In Depth

What will happen to EU citizens after the December Brexit deadline?

EU migration into the UK falls to lowest level since 2003

The clock is now ticking towards the December deadline for a trade deal between the UK and the European Union - leaving the three million EU citizens living in the country in limbo. 

A recent survey of more than 3,000 EU nationals in the UK found that 95% felt less integrated and less “at home” after Brexit.

At the same time, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that net EU migration to the UK fell to around 48,000 in the year to June 2019, the lowest level since 2003. “EU net migration climbed to a peak of 219,000 in the year to March 2015 and has been falling ever since against the backdrop of the referendum and the Brexit negotiations,” says The Guardian.

So what is the current plan for EU citizens after the Brexit transition period ends in December?

What is “settled status”?

EU citizens and their families who have been living in the UK for at least five years by the end of December 2020 – the end date of the transition period – will be able to apply for “settled status”. 

Settled status will give them the right to remain and work in the UK indefinitely. Those who have been in the UK for less than five years by the cut-off date can wait until they qualify and then apply.

Under the plan, EU citizens will be allowed to access the NHS and claim benefits “regardless of whether Brussels agrees to do the same for Britons living in Spain and other European nations”, reports The Daily Telegraph.

EU nationals will also be able to bring spouses and close family members from abroad to live with them in the UK.

How does the application process work?

The Home Office has said that EU citizens will have to answer three “simple” questions online if they want to remain in the UK after the country leaves the bloc.

People will be asked to prove their ID, note any criminal convictions, and say if they live in the UK. This information will then be checked on government databases before a decision is made.

The Home Office has previously said its “default” position would be to grant, not refuse, settled status.

House of Commons Library statistics show that the scheme has already seen around 1.5 million people granted settled status. A further 1.1 million have been granted pre-settled status, while 19,000 had an “other outcome”.

The majority of applicants are from Eastern European countries, with Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary leading the table. 

The £65 application fee was scrapped in January 2019, with the full scheme rolled out in March.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said it was “a victory for common sense”.

While the scheme has had good uptake, The Guardian reports that around 900,000 EU citizens living in the UK are yet to apply for settled status. Although there is no official data on how many EU citizens live in the UK, it is estimated to be between 3 million and 3.6 million.

The paper adds that lawyers have also raised concerns that the Home Office may be issuing pre-settled status to some citizens who do not, at first glance, seem to qualify for settled status.

The scheme is not without other shortcomings. Antonio Finelli, a 95-year-old Italian man who has been in the UK for 68 years, was asked to prove he is resident in the country by the Home Office in order to remain after Brexit.

Finelli has received the state pension for the past 32 years, after answering an appeal for immigrant labour as part of the reconstruction effort after the Second World War ended.

How long will it take?

The scheme operates online and via a new smartphone app and aims to deliver a decision within two weeks or sooner.

While he was home secretary, Sajid Javid said he hoped to process all EU citizens currently living in the UK by summer 2021, but to meet this ambitious target the Home Office would have to process up to 4,500 applications a day. It currently takes about six months to process applications for permanent residency for EU nationals.

Last month, Brandon Lewis, security minister at the time, said he was pleased with the response to the scheme. “We have done more than other EU member states to support EU citizens and it’s time other countries made the same generous offer to the million UK nationals who live among them,” Lewis said.

Campaign group the3million has disputed this, however, with co-founder Nicolas Hatton describing Lewis’s confidence as “infuriating” when “vulnerable EU citizens face the full force of the law if they do not manage to apply successfully by the June 2021 deadline”.

Will the Home Office be able to cope?

Following the Windrush scandal there are fears such a mammoth undertaking will see large numbers of people fall through the cracks or be caught up in bureaucratic red tape.

The3million has long argued that, while the government’s scheme will give hope to many EU citizens, “questions remain whether the Home Office will have the capacity to change the hostile environment culture to a welcoming approach”.

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, told The Guardian: “Unless the government changes course, tens of thousands of EU citizens will be left without legal rights in less than 18 months – at risk of eviction, detention and deportation.”

What are the drawbacks?

“For hundreds of thousands of EU nationals, who have a straightforward and legitimate employment history in Britain and are comfortable using digital technology, their applications may well be resolved ‘within days’,” says BBC Home Affairs correspondent Danny Shaw.

“But for claimants hoping to bring in relatives, people unfamiliar with computers and those with a more sketchy background in Britain, perhaps involving some cash-in-hand work, the process may be a hurdle they'll struggle with - or avoid altogether.”

Further concerns were raised after reports that the test phase was beset by technical problems. The Guardian reported in December 2018 that “a series of bugs were exposed in the phone app, which does not work on iPhones, including complaints that the passport recognition function did not work on all Android models”.

Teething issues aside, the Oxford University-based Migration Observatory has warned that some vulnerable citizens may find it difficult to navigate the system. The elderly, children in care, and victims of domestic abuse are considered particularly at risk.

“This could be because they struggle to provide documentation and complete the registration process, or do not realise they need to apply to continue living in the UK legally,” The Times reports.

Others may experience problems because of language difficulties, age, disability or a lack of computer literacy or online access.

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