EU families & Eurochildren in Brexiting Britain

“It took 2 hours and one third didn’t get through”: Piloting the settled status application with Roma migrants

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By Marie Godin and Mihai Calin Bica*

Since the Brexit referendum that took place on 23 June 2016, the Roma Support Group[1], a community organisation working with Roma people in the UK, has been active in informing community members about their rights. In addition, the organisation has been involved in campaigning towards local, regional and national policy makers in order to raise awareness about the specific vulnerabilities of the Roma population and their future migration status. In that respect, it coordinated a special joint roundtable of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Migration and All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, which was held in July 2018[2] so Roma’s people concerns could be heard. Following that encounter, the Home Office invited the Roma Support Group to take part in monthly vulnerable user group meetings[3]  in relation to the EU Exit Settlement Scheme[4].. As part of this consultation process, the Roma Support Group became one of the organisations to take part in the Home Office’s beta testing for its settled status application in December 2018. The results are far from reassuring. The lessons learned do not only apply to people from the Roma community but to other vulnerable EU citizens who may face similar issues in the application process. The stakes are high, without adequate support, many EU citizens may end up in a position of legal limbo as demonstrated by this pilot ran with some members of the Roma community.

It was definitively not “as easy as shopping at LK Bennett”

The initial plan, agreed with the Home Office was to do 20 applications but based on the high demand the organisation received from members of the community they finally supported 69 of them. As one of the caseworker explained, ‘it was definitely not “as easy as shopping at LK Bennett” referring to Amber Rudd (then Home secretary)’s comments at a business dinner comparing shopping online and the EU registration. Some cases were de facto excluded from the start, as they had little chance to succeed based on the pre-requirements of the EU settlement scheme among which having a valid e-mail address and passport – this by itself raises some issues. Only people whom the organisation believed had potentially more chances to get settled or pre-settled status were selected. In total, about a third (36%) of the applications met technical difficulties or required submission of further evidence. As already highlighted by many, the lack of IT and language skills constituted a huge barrier (see for instance the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory Report, April 12 2018[5]). In total, only 2 people (less than 3%) could submit an application without the assistance of a caseworker. Despite providing users with some guidance about the documents they should bring over to prove their continuous residence in the UK for the last 5 years, many were unable to identify which piece of paper was the most relevant one being limited to only 10 documents to upload by the application. As a result, people came with piles of papers including council tax bills, GPs appointments, bank account statements,… with no idea about which one to choose. The overall process was therefore extremely time consuming with two hours on average spent per application while some taking up to 4 hours and over several sessions. For Nando Sigona, UK in a Changing Europe research leader and director of Eurochildren:

‘This demonstrates that the Home Office’s self-assessment on how long it should take to complete the application – 25 to 30 minutes[6] – may not have taken into account adequately the situation of vulnerable applicants’.

In many cases, the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) records stated wrongly that people were entitled to pre-settled status instead of settled status or worse provided no record at all on the individual applicant. Applications from people who had relied more on social benefits in the recent yearswere also perceived as more problematic comparing to those with an HMRC record. The HMRC and DWP checks as well as the security questions generated a lot of anxiety among applicants, even more when the information they received did not correspond to what they believed was on the record.

The online application is far from straightforward, with lots of back and forth between the Home Office, the organisation and the applicant.

“We are here to make sure things are done right”

The effort towards the most marginalised and disadvantaged members by the Home Office is welcomed by the community sector such as the Roma Support Group who is preparing itself to help out as many people as possible once the settled status scheme is officially launched at the end of March 2019. Roma people face multi-layered barriers in access for applying to settled status, as they are more likely to be digitally illiterate or excluded, to have language barriers or to have a precarious employment history, which makes more difficult for them to prove continuous residence in the UK. But what the pilot process reveals is that many people who would not necessarily fall into the categories of ‘vulnerable group’ as thought by the Home Office seem to also be in need of getting assistance in order to obtain their pre/settled status. The distrust in public institutions is widespread within the Roma community often rooted in experiences of discrimination and racism in both their country of origin and host country. As a result, they are fearful about their application and feel the need for assistance to make sure they have done it right.  Indeed, the result of this process will secure their right to stay in the UK, which if they fail would have devastating consequences for their future and members of their family. This will prevent many people from taking the risk to apply on their own. As a result, many applicants who took part in the pilot felt reassured having someone next to them with direct connection to the Home Office in case something would go wrong acting as warranty of the all process.

The EU settlement scheme: a chronicle of exclusion in the making 

According to some of the applicants we assisted who had successfully completed the application, gaining the settled status doesn’t alleviate their anxiety. The ongoing hostile environment has led people to disbelief what the Home Office can provide in terms of documents. Far to be an institution that would guarantee their future rights, it is perceived as an institution that is continuously disenfranchising citizens’ rights.

Overall, despite acknowledgment that the EU settlement scheme is easier to get than the Permanent Residence status for EU citizens, if the Home Office wants to  make it available, fair and straightforward for more than 3 million EU citizens in a two-years’ time-frame, more support needs to be made available to community and local organisations.  This support needs to be more important than the recent pledge made by the Home Office announcing a grant of £9 million to be allocated to organisations which support on a daily basis “vulnerable EU citizens” to both inform and support them to complete their applications to protect their status as the UK exits the EU[7]. Organisation like the Roma Support Group already knows that the task is impossible and therefore taking part in this EU settlement scheme is more a mitigation exercise trying to have less people excluded as possible. Lastly, the fear of being rejected and the lack of confidence in submitting an application to the Home Office, is not limited to the Roma population or even to any specific vulnerable groups identified by the Home Office. The increasing awareness among EU citizens of the current hostile environment affecting them in more visible ways since the Brexit referendum will affect their confidence in the process indicating that more support will be needed to avoid producing irregular EU citizens at a massive scale in the near future. 


[1] www.romasupportgroup.org.uk

[2] Roma and Brexit Report on a Joint All Party Parliamentary Group roundtable event July 2018 Cholmondeley Room House of Lords (Available at: https://www.gypsy-traveller.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/APPG-Brexit-and-Roma-Report-1.pdf)

[3] The Home Office has established monthly user groups, consisting of representatives of EU citizens in the UK, community groups, employer representatives and organisations representing vulnerable users, to help us factor stakeholder views into the design and operation of the new scheme (see: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/1075/107502.htm)

[4] Information on settled and pre-settled status: https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families/applying-for-settled-status

[5] Unsettled Status? Which EU Citizens are at Risk of Failing to Secure their Rights after Brexit? Oxford Migration Observatory. 12 April 2018 (Available at : https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/reports/unsettled-status-which-eu-citizens-are-at-risk-of-failing-to-secure-their-rights-after-brexit/)

[6]https://apply-for-eu-settled-status.homeoffice.gov.uk/start/eu-settlement.

[7] Information available on the following website: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-fund-to-support-vulnerable-eu-citizens-apply-for-settled-status

 

*Dr Marie Godin (m.godin@bham.ac.uk) is Eurochildren research fellow  and Mihai Calin Bica is Campaigning and Advocacy Project Worker at the Roma Support Group (Mihai@romasupportgroup.org.uk)

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