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Experts highlight flaws in settled status scheme for vulnerable EU citizens


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Migration policy experts have warned that the system of registering EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit risks excluding the most vulnerable, who will end up as unlawfully resident if they fail to register or are turned down.

A briefing from the influential Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, published today, says that the question of what happens if significant numbers of people fail to apply for “settled status” is still unresolved.

While there is no exact precedent for registering some 3.6 million people, other government schemes involving mandatory applications in order to secure a benefit show that getting everyone eligible signed up in time is unlikely. Research into the take-up of benefits and paying taxes “makes it clear that 100% coverage of the eligible EU citizen population within a period of a couple of years is not likely”. Similarly, “in the United States, an estimated 34% of unauthorised migrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals regularisation programme had not applied 3.5 years after the programme began”.

The Unsettled Status? report identifies various scenarios in which people do not apply for “settled status” by the June 2021 deadline:

  • People who do not realise that they can and need to apply;
  • People who are vulnerable for some reason, such as victims of abuse or exploitation;
  • People with other barriers to accessing or understanding the system itself; and
  • People who cannot provide evidence that they have been living in the UK.

Groups at risk of falling through the cracks for one or multiple of these reasons include:

  • Children (an estimated 727,000 EU citizen children live in the UK)
  • Very long-term residents (92,000 EU citizens have lived in the UK for at least 40 years)
  • People with permanent residence documents unaware that these will be a dead letter (402,000 were handed out between 2004 and 2017)
  • Women in abusive or controlling relationships (3.3% of EU nationals aged 16 to 59 reported being the victim of domestic violence last year)
  • Victims of exploitation or trafficking (746 EU cases officially recorded between November 2015 and June 2017, likely to be the tip of the iceberg)
  • People with mental health problems (45,000 EU citizens reported having mental health, depression and/or a related condition last year)
  • People with physical health problems (61,000 have a physical health problem that limits their daily activity a lot)
  • People with poor English or low literacy (250,000 reported job-related language difficulties in 2015; 102,000 left school before 16)
  • Elderly people (56,000 are aged 75 or over)
  • Non-internet users (64,000 have never used the internet)
  • Carers (150,000 do not work in order to look after family members)

All these figures are for 2017 unless otherwise stated and exclude Irish citizens, who are to be exempt. As with most data, they come with caveats.

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The researchers say that while “the large majority of EU citizens should not have difficulty making an application”, some people will face a combination of the factors listed above and find themselves in “greater difficulties”.

The Home Office says that it is “well aware” of all this and is “planning a range of support for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children and families, victims of domestic violence and those with English as a second language”. The department is also consulting an additional “user group” on how vulnerable groups can be supported with the application process, according to a press release issued this morning.

Today’s report concludes that the kind of evidence required to prove residence in the UK (and so acquire settled status) will be crucial. The more formal the documents required, the more people will have problems getting them.

It also highlights the need for clarity on the situation for people who don’t sign up:

perhaps one of the most important unresolved policy questions affecting the completeness of the settled status process is what contingency plans will be in place for people who do not apply by the deadline.

The Home Office has reiterated that it “will exercise discretion if there are good reasons why someone has not been able to make an application before the June 2021 deadline”.

The report draws on Free Movement analysis by Nath Gbikpi and Chris Desira, as well as research by editor Colin Yeo. The concern for particular, vulnerable groups is also a theme of Charlotte O’Brien’s work on the issue, summarised in this blog post.


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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.