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Digital-only status for EU citizens “creates a real risk of harm”, experts warn


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Digital-only residence permits could make it harder for migrants to access vital services like jobs and housing, a new report warns.

Landlords and employers used to physical passports and residence permits may discriminate against migrants whose proof of immigration status only exists online, according to the Public Law Project.

Millions of EU citizens with settled and pre-settled status have been denied physical proof of their status and the Home Office is planning to go digital-only across the board.

The report calls for there to be a physical fall-back option if the digital system does lead to problems.

Digital residence permits require someone checking a migrant’s immigration status to log into a Home Office website using a code generated by the migrant. They can then view the person’s secure profile page, which should display their immigration status.

The system is already up and running for those with status under the EU Settlement Scheme. There were over 100,000 online status checks carried out on EU citizens between March and June 2020, mostly to assess eligibility for benefits. People used the system to view their own status another 400,000 times.

The government says that digital permits are better for several reasons, including convenience and security. But the researchers say they have “serious doubts” about all of the justifications put forward.

Dr Joe Tomlinson, who co-wrote the report with Alice Welsh, said:

The assumptions by Government appear to be that a ‘digital only’ process will be status easier to access, cheaper and more secure. Our analysis shows that some of these assumptions are at the very least questionable and lacking foundation in evidence, and that a digital-only system creates a real risk of harm.

The report says that “Far from being convenient for holders of digital status, digital-only status could lead to difficulty, and potentially even discrimination, when seeking to access homes, jobs, and services”. The authors point out that employers and landlords need to take nine separate steps to check someone’s status online, which could lead to them preferring candidates with a British passport or physical residence permit.

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The researchers also note that “digital status, like paper-based documentation, can still be lost or stolen in a variety of ways”, such as people traffickers or “advice sharks” keeping control of the email address and phone number used to apply for and access digital status.

Citizen-on-citizen status checks are a central element of the “hostile environment” set of policies designed to deny unauthorised migrants access to services. The Guardian’s head of investigations said today that, according to a Whitehall source, the government plans to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” once the Brexit transition period is over.

The report says that physical permits should be an option, for an extra fee if necessary. It also calls for close and comprehensive monitoring of the digital rollout and suggests a framework for how this could be done.

Earlier this month, experts at the Universities of York and Oxford launched an EU Rights and Brexit Hub to monitor EU citizens’ access to public services post-Brexit. The project will also give “second tier” legal advice to charities supporting EU migrants and their families.

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CJ McKinney

CJ McKinney is a specialist on immigration law and policy. Formerly the editor of Free Movement, you will find a lot of articles by CJ here on this website! Twitter: @mckinneytweets.