The migration system isn’t ready for Brexit – and EU citizens will suffer.

The future is uncertain for the three million EU nationals living in the UK, writes Jack Gevertz

January 21, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Chris Bertram (Flickr)

Last year, a scandal concerning those who were part of the Windrush generation rocked British politics. In dozens of cases, friends and families were split up, arrested and held in detention centres. Some were even deported.

The actions prompted a debate around immigration policy and practices within the Home Office. But with a no-deal Brexit looming and the status of EU nationals becoming unclear, could another Windrush be in our future?

Last Tuesday, Theresa May faced a crushing defeat on her Brexit deal – and with it her plans for immigration, outlined in the White Paper. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show the number of EU nationals coming to the UK has fallen. While thousands are deciding to return home.

Current EU free movement rules mean any EU citizen can live, work and settle in another EU country. And after Brexit, the EU Settlement Scheme is due to come into effect, meaning anyone who’s lived here as an EU citizen will be able to claim settled status.

But what will happen to those who don’t apply or who don’t know that they need to apply. Or, those who are children, have been in the country long-term or who already have their permanent residence documents? There is no information for these individuals.  

Even those who do get round to claiming settled status are not entirely protected. That’s because of the current limited timeframe to process their applications. Three million EU nationals currently live in the country. Thousands are choosing to apply for British Citizenship. Currently, the process of attaining British Citizenship if you’re an EU national is by having settled status for at least a year then applying for naturalisation. But since Brexit, processing times have become insufficient to handle them all. Cutbacks at the Home Office and a shutdown of regional processing centres continue to raise serious questions over the Government’s viability to handle applications.

The UK Visa and Immigration department is already running at full capacity. The Institute for Government report recently concluded that it would need to be boosted significantly if it was to be able to handle EU immigration on top of non-EU immigration. Evidence submitted to a Houses of Parliament committee found a number of problems with the consolidation of visa processing to Sheffield. This included incorrect requests for documents and settlement applications not being marked as complex. A Home Office worker recently acknowledged this and said they found it hard to get staff to work out of Sheffield. So, it begs the question: what makes us any more confident that the process will be up to scratch for EU nationals in the event we crash out of the EU?

If the Home Office is struggling, then it might have been for some time. Since 2010, the number of EU nationals being held in detention centres has increased fivefold. At Larne House in Northern Ireland, one in four of those detained in the first half of 2018 were EU nationals. These are people who – under EU rules themselves – have the right to live, work and study in any other member state. Article 28 of the Citizens Directive 2004 states that EU citizens can only be deported from another member state for reasons of public policy or national security. Norotiously, concerns for individual rights have made little dent in May’s migration policy.

This situation makes clear the dire state of our migration services for non-EU nationals – who have for years suffered these kinds of setbacks without a similar public uproar. Migrants from outside the EU have been facing down the hostile environment, hounded by ‘Go Home’ vans, left without housing or medical treatment. (It should be said that this is less of an issue for the white Canadian and US migrants who are among the most likely to actually overstay their visas.) They have been obliged to shell out in some cases many thousands of pounds for the privilege of citizenship – a set of basic protections beyond the reach of many working people.

And it’s only set to get worse as the UK leaves the EU. With cutbacks, under-resourcing, little political will to look out for the wellbeing of migrants, and a system already creaking under the pressure, thousands will face uncertainty, if not life-altering legal and carceral consequences. Theresa May wants to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands but has no clear outline on how she will do it. EU citizens are currently in a precarious position. They face uncertainties surrounding their homes, jobs and future. How do we want to be seen as a nation – as open and compassionate – or closed and forlorn?

Jack Gevertz is a political commentator for the Immigration Advice Service, a country-wide organisation of immigration lawyers which provides Brexit, EU settlement and citizenship advice.

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