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Long read | Unsettled status? Vulnerable EU citizens may lose their UK residence overnight

Before the end of June 2021, EU nationals living in the UK need to apply for Settled Status (EUSS) in order to continue living and working here. Amelia Gentleman called the application process via the app the ‘’gateway between belonging and exclusion’’.  In this blog, Catherine Barnard, Fiona Costello and Sarah Fraser Butlin (University of Cambridge) claim that the importance of recognising that a significant proportion of EU nationals living in the UK are unaware of the need to apply for settled status cannot be overstated. They find that vulnerable EU citizens may lose their UK residence overnight. 

Currently, two million people have already made applications under the EUSS scheme (see Table 1). This is an extraordinary number for a scheme which has only been live since March 2019. It is important to note that, on the whole, for those who have the correct paperwork, documented history, smartphone, sufficient awareness, IT and language skills the process can be relatively pain-free.

Others, however, have struggled. These are the interim conclusions from our early research funded by the ESRC as part of the UK in a Changing Europe programme. We have worked with various specialist support agencies around the country and, with their help, have held multilingual focus groups talking to people about Brexit and Settled Status. People are also invited to contribute to the research via or online survey which is still live and available here.

SETTLED STATUS APPLICATIONS It is commonly thought that 3.64 million people will need to apply for EUSS; this figure includes Irish citizens but not EFTA and Swiss citizens. Crucially, it also does not include third country nationals who are family members of an EU national with settled status in the UK. Therefore, it is widely accepted that the true number of those eligible to apply for settled or pre-settled status is unknown.

Source: Home Office EU Settlement Scheme Statistics; Second edition table 1

THE NUMBERS Recently it has been reported that some applications might have been double counted and include those who re-apply for settled status after gaining pre-settled status (for those who have been in the UK for less than five years). This number will grow in time as people progress to become entitled to settled status. The data on numbers of applications had previously faced scrutiny after increased reports of individuals having been given pre-settled, rather than settled, status. Many have called for more transparency with respect to the dataset.

Each of the organisations and professionals we spoke to in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, London, Birmingham and Bedford said that they had seen a spike in demand in August for EUSS applications. That spike has continued and in fact the numbers are growing as is reflected in the official numbers. Some attribute this spike to the increasing Brexit updates in the media and to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement that free movement could end on 31st October 2019 (the second ‘Brexit’ day).

Despite this increase in demand, advice centres and support services suggested that it was but the tip of the iceberg, and, in fact, across the board, all were worried that a significant portion of the community that they work with are unaware that they need to apply for settled status or even what settled status is.


Once completed, turnaround for a decision on settled status varied from 1 day, 2-4 days to almost 3 months. Some applicants suggested they found the process easier because they already had permanent residence status. Conversely, some believed they did not need to apply because they had permanent resident status. According to the Home Office, 75% of applicants are completing the identity check ‘’app journey in under eight minutes’’.

One advisor in Birmingham said ‘’we’ve had very few bad experiences so far. Usually we can get people through [eventually] to the right decision. I say easy in comparison to other Home Office applications which are so difficult in comparison- it’s relative’’. Their experience, however, was that given the time involved in uploading documents this meant they could see about 30 per cent fewer people; ‘’People actually need quite a bit of support. We get them there in the end, but it is time consuming. Certainly, takes more time than advertised’’ (Community Advisor, Birmingham).

Services in Norfolk reported one further barrier to EUSS applications specific to those with Romanian nationality identification. Romanian ID cards (which don’t have a ‘chip’) need to be physically sent to be checked as their ID card is not recognised by the EUSS system. To open a bank account, individuals also need  approved ID – equally some banks refuse to accept the Romanian ID card. Services report that this has been a deterrent for some people to apply – as their ID card might be their only form of ID if they don’t have a passport or driving licence. Others have travelled back to Romania in order to apply for a passport to then use that to apply for EUSS. There is an implicit cost and delay involved in applying for a passport which previously was not necessary to be legally resident here in the UK.

RAISING AWARENESS One organisation in Wisbech, Norfolk reported that clients think that Brexit has already happened or that they have permanent resident status already, so they didn’t need to make any further applications. Brexit was received with a laugh from one woman in our focus group asking ‘’Oh, is that still happening?’’ (Lithuanian National, Wisbech). Some others we spoke to reported that they were waiting for Brexit to happen as there was ‘’no point’’ in doing anything before then.

There are others who are just completely unaware of this new scheme. Speaking to agricultural workers in Cornwall messages and awareness about settled status were mixed and navigating the practicalities of applying and receiving support while working on a farm in rural Cornwall (living 6 to a caravan)- having the correct paperwork, printing bank statements, the lack of decent Wi-Fi connection, time, IT and language skills – was a real concern.

‘’We are talking about isolated communities- people are very isolated at times. They are here to work, and they work hard but they are isolated out in fields and in caravans in rural areas’’. (Community Advisor, Cornwall). Some of the specialist services we consulted are now proactively asking everyone who attends any session they offer about their EUSS status and then making appointments for those who do not have it. In Wisbech, staff hold a drop-in session in a Portuguese restaurant to ‘catch’ people who might not necessarily naturally come through the doors of their service. They have also undertaken interviews for Lithuanian television outlets – pointing out that few they work with get their news from BBC, choosing instead to watch news in their own native language, especially to be informed around complex issues such as this one. This raises questions about what methods, communication routes and, crucially, languages are being used by official channels to reach out to EU nationals. Home Office materials and information on settled status currently is available only in English and Welsh.

The importance of recognising that a significant proportion of EU nationals living in the UK are unaware of the need to apply for settled status cannot be overstated, not least because the true numbers needing to apply are not known and will remain unknown until likely people come forward after the fact, potentially when they have lost their legal residency status in the UK overnight.  On 10th October 2019, Minister of State for the Home Office Brandon Lewis confirmed that those who do not have settled status after the deadline could be subject to deportation.

The realities of the situation is that more than 80 per cent of the clients of advice agencies such as ACCESS in Kings Lynn and GYROS in Great Yarmouth are in employment. A majority work in factories, for agencies and/or with zero hours contracts, with longer and anti-social shift patterns making it difficult to attend appointments for support. There is the added complication that 51 per cent report limited English language skills to navigate this process.

‘’The reality is people are working and they don’t know about it or what they need to do’’. (Community Advisor Cornwall)

ADVICE SHARKS At a front-line level, the support services have received reports and evidence of ‘’advice sharks’’ working to exploit people. Practices included charging EU nationals for helping them with applications and ‘’advice sharks’’ putting in their own contact details so the applicant needs to pay again to access/ update their application at any point in the future.

It is clear then how vulnerable to exploitation someone who is unable to access evidence requirements, is without requisite language skills and relevant IT skills is to someone looking to make money from this situation. What will happen to these people in the future who cannot access their status? At the moment services state, this is unclear. It is clear that issues will arise in the future in terms of people remembering to keep their information up to date. One Bulgarian national we spoke to in Cornwall who had just completed his application and received pre-settled status was simply unaware he needed to be continue to log into his account and update any changes – he had in fact already changed his phone number and was living in temporary caravan accommodation on a farm-so a change of address was also imminent.

Some professional advisors we spoke to said they were struggling with people who simply don’t have an email address and are not IT literate. Services are setting up email addresses for people and maintaining a record of log-in details in-house as a backup for individuals. What happens if the service supporting you to make your application closes and you then can’t locate the log-in details for your application?

CONCERNS EXPRESSED BY EU NATIONALS ABOUT COMPLETING THE APPLICATION. Support services and agencies report that vulnerable people are anxious and worried about their status. They report that they are making appointments to see even those who have already practically completed the application- they just need to press submit. These are people with the necessary evidence, the android app, English competency and IT skills. However, they just want reassurance from a professional to press the button, especially as there is no physical evidence, and all is online.

‘’People are so scared they will do something wrong’’. (OISC Advisor, Great Yarmouth).

Services also report that a significant number of those they are working with are refusing to complete a settled status application as they had serious concerns about what happens to their data and that the ‘’Home Office would then control them’’ (Polish national, Bedford). Another reported that settled status ‘’felt like a head count exercise’’ (Latvian national, Great Yarmouth).

This issue has recently been before the courts when campaigners brought a high court challenge over new rules that prevent EU citizens living in Britain from finding out what data the Home Office holds on them. The group had challenged an exemption clause in the Data Protection Act that came into force last year, which denies EU Nationals the right to have access to their personal records in immigration cases. But in a ruling on 3 October 2019 the High Court concluded the exemption was not unlawful; an appeal is planned.

PROVIDING PROOF OF SETTLED STATUS In a number of the focus groups, EU nationals reported that they were already being asked to show their employer proof of their settled status. This can cause huge anxiety. One person in Kings Lynn, Norfolk was asked by their manager to come back the following week with proof of status; they could not do this because they had been put on a waiting list for an appointment with a support service to apply for EUSS. This caused the individual huge anxiety. As of October 2019, the backlog of applications awaiting decisions sat at 335,700.

The care sector was particularly identified as demanding EUSS paperwork. Individuals participating in focus groups in three geographically separate focus groups had all been asked to provide proof of their settled status. When asked about awareness that legally they did not need to prove they have settled status until June 2020, a worker replied ”Yes I know that, but in reality what choice do I have when I am asked- if I want to continue working there’’ (Lithuanian national, Kings Lynn)People were aware of their rights but did not feel empowered to enforce them. One employer we spoke to in Cornwall was aware that he would not need to ask for proof of settled status until 30 June 2021. He is working with local support to ensure that all staff can apply for settled status. It has serious financial implications for him – he said that already this year was their most difficult one to date in terms of recruitment and getting all their crop picked- he fears next year will be worse.

CONCLUSIONS These interim findings from our early research work with migrant workers and advice agencies about the EUSS, highlight current community concerns and the considerable future challenges. While numbers of EU migrants might be small in a national context (although we do not, in fact, know the true numbers), they are significant within towns, such as Yarmouth, and rural areas. They are significant to local employers and they will be significant to local authorities if more vulnerable community members lose their UK residence status overnight.

This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. It draws on an article that appeared on UK in a Changing Europe.

About the authors: Catherine Barnard is Professor of European Union and Labour Law, University of Cambridge Sarah Fraser-Butlin is Affiliated Lecturer, University of Cambridge Fiona Costello is Research Associate, University of Cambridge



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