prove they’ve been in the UK for at least five years.
It is a mark of shame on this government that so many children from the EU and their parents are being left in legal limbo. These families have made this country their home, yet they are forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops just to have the right to stay here, sometimes the only country they have ever known.
Boris Johnson and other leading Brexiteers, including Priti Patel, promised during the Leave campaign that EU citizens living in the UK would be automatically granted indefinite leave to stay. Now they sit as prime minister and home secretary, they are refusing to stay true to their words. While this may not be surprising, it doesn’t make it right.
It’s been widely documented that even EU citizens who have lived in Britain for decades are often being refused the right to stay permanently. This approach was highlighted by the case of Daniel Muijs, the head of research at Ofsted, who has lived here for more than 20 years but whose application for “settled status” in the UK was senselessly rejected last year due to insufficient evidence. Just a few weeks ago, Claude Bosi, a French Michelin-starred chef who has been in the UK for 23 years, said he feels “unwelcome” after his application for permanent residency was refused.
But these are just the high-profile cases we hear about. As an MP, I have been contacted countless times by people from the EU living in my constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon who are extremely worried about their future here. I have seen first-hand how the Conservatives’ heartless approach is causing unbearable anxiety among EU citizens who are our neighbours, colleagues and friends.
In a packed public meeting in Oxford to mark our solidarity with Europe, it was these valued neighbours who were the closest to tears. They are scientists, researchers, teachers and nurses. Fearful of another Windrush-style scandal, they plead for physical proof of status. They called for an easier process to get it in the first place, and they warned of the many who haven’t even applied yet.
Other vulnerable and harder to reach groups, such as the elderly, people with disabilities or children in care, may not even be aware they have to apply. They will find it even more difficult to meet the requirements. This Conservative government is shamefully turning a blind eye.
Of course, we must not forget the plight of the estimated 1.5 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, many of whom are also facing barriers to their right to live and work abroad because of Brexit. The best way to help them is to foster good will among our European neighbours, by granting permanent residency to all EU nationals living in the UK, instead of treating them as bargaining chips and pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment.
From the outset, the Liberal Democrats have called for EU nationals in the UK to be unilaterally guaranteed the right to stay.
Last year I joined a cross-party delegation to meet with Michel Barnier to plead the case. Negotiators there made it clear that any deal on citizens’ rights is predicated on the UK allowing full reciprocal arrangements: a prospect looking more remote now than ever given recent rhetoric around diverging standards and the ongoing possibility of no deal.
There is a human cost here and I will not stand by while thousands of children are left to live in uncertainty over their futures.
Boris Johnson thinks he can duck responsibility for the promises he made during the referendum campaign and use his majority to inflict a divisive agenda on his country. The Liberal Democrats have a clear message for him: we will not stop holding him and his xenophobic, populist actions to account. We will fight to protect people’s rights and maintain the closest possible relationship with our friends and neighbours in the EU.
Layla Moran is the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
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