The EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) has been fraught with difficulty since its inception. Now, it is tangled with a backlog of applications and delays reaching up to a year, not to mention fears that thousands still may not have applied despite the deadline coming to a close on 30 June.
Indeed, an estimated chunk of the EU population in Britain remains vulnerable to slipping through the net and being swept up by the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ measures in years to come.
It is estimated that most of these applicants will have failed to apply through no fault of their own: the elderly, very long-term residents, children of EU citizens, children in care, the homeless and victims of abuse, trafficking or modern slavery are at high risk of missing the deadline.
Although the Home Office refutes such claims, according to the Law Society lawyers are noticing an uptick in clients who have no idea that they need to register at all. Another report found just 2% of all EU applicants were over the age of 65 – a figure which barely scratches the surface to the estimated percent of older EEA citizens in the UK.
In addition, just under half of applicants (43%) have been granted pre-settled status, meaning they have to wait even longer (until they have accumulated five years’ continuous residence) before switching onto Settled Status. After 12 months of Settled Status, holders can then apply for British Citizenship and live freely from all immigration restrictions.
But without Pre or Settled Status, people may well lose their rights soon – including employment, tenancies, welfare support, bank accounts and access to the NHS. In fact, those who are not in the process of applying or who have not applied at all will be considered ‘undocumented’ in the eyes of the Home Office as of 1 July 2021. Although late applications are still being considered, applicants must prove that they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to justify the late submission.
However, the Home Office appears to be taking little notice of its own rules as it emerges EU citizens still in the midst of applying for status are being detained and threatened with deportation. The legal charity, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), has criticised the Government for breaching the spirit of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and, more specifically, “administrative or wilful neglect”.
It is assumed those most likely to make the Home Office’s new removal list are those who sent paper applications – people who are usually society’s most vulnerable, like those without internet access, the elderly or people in prison.
Exacerbating matters is the fear that many of these overnight ‘undocumented’ migrants may feel consigned to the shadows of the UK. The sudden prohibition on their right to work, rent and welfare support presents a ‘cliff edge’ to individuals, some of whom may already be victims of trafficking or slavery. Yet when desperate, destitute and fearful of deportation, these already marginalised individuals could easily fall into the hands of criminals who will only exploit their precarious situation.
It is imperative that the Home Office permits a longer grace period for applicants who could be vulnerable to falling through the system. Without doing so, the Government is only letting the issue snowball into yet another Windrush fiasco – and potentially a modern slavery crisis, too.