A hostile environment for EU citizens?

As Brexit rolls on, we are quickly losing hope for a decent, rights-based approaches towards our country’s world citizens, writes Emma Taylor

March 5, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916’ (Flickr)

The UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. The question of a ‘deal-or-no-deal’ Brexit hangs heavy in the air – yet what we do know is that with Brexit, the free movement of people between Britain and European Economic Area countries ends. Exactly how this will unfold is anybody’s guess, but the Immigration and Social Security Bill (EU Withdrawal) designed to repeal ‘free movement’ will pass to the House of Lords by 7 March 2019.

If we leave with a deal, arrangements for EU citizens stay roughly in place, with a settlement route open until the end of 2020. There are well over 3 million EU citizens here – each with their own capacities, challenges and circumstances – who must navigate their futures. Under a deal, we have a limited grace period in which to manage the scale and complexity of this change.

In a no-deal scenario, these 3 or so million (assuming they wish to remain here) can apply for European Temporary Leave to Remain for up to 36 months. Then, EU citizens face further applications for a different immigration status from 1 January 2021 onwards.

The Immigration and Social Security Bill represents more than the question of whether a deal can be struck. The recent chaotic uncertainty has a human impact for people like Lisete da Silva Bull, who is 44 and a self-employed musician. Lisete has lived in the UK for over five years and has now been granted leave to remain here.

“I have lost, through death, my whole immediate family in the last five years, which has been hugely stressful and difficult to cope with, she told us, “All I want to do is to get on with being a safe space for my children without this too hanging over me.”

Either way, the now notorious ‘hostile environment’ policy championed under this government, not to mention our Prime Minister’s previous Home Office tenure, is maintaining its momentum. Eventually, EU citizens who are not settled will be subject to domestic immigration laws over the longer-term, which have been criticized strongly for practices including; disproportionally high refusal rates of Spouse Visas which are then successfully appealed; a ‘go home’ culture which has been promoted in Home Office communications campaigns; ‘Indefinite detention’ powers to hold those without status, without trial, for an unlimited time; and the comparison of ‘skill’ with ‘income,’ which restricts possible entrepreneurs, spouses with lower incomes and those with plenty to offer in lower income occupations, from contributing to the UK.

The EU citizens most likely to become ‘illegitimate’ in future are also likely to be the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and the least engaged with society. We know from stories of care leavers with unresolved immigration status forced to leave the country, that children of EU citizens growing up in care are particularly vulnerable here. Processing a young person’s passport documentation is often the last task on the list for their social worker, snowed under with more urgent matters. Elderly citizens can live isolated lives, without access to support from citizen’s services or laptops for applications online.

Vulnerable people of all kinds are likely be the very first to struggle with the implications of such seismic change, delivered during such uncertainty. They are most at risk of ‘failing’ to adequately access the complex information and changing structures available to them as Brexit rolls on.

Even for those like Lisete, the lack of clarity and culture of hostility towards immigrants’ means that we already seeing reasons not to take risks arising for, say, landlords and small business employers, amongst others. Civil servants will increasingly turn over thousands more applications for settlement and temporary visas, with generational echoes from the experience of Windrush settlers providing little comfort to those now subject to the bureaucracy of the Home Office.

As Brexit rolls on, we are quickly losing hope for a decent, rights-based approaches towards our country’s world citizens – and in doing so, we are stripped of the benefits this brings to our nation. The UK government says it wants to attract both the ‘best’ and the ‘brightest’ from all over the world to our country. Simply subjecting a further 3 million EU citizens to the treatment of our already flawed domestic immigration culture will lessen our ability to do just that.

Emma Taylor is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation which provides immigration, asylum and nationality advice and assistance.  

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