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Brexit uncertainty leaves EU citizens considering their UK futures

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The EU flag hangs from Europa House in London, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.
The EU flag hangs from Europa House in London, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photos
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Nicoletta Peddis is a 34-year-old Italian national who came to the UK 12 years ago, after deciding to build her life in Britain.

Yet, like many fellow EU27 citizens dejected by a growingly uncertain situation since Brexit came into play, she is now reconsidering her future in the country altogether.

“I think it’s just the start and from next year things are going to get even more challenging,” she said.

“The worst part of it all for me is the constant worry and the feeling of not belonging here anymore… I’ve been thinking more and more often that it’s time to leave.”

Back in June 2016, the Vote Leave campaign stated there would be “no change for EU citizens lawfully resident in the UK” and that they would “be treated no less favourably” than they had been at the time.

Such a statement would be echoed by Boris Johnson soon after becoming prime minister in July 2019, as he declared that he wanted to “unequivocally” reiterate his “guarantee to the 3.2 million EU nationals now living and working among us”.

However, for European nationals like Peddis, such promises offered little comfort. Not least because of Johnson’s own voting record on EU citizens’ rights.

Campaign groups and politicians had long been pressuring Conservative governments following the referendum to do more to protect European residents in the country.

Citizens' rights were enshrined in the binding UK-EU divorce agreement which set the terms of the UK's departure from the bloc last January. Under the deal – which has the force of an international treaty – EU nationals in the UK and Britons in the EU, plus family members, retain residency and social security rights after Brexit.

Freedom to move and live within the EU and UK continues during the transition period which expires on December 31, 2020. People already resident will be allowed to stay when it ends and apply for permanent residence after five years.

But more than eight months after the UK left the EU, existing concerns among European nationals in Britain increasingly appear to be turning into an ominous reality. With an eyebrow-raising number of Settled Status refusals, little transparency from the Home Office, confusion over legal rights, and a lack of solid guarantees, EU citizens living in the UK are facing an uncertain future.

Windrush 2.0?

The UK's EU Settlement Status Scheme (EUSS) was established as a way to ensure that EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens, alongside their families, would have the legal right to continue residing in the UK from 30 June 2021 onwards. Failing to comply before the deadline would result in an individual losing such rights.

Since its inception, it has attracted a long list of criticisms from numerous European nationals and activists, who lambasted the (eventually scrapped) £65 registration fee for over-16s, technical glitches and the fact that they were being made to apply for their right to stay, as opposed to merely having to register.

Up until the start of this year, however, the scheme had recorded no refusals other than those on the grounds of “suitability” (crime-related issues). However, since January, the first refusal for “eligibility” (not meeting the criteria of the scheme) was recorded.

The number of overall refusals has jumped from around 640 in March to 10,900 by the end of August.

According to the Home Office, most refusals are now “eligibility” based, even though it does not currently publish a full breakdown.

In response to the issue of refusals, a spokesperson from the Home Office maintained that they “are always a last resort” and pointed to an official factsheet from 2 July, which stated how individuals have the right to appeal. Moreover, the latest update reports there to have been 3.7 million “concluded applications", that is Settled Status or Pre Settled Status.

However, such a response does not alleviate concerns among EU citizens’ rights activists, who point to how the Home Office double counts applications and the lack of transparency on the causes for refusals.

Dr Kuba Jabłonowski, a lecturer at the University of Exeter and research associate at The3Million advocacy group, said the rise in refusals after the 31 January Brexit date appeared “political”, and that the situation was a cause for significant concern.

“We’re seeing a high proportion of refusals coming from family members and derivative right holders, many of whom are vulnerable and domestic violence victims,” he said.

It's not just refusals. There is also a significant percentage of applicants being granted Pre-Settled Status – a temporary document, intended for those without five years of continuous residence, which grants fewer protections.

While a Migration Observer study claimed that only 31% of EU citizens living in the UK had been there for fewer than five years, 41% of EUSS applicants were granted Pre-Settled Status – potentially signifying that some individuals are incorrectly accepting an inferior status, thus ending up in a more vulnerable position.

Val Gayes, a 44-year-old French woman living in West Sussex, found herself in this situation. Despite being entitled to Settled Status, she was incorrectly assigned Pre-Settled Status last year.

“I moved to the UK in 1996 and my tax records alone show I have been paying tax for the past 24 years," she said. "I considered filing an appeal, but that would have cost £80 (€88), so I decided against it. I eventually plucked up the courage to reapply in February 2020, and this time I received Settled Status.”

While Gayes may have found the motivation to appeal against the decision, the numbers of those who may instead have resigned themselves to an erroneous pre-Settled Status fate remains a mystery. All such possible cracks in the EUSS have ultimately prompted fears of a second Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Commonwealth citizens were unlawfully detained and deported.

Jabłonowski, while noting differences between EU citizens’ predicament and the “dynamic of race and colonialism” found in the Windrush scandal, observed that the two did have a lot in common.

“In policy terms, at least, the two situations are definitely comparable," he said. "Certain people could truly risk losing their rights overnight.”

Bureaucratic hassles

Beyond the issue of refusals, however, EU citizens and their families say they have been finding themselves facing various bureaucratic challenges which appear to have been intensifying this year, especially due to additional obstacles created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Indeed, a July 2020 report on Universal Credit by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reported how thousands have found themselves without government support throughout the pandemic. Marley Morris, IPPR’s associate director for immigration, claimed that EU nationals “are at the sharp end of this crisis – with many working in vulnerable sectors... and at serious risk of redundancy.”

One EU national, a former hospitality worker who lost his job and was rejected for universal credit, told Euronews: “I literally don’t know how I’m going to manage to pay the rent at the end of the month."

One Danish national told Euronews she was asked to prove she had the right to free treatment from her local NHS trust after being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. While she was able to prove her eligibility, she found that the process left her “destroyed”.

“Not only [did I find] out that I was battling cancer,” she wrote. “But now also the bureaucracy.”

And troubles for EU nationals now extend even beyond Britain’s shores.

Natasha, a British writer, reported that she and her Danish husband, Lars, were held up at Lamezia Terme Airport in Calabria, Italy, because he was erroneously told he needed a visa to return to London Stansted, from an employee who had never even heard of EUSS. While all was resolved after a short while, the wait visibly upset the couple’s children and left Natasha concerned for the future.

“The fact is we’re still in the transition period… the kind of misinformation, the kind of ignorance that is out there, not just in this country, but also in other EU countries, means that it’s going to be absolute chaos when it comes to next year,” she said.

An area where this lack of public awareness becomes a particularly pressing issue is in the lack of physical status provided by EUSS, which has emerged as a particular concern among EU citizens. 90% of EU nationals surveyed last December in a study by Dr Tanja Bueltmann of Northumbria University were dissatisfied with having digital-only proof and feared various forms of discrimination and obstacles – especially when trying to buy or rent a property.

Rent-related concerns turned into a reality for individuals like Peddis, who was subjected to bureaucratic hassles when dealing with a letting agent this February.

“When it came to providing all the information, it seemed they had no idea what settled status was and how it worked. We explained and they were very confused by the fact it was a digital-only status. The lady who was dealing with our application came back to us asking for a letter from the Home Office. In the end, it took a week for them to manage to check Settled Status through the email link.”

Elly Wright, a 78-year-old Dutch painter living in Surrey, was eligible to apply under the Windrush scheme. But Wright said she struggled to get her married name acknowledged and ended up with a set of unexpected changes to her digital status name and photo. All of this resulted in her “trust in the Home Office being shattered” and finally seeking paper proof.

Nevertheless, the Windrush scheme is only available for EU nationals who came to the country before 1989 – leaving countless others without the physical document they crave.

'Brightest and best have a plan B'

Elena Remigi, a 52-year-old Italian living in Berkshire and founder of the not-for-profit ‘In Limbo’ project, which collects testimonies from EU nationals, reported how she is in touch with many Europeans who are finding the present situation too difficult to bear.

“People in our group feel increasingly discouraged. In three and a half years of listening to countless stories, I have never come across so many academics, scientists, doctors and people of working age thinking of leaving.”

For many, the thought of undergoing an impending crisis potentially akin to Windrush in both scale and severity has proven mentally, and even physically, exhausting, and their mind is now set on returning to the continent.

“I am absolutely only staying here to complete treatment,” writes the Danish national suffered from cancer who was asked to prove she had the right to free NHS treatment. “Even if it means living in a cardboard box, I would feel safer and happier in any EU country.”

“Even the brightest and the best now have a plan B,” Remigi wistfully concludes. “They don’t like to live in a place where they’re made to feel unwelcome.”