Deal or no deal Brexit, the UK government launched its ‘settled status’ scheme for EU, EEA and Swiss nationals in March 2019.
By some measures, the programme has been a tremendous success. By mid-October, just under 2 million people had made applications under the EU Settled Status (EUSS) scheme.
The number is increasing: every organisation we worked with has reported a spike in demand from August onwards.
As part of our ESRC/UKCE grant, we have been looking at how migrants and their (third sector) advisors have experienced the EUSS scheme.
For those who know about the scheme, have accepted ID, documented history, the correct smartphone, and IT and language skills, the process of applying for settled status has been relatively pain-free, and has taken as little as 15 minutes to complete.
As one advisor in Birmingham said ‘We’ve had very few bad experiences so far. Usually we can get people through [eventually] to the right decision. I say easy in comparison to other Home Office applications which are so difficult in comparison- it’s relative.’
Others were less sure: ‘People actually need quite a bit of support. We get them there in the end, but it is time consuming. Certainly, takes more time than advertised.’ (Community Advisor, Birmingham).
But our research shows that in relation to all the migrant support services we have worked with, a significant portion of the migrant community is still unaware of the need to apply for settled status or even what settled status is/means.
Levels of awareness
One organisation in Wisbech reported that clients think that Brexit has already happened and nothing has changed, or that holding permanent resident status negates any need to apply for EUSS.
Others reported that their clients were waiting for Brexit to happen as there was ‘no point’ in doing anything before then.
Speaking to agricultural workers in Cornwall, living six to a caravan (see picture), we discovered that awareness of settled status was mixed: some were totally unaware of EUSS.
This will cause problems for them in the future.
On 10 October 2019 Brandon Lewis MP, Minister of State for the Home Office, confirmed that those who do not have settled status after the deadline could be subject to deportation.
So, the consequences of this lack of awareness are serious. As one Community advisor put it, ‘The reality is people are working and they don’t know about it or what they need to do’.
Others in Cornwall struggled with navigating the practicalities of applying for EUSS and receiving support was challenging – needing the correct paperwork, printing bank statements (especially when they are in fact being asked for six years of statements, not just five), decent Wi-Fi connection, time, IT and language skills.
A community advisor said, ‘We are talking about isolated communities- people are very isolated at times. They are here to work, and they work hard but they are isolated out in fields and in caravans in rural areas.’
We have had reports of ‘advice sharks’ working to exploit people anxious and worried about their status. For example, some such advisors charge migrants to submit their EUSS applications.
Those same advisors then withheld online access from their clients, so applicants have to pay again if they need to update their contact details, as is required by the scheme.
Advice services report that a number of their clients are refusing to complete a settled status application as they have serious concerns about what happens to their data and that the ‘home office would then control them’ (Polish national, Bedford).
Another reported that settled status ‘felt like a head count exercise’ (Latvian national, Great Yarmouth).
It is worth remembering that this is a group of people who have not had any previous interaction with the Home Office while legally resident in the UK- some for decades.
This issue has recently been before the courts when campaigners brought a challenge over a new exemption clause in the Data Protection Act, preventing EU citizens living in Britain from finding out what data the Home Office holds on them.
But in a ruling on Thursday 3 October the High Court concluded the exemption was not unlawful.
There is a more general level of concern over the consequences of making a mistake.
Advice services report that they see people who have practically completed the application but have not pressed ‘submit’.
These are people with the necessary evidence, the android app, English competency and IT skills.
Yet they still want that reassurance from a professional to press the button, especially as there is no tangible/physical evidence of status. As an Advisor in Ipswich put it: ‘People are so scared they will do something wrong’.
Providing proof of settled status
In a number of our focus groups, EU nationals reported that they are already being asked to show their employer proof of their settled status.
This can cause huge anxiety- one person in Kings Lynn was asked by their manager to come back the following week with proof of status (the final deadline for EUSS is not until December 2020).
However, the individual had been put on a waiting list for an appointment with an advice service and it was causing him high levels of anxiety.
When asked whether he knew that he did not need to provide proof of settled status until December 2020, he replied: ‘Yes I know that, but in reality what choice do I have when I am asked, if I want to continue working there.’ (Lithuanian National, King Lynn).
These interim findings from our early research work with migrant workers and advice agencies about the EUSS, highlight current community concerns and the considerable future challenges.
While numbers of EU migrants might be small in a national context (although we do not, in fact, know the true numbers), they are significant within towns, such as Yarmouth, and rural areas.
They are significant to local employers and they will be significant to local authorities if more vulnerable community members lose their UK residence status overnight.
By Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, Fiona Costello and Sarah Fraser Butlin, Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge.