European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom have just hours left to apply for post-Brexit settled status or face losing their rights.
The UK’s so-called settlement scheme for EU and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens, which opened in early 2019, closes at midnight on Wednesday.
From Thursday, EU citizens who have not applied could end up formally losing their legal right to work, rent housing and access some hospital treatments or welfare benefits in the UK.
They might even be subject to deportation.
Those granted settled status, by comparison, will enjoy indefinite leave to remain in the UK and retain the same residence, travel, employment and healthcare rights they had before Brexit, which ended reciprocal freedom of movement between the UK and the EU.
Campaigners are worried that up to thousands of EU citizens may not apply in time and risk losing their access to public services.
In particular, there are concerns that some older people who have lived in the UK for decades are not aware they have to apply.
NGOs also say many migrant parents do not realise they must submit applications for their children, as well as themselves.
Vulnerable people meanwhile, such as those in social care or homeless EU migrants, also risk falling through the cracks and ending up with no legal status.
Fears of another Windrush scandal
These fears evoke memories of the recent Windrush scandal, which saw people from the Caribbean and their descendants, who legally settled in the UK decades ago, wrongly caught up in tough government rules to crack down on undocumented immigration.
Some members of the Windrush generation – named after the ship that carried the first post-war migrants from the West Indies – were deported because they could not produce paperwork proving their residency rights.
Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, warned that many Europeans, especially young people whose parents failed to apply for settled status on their behalf, “won’t necessarily realise they have lost their status right away”.
“For some, it will only become clear later on – for example, when they get a new job or need to be treated in hospital,” she told The Associated Press. “It may be many more years before the legal, political, economic and social consequences start to emerge.”
Elena Remigi, an Italian translator who founded In Limbo, a project to record the voices of EU nationals in the UK since the 2016 referendum, said there was already a widespread feeling of betrayal among European migrants over Brexit.
“It is really sad that people who were living here before are now made to feel unwelcome and have to leave,” she told the AP. “That’s really hard for some people to forgive.”
Millions of applications
More than 5.6 million applications for settled status have been made, 5.2 million of which have already been finalised, according to the Home Office.
Of those applicants, more than 2.7 million people were granted settled status, while 2.2 million were given pre-settled status, meaning they have to apply again after living in the country for five years – the minimum period required to be considered for settled status.
About 94,000 applications – two percent – were refused, while 72,100 were withdrawn or declared void.
Nearly 75,000 were invalid, meaning the Home Office decided they had not been eligible to apply or had failed to provide sufficient proof to support their submission.
About 400,000 cases are still outstanding and require processing.
The government has said it will issue a “certificate of application” for those awaiting a decision, which will act as proof they can retain their rights.
Officials said those who miss Wednesday’s deadline will not see their rights immediately withdrawn, as they are protected by law.
They will instead be given an “indefinite” period of time to complete an application for settled status, provided they have reasonable grounds for being late.
Among those disturbed by the UK’s exit from the bloc was Marlies Haselton, a 55-year-old Dutch national who has called the UK home for more than 30 years.
She said she now felt insecure despite being granted settled status.
“I’m concerned about the future. I just don’t have a safe feeling about growing old here as a foreigner. The sense of home I used to have is gone,” Haselton told the AP.
Haselton said she and her British husband have considered moving to the Netherlands with their three children because of Brexit.
“I still love this country, it would break my heart if I had to move,” she said. “At the same time I’m not sure I want to stay. When it comes to a sense of feeling that you belong, that isn’t something that you can do with a piece of paper.”