New statistics released this week show that EU Settled Status (EUSS) applications in April were at their lowest number since the scheme was launched in March 2019, with only 67,300 applications.
By some measures, the EUSS programme has been a tremendous success to date. In mid-May the Home Office announced that they had reached an important milestone of 3.5 million applications having been made.
This coincides with the number of EU citizens (excluding Irish nationals) thought to be residing in the UK currently. If all of those known to be in the UK have already applied, there’s bound to be a drop off in applications.
However, it is widely accepted that the true number of people needing to apply to the scheme is unknown. For example, by January this year 152% of the expected number of Bulgarian nationals had applied to the scheme.
On the other hand, applications from Polish nationals living in the UK (the largest EU nationality group in the UK) have been lower than expected. We also know that applications from certain age groups, such as those under 18 and those over 65, have been low.
The Home Office itself says that the focus now must be around targeting those more vulnerable in the final 12 months of the scheme.
However, in addition to other barriers faced by those most vulnerable (such as language barriers, lack of ID, IT literacy, unsociable working hours), the lockdown has seen the closure of the EUSS Resolution Centre, the suspension of the ability to send documents by post, as well as the closure of all local scanning centres.
For those more vulnerable, who need support with their application, closures have inevitably had an impact on their ability to complete an application.
Coupled with this, specialist support agencies specifically helping those who are more vulnerable or unable to complete the application by themselves have also had to move to virtual support – the very online support that these vulnerable people often cannot access for the same reason they cannot apply for EUSS.
If anyone asks for help with starting their application we can still provide help, support and coaching over the phone, but it is a lot harder, more time consuming, and if evidence etc is necessary, it will most likely delay their applications even further. (Advice worker, Norfolk)
The advice agencies we have spoken to have seen a dramatic drop in application numbers during March and April (in line with the national trends) while other enquires – around food banks, Universal Credit (UC), mental health support and housing – have risen exponentially.
For ACCESS, an advice agency in Kings Lynn, 50% of enquiries in April were from new clients to their service, primarily about welfare benefits in often complex situations. The service saw a total of 585 contacts from migrant communities in Kings Lynn in April alone seeking advice during the pandemic.
Undoubtedly this is a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and people shifting their worries to other more urgent matters. (Advice worker Great Yarmouth)
The table below shows the decrease in numbers from three organisations in Norfolk and Suffolk offering specialist support to apply for EUSS.
Most of the organisations we have spoken to are having issues supporting people to prove their eligibility to access welfare benefits. One agency tells us that DWP advisers often admit to being unaware of the immigration rules so “we must support our clients to make applications and prove eligibility”.
There is a specific problem with welfare benefits such as UC: EU nationals must pass a “habitual residency” test in order to qualify for welfare benefits in the UK. Time spent proving this additional step or appealing a decision means many are pushed into poverty in the meantime.
Some migrant workers continue to work on the frontlines in ‘key-worker’ positions, and a number of workers we’ve spoken to have had to accept increased hours during this pandemic due to labour shortages. For these workers, finding time to undertake the EUSS application is more difficult.
Do we still need to that? We are key workers and haven’t stopped working can they not see that? (Portuguese national, Norfolk)
Many others simply do not have valid ID (e.g. a passport) to make an application for EUSS. Due to the closure of embassies and consulates, those who need first to apply for ID before they can make their EUSS application have to wait in limbo for now.
I only have my ID card, and can’t afford to apply for a passport, plus my embassy is closed. Will I still have time to do it? And when? I don’t really understand what I am supposed to do. (Portuguese national, Norfolk)
Many agencies are already planning for a steep increase in requests for help when the lockdown is lifted and ‘normal service’ is resumed.
We predict that once lock down measures are eased and services return to a certain degree of normality, we will be inundated with requests for help. (Advice worker, Great Yarmouth)
While we are still in lockdown, embassies and consulates are shut, and in-person support is suspended, some vulnerable people wait in limbo to secure their right to continued legal stay in the UK after June 2021. Many others still simply don’t know they need to apply.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently ruled out again any suggestion of an extension to the application deadline due to the impact of Covid-19, meaning that those who do not apply in time will become undocumented in the UK and face the full force of UK immigration law.