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An unsettling Christmas for our EU citizens

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Wiard Sterk examines the plight of EU citizens as they face the Brexit deadline

Initially published in the Western Mail

As we approach Christmas spare a thought for EU citizens living in Wales who will now be focussed on two crucial and fast approaching deadlines, regardless of the outcome of talks in Brussels and London.

If they want to continue to live, work or study here, they will have to be settled in this country by 11pm on 31 December 2020, when the EU Free Movement directive ends for the UK.  They also need to apply for a new immigration status no later than midnight on 30 June 2021. These dates were settled last January with the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Every member of their household who is not a UK citizen must apply, including children. Sounds simple but, as someone who works for ‘Settled’ – a charity that helps EU citizens in the UK to surmount these hurdles – I can tell you it is not.

Just imagine these scenarios, two of many possibilities. (Some details have been changed to protect identities.)

Your elderly Spanish parents arrived and settled in Wales in the late 1950s. They haven’t travelled abroad or renewed their passports for well over a decade. Documents related to their pre-1983 immigration status were lost when they downsized, they seemed irrelevant with the Free Movement directive in place.

First you presumed they did not need to apply, after all they have lived here for most of their lives. Then you discover that, as EU citizens, they risk losing their right to benefits, healthcare and residence if they don’t.

But they lack the required ID documents to even begin the application process and obtaining new passports is complex. They will be required to travel to an embassy in London, or to Spain even, but we are in the middle of a pandemic and, with staff working from home, embassies have backlogs of passport renewal applications to process.

Travel to Spain is out of the question altogether and with just over six months to go, time is running out. Many elderly Italians, Germans or Portuguese, for instance, are faced with this dilemma.

Or imagine this. You’re disabled and caring for an ageing parent. You’ve both lived in the UK for close to two decades and although you’re struggling, you have managed to create balance in your life thanks to a small support network of neighbours and charitable organisations.

Then someone tells you that both of you need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, or you risk losing your support and your home, and may have to leave the country. You panic – the digital application and verification process is very confusing for you.

Luckily, someone eventually puts you in touch with an organisation with accredited caseworkers, who help you make a successful application for you and your parent.

That’s when you discover that you are not even given physical proof of your new status. You receive an email telling you that whenever you need to provide proof, you just log into your account again, request a code and pass this to a landlord, a potential employer, a support provider, a benefit officer, a bank manager or anyone required to verify your status and entitlement to their services after 30 June 2021.

You go online and use the code to obtain confirmation of your status. However, the digital process prevented you making an application to begin with, so you will need to find support again. Now it’s suddenly really complex.

Even for those who can obtain a code easily, the other part of the verification process may fail. Lazy landlords or employers may not bother. Networks or websites can be down. Download speeds in rural areas can be very slow, presuming there’s broadband or a phone signal at all. Accidental or intended discrimination against EU citizens is a very real possibility.

This is the digital process that, when launched, was described by the then Home Secretary ‘as easy as setting up an online account at LK Bennett’. Criteria for application are relatively straightforward: proof of residence, of identity and nationality, and the declaration of any criminal convictions.

Any non-EU partners, spouses or direct and dependent relatives, who derive residence rights from their EU family member, can also apply, but will need to provide proof of their relationship and hold a family residence permit. So far, so simple?

Applicants are then either granted ‘pre-Settled Status’, which is valid for five years, or ‘Settled Status’, which in legal terms is the equivalent of Indefinite Leave to Remain. The latter is reserved for those who can demonstrate five years or more of continuous residence in the UK. The former, for those who can’t, is temporary, less secure and has some restrictions, but the holder can apply for Settled Status as soon as they have reached those five years.

It’s getting a bit more complex now.

To start the application an applicant needs to download an app onto a smart phone with the capacity to read chips with biometric information, embedded in passports or national ID cards. This so-called NFC technology is only included in later and more expensive models of smart phone, but as the app does not retain the information, an applicant can borrow a phone for this part of the process.

Once basic information is entered, a passport or ID card scanned and a photo of the applicant’s face taken as confirmation of identity, the information is transferred to a Home Office database and the applicant can continue the process online, using any device capable of connecting to the internet.

Now they are asked for evidence of residence. Entering a National Insurance Number will allow the checking of HMRC or DWP databases by the Home Office. An applicant can also upload scanned documents, such as work or tenancy agreements, travel documents or even letters from schools, GPs or reputable charities to confirm registration over time.

This all to confirm how long the applicant has lived in the UK. So provided the applicant is IT savvy, has the right equipment, has the required documentation to hand and can easily access the internet this is still fairly straightforward, though certainly not as easy as registering for a store account and much more intrusive.

But what happens if you are unable to engage with the IT or produce the necessary documentation?

The Welsh Government has provided funding for organisations to assist vulnerable EU citizens with the application process and more information can be found via www.eusswales.com.

My organisation, ‘Settled’ – www.settled.org.uk – has seen a dramatic increase in demand for our services over the last few months. We work with accredited volunteers, EU citizens themselves and are able to assist people in their own language.

Regardless of the distractions of Covid it is crucial we reach all EU citizens in Wales and ensure they are aware of the need to apply before 30 June 2021 and get support where they need this. If we don’t, this may well put their lives here – as our friends, colleagues or neighbours – in jeopardy.

Wiard Sterk works for Settled, and is an advocate for the EU citizens’ rights campaigning organisation the3million.