Windrush generation case fuels fears over EU citizens' fate post-Brexit

Campaign group says elderly, computer-illiterate and people in care may face similar problems

The row over the Home Office’s treatment of Windrush-era residents has fuelled fears in Brussels and the UK over the fate of EU citizens after the country leaves the bloc.

The government’s policy choices on migration, and its administrative frailties, have long been a cause for concern among EU officials.

The attack by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, on her own department over the treatment of people who arrived in Britain as children from the Caribbean has only heightened those concerns.

People who have lived in the UK for decades, but have been unable to produce evidential documentation to meet tightened immigration policy, have lost their jobs, become homeless or been refused urgent healthcare. Some have been sent to immigration removal centres or threatened with deportation.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator and a former prime minister of Belgium, who has been vociferous in his support for EU citizens living in the UK, said he expected the British government to reassure the European parliament that there would be adequate safeguards in place to ensure a similar scandal is not repeated.

“This will be deeply worrying for millions of EU citizens in the UK who will now fear similar treatment after Brexit”, he said.

The3million campaign group, which represents EU citizens in the UK, met the immigration minister Caroline Nokes on Tuesday to discuss how the Home Office was going to handle the online application process for “settled status” post-Brexit.

She reportedly said she could “not guarantee” that EU citizens could end up being treated like the Windrush generation in years to come.

Co-founder Nicolas Hatton said she told them “the Windrush generation was a distinct group from a different era and that there would be a digital footprint for EU citizens even pensioners as they would be on the Department of Work and Pensions records” and these would be available as “evidence” of work and life in the UK.

Like the Windrush generation caught out by Home Office red tape, the EU citizens campaign group have identified the elderly, the computer illiterate and people in care as those that could be later facing deportation for not registering before Brexit.

“The trouble is that unlike in Europe, there are no ID cards in the UK, which means that there may be no way of proving that you have the right to be resident in the country,” the3million co-founder Nicolas Hatton said. “Because of the hostile environment policy this is already biting hard on those who don’t have documents. I dread to think what will happen to EU citizens who don’t have documents. What really worries me is when they start freezing bank accounts.”

There are also concerns widely expressed of how the state uses schools, employers, landlords and the tax and social benefits offices to crack down on people the system rejects even through error.

EU citizens whose applications to register for “settled status” after Brexit are rejected can appeal against the ruling, but Hatton points out the protection of the European court of justice runs out in 2028, leaving cases after that at the mercy of Home Office officials.

The3million has previously claimed it does “not trust” the Home Office to administrate the process without making errors and forcing unjustified deportations.

A government source said: “We are absolutely clear that we will be putting in place a system for the more than 3 million EU citizens that are living here which is smooth and takes their considerations into account and makes the process as simple as possible.”

The Home Office said in a statement that it was already working with EU citizens groups to get the system right. “We will be setting out further details before the summer and EU citizens will have plenty of time to make an application. But we have also been clear that we will exercise discretion if there are good reasons why someone has not been able to make an application before the June 2021 deadline.”

In the last year, a number of cases where EU nationals were denied residency have emerged, including that of a Dutch woman asked to leave after 24 years in the UK and a German neuroscientist told to go after 17 years.

At one point during last year’s Brexit talks, an EU Brexit negotiator presented a sheaf of Guardian reports to a British counterpart and asked for an explanation.

While orders on EU citizens to leave the UK were later overturned, MEPs remain concerned about the ability of the Home Office to manage the application system for settled status.

Verhofstadt has warned that 3.5 milion EU citizens in the UK may face a “bureaucratic nightmare” and wants guarantees that the settled status application process will be simple and effective. Home Office officials will be quizzed on the process at a hearing at the European parliament’s civil liberties committee next week.

Roberto Gualtieri, the socialist group’s member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering committee, said: “We cannot allow this to happen to EU citizens. We will fight to ensure that Brexit agreement on citizens rights is watertight, with clear oversight from an independent body.”


Contributors

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Lisa O'Carroll in London

The GuardianTramp

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