Priti Patel’s ‘hostile environment’ for EU citizens will fuel racism and inflict misery on the vulnerable

EU citizens in the UK who don’t apply for settled status by the beginning of July will lose the ability to work, rent a home, and have access to the NHS

Priti Patel: 'All options are on the table' over sending asylum seekers abroad

Priti Patel is about to unleash a wave of hostility upon a group of EU citizens. A “hostile environment”, to be precise. A suite of policies designed to force “unwanted” migrants to leave.

Introduced in 2013 by Theresa May, these policies have inflicted misery, from deporting Windrush elders to driving racism in the rental market, and racist “go home” vans.

EU migrants who don’t, for whatever reason, apply for settled status by the beginning of July will find themselves vulnerable. They will lose the ability to work and rent a home, and access to the NHS will be lost.

The fear of many charities and advocacy groups is that those who won’t have claimed by the deadline will be the most vulnerable – the elderly, more isolated migrant communities and children, and the victims of trafficking.

The EU settlement scheme always represented a historically ambitious process: a drive to register millions of citizens, with much of the rollout taking place at the same time as a pandemic.

No previous regularisation scheme has managed a 100 per cent application rate, and the consequences of falling short by even a few per cent are dire. It means tens of thousands of people left without rights.

It’s hard to tell how many EU citizens have yet to apply. As of May 2021, the government had received 5.6 million applications. But the government has no idea how many EU citizens are living in the UK. We don’t have a clear idea on how close we are to 100 per cent.

In the last gasps of June, we find that there is a backlog of 400,000 applications for settled status. Applicants report that the Home Office can’t handle the volume of calls. Many find themselves stuck in uncertain stress and limbo.

Despite all of this, the government has refused to delay the July deadline, ignoring calls to act from metro mayors, national governments and charity groups.

The government has had to concede that simply submitting an application before the deadline will count. In addition, late applicants will be able to submit a late application if they can demonstrate “reasonable grounds”.

Nonetheless, a substantial cohort risk facing the same kind of deprivation and exclusion faced by Windrush elders – themselves a group who didn’t successfully normalise their paperwork during a government process.

There is some evidence already that some groups, such as care leavers and specific migrant groups, haven’t all gone through the process. As an Algerian, I’m aware of concerns in the community that not all French Algerians living in London have obtained settled status.

Applicants who are refused settled status will have similar problems. There have already been a number of high-profile wrongful rejections – from EU citizens who have lived here for years being refused leave, to children of accepted parents being rejected.

There’s no reason to believe that there won’t be similar refusals in the pool of last-minute applications, leaving applicants suddenly without the right to rent, work or healthcare.

For a myriad of reasons, there are strong grounds to believe that some residents will become vulnerable overnight to the “hostile environment”. Even those given settled status may find an increase in indirect racism.

These policies have ultimately forced landlords, doctors and employers to become border guards, checking people’s migration status. There’s already clear evidence that these policies have encouraged landlords to not rent to migrants. EU citizens will now find themselves subject to these sorts of checks, biases and marginalisation.

All this because the Conservative Party has embraced the scapegoating of migrants to win power. The loss of freedom of movement has created a nightmare of bureaucracy for people who have invested years into our country. Indeed, those who have lived decades here are now at the most risk in their retirements – an ungracious reward.

The “hostile environment” itself and its implementation speak of institutional racism at the Home Office, and a willingness to cause harm to drive down immigration numbers for political gain. It must be challenged and resisted.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has released a set of sensible policy suggestions that are primarily focused on the flexibility needed to accommodate late applications and the protections from harm needed for those who haven’t yet achieved settled status. The government should start there and then move on to finally scrapping the awful “hostile environment” policy.

Benali Hamdache is the Green Party’s migration and refugee support spokesperson

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