Luton and London, United Kingdom – At the Luton Roma Trust, members of the English town’s Roma community seek help with doctors’ letters, rental agreements and other minor bureaucratic issues.
A small map of the European Union hangs on a wall at the charity’s office.
While day-to-day struggles continue to interrupt their lives, Brexit and the new immigration system it ushers in is beginning to cast a larger shadow over Britain’s Roma minority.
“So far we haven’t talked to anyone but we are concerned,” said Manix, who arrived from Romania in 2015 with his wife Valuca and their children.
“He wants to go to school so much,” said Valuca of her four-year-old son. “He speaks English already. We don’t really know what exactly will happen.”
The accession of several Eastern European states to the EU in the 2000s saw growing numbers of the persecuted and impoverished Roma minority leave countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia to begin new lives in the UK.
The British government has guaranteed that EU citizens currently resident in the UK will be allowed to remain once it departs the union, but legal experts and charities are concerned that the Roma could slip through the cracks and lose their right to stay.
If any EU citizen, including Roma, misses the deadline for getting the new immigration status, he or she will become illegally resident and will fall victim to the 'hostile environment' Theresa May announced in 2012 as home secretary.
The estimated 300,000 Roma in the UK comprises one of the country’s most marginalised and vulnerable groups, facing widespread discrimination and poverty rates far above average.
Many lack the English language skills and documentation required to complete the new application process, which must be submitted through an Android mobile app. Some are not even aware that they are required to apply before June 30, 2021 – or December 31, 2020 in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“I am quite uncertain right now and fear whether we will be able to stay here or we will have to leave,” said George, who moved to the UK from Romania in 2017 with his wife and three children.
Between 10 and 12 million Roma are estimated to live in Europe, with most in eastern parts of the continent.
With ancestral roots in India, the Roma migrated to Eastern Europe in the 10th century and have been persecuted throughout history.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia, many travelled West, seeking to escape poverty and discrimination.
There are at least 700,000 Roma in Romania, where they live on the margins of society and are often discriminated against. Adults are underrepresented in professional careers while children often miss out on schooling.
George now works 12-hour night shifts at a bread factory in Luton. “That’s stressful for me and my family,” he said.
Speaking through a translator, he explained that he would be unable to complete the residency application process by himself and needs assistance to know which documentation to prepare.
Moving to the UK has led to better-paid work and educational opportunities unavailable to his children at home. Returning, he said, is unthinkable.
‘Many people do not know about the scheme’
Under the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system, EU citizens must register for settled status through a phone app created by the Home Office, which requires applicants to submit and verify identity documents.
Roma Support Group, a London-based charity, recently ran sessions to help Roma people register.
Of the 69 who took part, all but four were able to complete the process. But only seven could submit their application without assistance.
“The main problem is that many people do not know about the scheme,” said Mihai Calin Bica, who works at the Roma Support Group. “Once they find out about it, because they are lacking IT skills or they don’t know to read or write English, then they will not have enough skills to do this on their own. And they will have to look for support which currently is not available at such a high level to cover the need.”
The group had to turn away 40 people because of high demand.
It is currently seeking Home Office funding to increase its efforts, but Bica worries for members of the Roma community in remote parts of the UK.
“There will be many people who will be in trouble if they don’t have support where they live,” he said.
The Windrush scandal, which rocked the government last year, offers a worrying glimpse into the future for those who do not register their settled status on time.
Journalists, charities and politicians uncovered evidence of the Home Office targeting Caribbean immigrants, who arrived in the UK before 1973 as British citizens but often lacked official documentation.
Victims lost homes, jobs, medical care, and over 60 of them were wrongfully deported to countries they had not seen in decades.
“If any EU citizen, including Roma, misses the deadline for getting the new immigration status, he or she will become illegally resident and will fall victim to the ‘hostile environment’ [Prime Minister] Theresa May announced in 2012 as home secretary,” immigration barrister Colin Yeo told Al Jazeera.
“Employment will be lost, bank accounts closed, landlords will be forced to evict and it will be a criminal offence to work or to drive, for example.”
Yeo believes Roma may, in fact, face an even more precarious state than the Windrush generation, who simply lacked documents to prove their British citizenship.
“Those EU citizens who miss the deadline will be illegal as well as without documents, which is a worse situation to be in,” he said.
It's highly important that the Home Office understands that people are working and not stealing. We need to be understood and allowed to stay here.
The devastating effect of years of austerity on the UK’s ailing justice system compounds these issues.
The government has cut over one billion pounds ($1.3bn) in legal aid funding since 2012, with growing numbers of defendants having neither a legal defence nor support in courtrooms across the country.
“There is no longer any legal aid available to fight immigration cases in the UK and when you have lost your job, your home and your bank account and it is illegal for you to work, you simply cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to help you,” said Yeo.
The EU currently contributes funding towards Roma integration in the UK. British authorities have been accused of failing to use all the money offered to them for these purposes, but there is no sign that Westminster will provide replacement funds after Brexit, which will leave Roma groups with even fewer resources to address the community’s needs.
“Our main concern is that after Brexit, the government’s replacement for European structural funds will no longer place an emphasis on Roma communities,” Marley Morris, Brexit researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research, told Al Jazeera. “This could mean that activities dedicated to supporting Roma will be less likely to receive funds.”
Back in Luton, as George prepared for another 12-hour shift at the bread factory, he called on the government for support.
“It’s highly important that the Home Office understands that people are working and not stealing,” he said. “We need to be understood and allowed to stay here.”