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UK-based Turkish business owners take government to court over settlement policy changes

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UK-based Turkish business owners take government to court over settlement policy changes
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Turkish businesspeople in Britain are taking the Home Office to court for retrospectively amending settlement rules to include a €2,570 fee, among other stricter requirements.

"I feel like a rug has been pulled from under my feet, I didn't know what was happening," Esra Candan Saginc, a Turkish interior architect who set up her company in London in 2017, told Euronews.

Esra Candan Saginc

Up until March 2018, a Turkish national could settle in the UK to set up a business if they could prove they had the sufficient funds to do so as per the Ankara Agreement signed with the European Union in 1963.

Also known as the Turkish European Communities Association Agreement (ECAA), it was set up to boost trade and economic relations between the two parties and pave the way for Ankara's accession to the bloc.

After a year, Turkish citizens self-employed in the UK could apply for further leave to remain — usually for three years — and then apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) for free.

The agreement also allowed them to bring dependants to the UK, including spouses, civil partners and children under the age of 21.

The changes

But a British court noted in 2017 that the country's settlement rules had over the past few decades "become increasingly strict and enacting" and that "the accession of Turkey to the European Economic Community [now the EU] has not materialised within the timescale originally envisaged or at all".

It ruled that "it would be incongruous if the Ankara Agreement and its Additional Protocol were to confer on Turkish nationals and their family members rights superior to those available to EU nationals and their family members".

Cansu Akbulut

Following the ruling, the Home Office stopped accepting applications for ILR under the ECAA — catching thousands of Turkish business owners established in the UK off guard. It then extended the minimum residency requirement by one year to five years — in line with the policy for EU nationals.

"We had been sent an official letter by the Home Office stating that we were eligible to apply for ILR after four years, but then we were told that it wasn't valid anymore," Cansu Akbulut, who set up her own tourism business after finishing her studies in the UK in 2013, told Euronews.

"What I can't understand and I deem it unjust and unfair is that this has been applied to people who were already on the four-year route," she added.

Having lost her right to apply under the previous system by just two days, she had to postpone and even cancel some of her professional and personal investment plans as it is more difficult to be approved for loans without a long-term residency status such as ILR.

Ahmet Behcet, who has been running an entertainment business in the UK since 2016, also expressed his frustration: "Many people, including us, decided to settle in a new country and to start a new life after evaluating the situation and the risks involved based on the rules which existed before the changes came into effect."

"Despite paying my taxes like a citizen, I have been deprived of enjoying the advantages of settlement for a year," he continued.

Ahmet Behcet and his family.

The changes introduced also include a language and culture test known as "Life in the UK" and an IRL application fee of £2,389 (€2,570) per person.

"I have many friends who were about the apply for ILR but had to wait for an extra year because of the change of rules. Now they are eligible to apply but they can't raise the fees," Esra Candan Saginc deplored.

"They risk losing their rights completely with every day that passes without the application not being made. We feel vulnerable and insecure. What if the Home Office changes the rules again?"

Legal challenge

To challenge the policy change in the courts, those affected founded The Alliance of Turkish Businesspeople Limited (AOTB).

They kicked off their legal battle against the Home Office in March 2019, arguing that the changes had brought real hardship on them and their dependents and that they amounted to an abuse of power.

The Home Office defended itself by saying that the changes were limited and proportionate.

The High Court ruled in the authorities' favour in June 2019 and dismissed the judicial review claim.

But a cross-party group of more than 20 politicians including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former Liberal Democrats' leader Vince Cable and Green MP Caroline Lucas have called on the Home Office to reverse the changes.

"If the UK is to remain open to the world, we must continue to be a country where those who embody the values of entrepreneurship can succeed, not one that arbitrarily shifts the goalposts," they said.

For Leni Candan, founder of the AOTB, the country's exit from the European Union is both to blame and a source of opportunity.

"In my opinion, Brexit has given the government an excuse to get rid of the Ankara Agreement. Without the prospect of Brexit, I do not believe that any of this would have happened," she said.

The alliance is now awaiting the right to appeal in order to once again challenge the changes in courts.