The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

13 Apr 2018


Relationship with the EU

The government has committed to ensuring that all EU citizens living in the UK will still have the right to do so after Brexit. How easy will this be in practice? The latest Migration Observatory report looks at this question in some detail.

Most of the 3.6 million EU citizens and their family members should have no trouble navigating the simplified process that the government has proposed. The current, pre-Brexit, application process for permanent residence has been much criticised for its complexity—with an 80-page application form and obscure requirements such as private health coverage for students, which many EU citizens didn’t realise they had to meet.

In response, the government is proposing something much simpler. The fiddly criteria that contributed to high rejections of EU permanent residence applications in the past are expected to be dropped, and people will simply need to have been resident in the UK to qualify.

The new process will be simple and easy and most applicants will be able to rely on information the government already holds about them – like tax records – rather than having to track down the paperwork themselves. EU citizens living in the UK are on average a highly educated population who should not have trouble getting this done.

So why would anyone have trouble navigating this new system? Or report identifies groups of people who could still be at risk of not securing ‘settled status’ despite the proposed simplified system.

This could be because they lack awareness of the process or the need to apply, are vulnerable for different reasons (such as abuse or exploitation), or cannot provide evidence of time spent in the UK. It is not possible to know exactly what share of EU citizens will fall into these categories but it is possible to analyse some of the characteristics associated with greater risk.

First, a potentially significant number of people may not be aware that they can and need to apply. This includes, for example, children—particularly those whose parents do not themselves apply, do not realise that children need to apply, or mistakenly believe that their UK-born children are automatically UK citizens.

There are over 700,000 EU national children currently living in the UK. In addition, people who have been in the UK for decades (e.g. the 146,000 people who arrived at least 30 years ago) may not realise that they too are affected.

Second, some people may believe they are ineligible or fear being rejected. This could include people previously rejected for permanent residence under the existing, more restrictive system, or people with minor criminal convictions or cautions.

Third, applications may be more difficult where people are already vulnerable or have reduced autonomy for some reason. For example, victims of domestic abuse, particularly if they rely on a partner for evidence, could struggle to complete the process. An estimated 50,000 EU citizen women reported experiencing some form of abuse (either once or repeatedly) in the year ending March 2017.

Other vulnerable groups include children in care and people with mental health problems. By their nature, such groups are difficult to quantify and the types and severity of the barriers they face will vary.

Fourth, some may need help completing an application, for example due to language barriers (in 2015 around 250,000 non-Irish EU nationals reported language difficulties in keeping or finding work); age and disability (EU citizens are a relatively young population but an estimated 56,000 were age 75 or above in 2017); or digital exclusion (in early 2017 an estimated 2% or 64,000 non-Irish EU citizens said that they had never used the internet).

Finally, some people could have difficulty demonstrating that they have been living in the UK. Most EU citizens won’t need to, as there will be tax or benefits records that the government already holds.

The government has also said that for people without those records, it will expand the types of documents that can be provided. But a small core of people may have left very little paper trail.

An estimated 3.4% of people age 18 and over in the UK do not have bank accounts, for example, suggesting that their lives are lived primarily in cash; if the share is the same for all citizenships, this would be equivalent to just over 90,000 non-Irish EU citizen adults.

Indeed, some people will not have basic identity documents proving who they are. At the time of the 2011 Census, 100,000 or 5% of EU-born residents of England and Wales reported not holding a passport (though we don’t know what share of these people will have a national ID card, which would also be accepted).

Simply having one of the characteristics identified in this report does not mean that a person will fail to secure settled status. People are likely to face greater difficulties if there is a combination of factors.

For example, barriers to access due to language, disability or lack of digital literacy will be most relevant for people with complex cases because they lack evidence, or for those who are isolated and cannot easily rely on friends and family for help.

What are the implications of all this? Arguably the biggest challenge if the government aims for comprehensive take-up of settled status is awareness about the need to apply. There are some large groups of people who would not normally be classified as ‘vulnerable’ but who may not realise that they need to apply, from children to very long-term residents.

There will also be people who simply forget or delay their application until after the deadline expires. If a significant number don’t apply, enforcing a strict deadline would increase the illegally resident EU-national population in the UK.

As a result, perhaps one of the most important unresolved policy questions is exactly what will happen for people who do not apply by the deadline.

By Madeleine Sumption, Director, Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. This piece was co published with The Conversation. You can read Madeleine’s full report on ‘Unsettled Status? Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit?’ here.


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