barbara drozdowiczThe EU Settlement Scheme has been touted as an easy route to Settled Status for EU migrants in the UK. But it has serious flaws. Barbara Drozdowicz (East European Resource Centre) explains how vulnerable applicants are being deterred from applying or exploited by ‘cowboy’ advisors.

In our work with disadvantaged and vulnerable EU migrants, the East European Resource Centre has helped around 650 people as they try to negotiate the EU Settled Status (EUSS) scheme. Many of these people face serious obstacles in applying for EUSS, if they are aware of the requirement at all.

We collected this evidence during our outreach to churches, schools, homeless day centres, and other similar organisations as well as through routine advice and assistance delivery in our offices. The people we work with may be elderly, disabled, under 18, homeless, lack key life skills, isolated by virtue of where they live or work, victims of modern slavery, or members of the Roma community. Large numbers of them are disengaged from the EUSS process.

One of the main reasons is uncertainty about whether Brexit is going to happen. People may see no point in engaging in a burdensome administrative process -regardless of the fact the scheme is the least burdensome immigration instrument in the UK. Another is that a large group of users believe they need not apply because they have lived in the UK for more than a decade and already pay taxes. They do not understand why the Home Office cannot simply check their residency, or that the process allows it to access data held already. Many central European states have central residence databases and resident registration systems run by local authorities, with central authorities having access to check residency.

Some see themselves as mobile Europeans, and don’t feel ‘settled’. They may be grandparents periodically coming to help looking after children, traders and consultants delivering services in more than one EU country, people who own property in other member states and consider themselves ‘settled’ there even if they actually living and working in the UK, and people accessing seasonal jobs. In addition, people with any criminal convictions are particularly apprehensive.

A surprisingly large number of users do not have smartphones or wifi, often for financial reasons. Those who do have smartphones sometimes use them only for calls or texts. Their jobs (construction or cleaning, for example) often do not require internet access.

We found that people are sometimes disengaging from the app when it fails to find any data on them. This mainly applies to women who stay at home to look after children and struggle to supply any obvious additional evidence – such as tenancy agreements and bills held by their working partner – so their advice needs are much more significant. The app also does not allow users to go back and correct any mistakes in the application.

We recommend that the EUSS application window is extended for at least a year, to December 2021. A common reason for delays in applying is the fact that the required documents are not always easy to obtain. Applying for a passport in Poland (for example) takes up to six months, and people may need to travel there to apply and back again to collect it. For families, the delays are compounded.

The Home Office is not providing enough communication about the outreach and support for applicants, and guidance is not easily accessible in the relevant languages. It needs to explain the purpose of the scheme, the new arrangements for family rights, how people can obtain the necessary evidence and how linked applications work for spouses or dependents. The government must make it clear that EUSS is likely to be required in the near future to access essential services – and that it does not replace permanent residency, which may be needed later on to help apply for citizenship.

Importantly, people with a criminal record – convictions, cautions, investigations etc – need a clear explanation of how it will be treated. Fear of deportation is preventing some from applying.

We think community media – print and social, in migrants’ native languages – is the best way to reach people. Vulnerable migrants often follow the media of their native country, where Brexit is seen as a marginal issue. There is no language proficiency requirement for EUSS and therefore no justification for denying help to applicants in their native language. Yet the EUSS Resource Centre is not offering it.

Ninety-five percent of all EUSS applicants in our survey sought advice on their case. This is an indication of the obstacles they are facing. But those registered immigration advisers who are available often do not speak any Eastern European or
European languages. Potential advisers are deterred from registering because there are not enough hosting organisations approved by the Office of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) who can employ them. Unlike solicitors and barristers, they cannot operate as sole traders.

As a result, an ‘underground’ network of advisors has sprung up. These charge extortionate fees (£150-£600) for a simple EUSS application and are unregulated. Migrants are taking out loans to pay these fees and deferring applications for family members who are not in paid work. The advice is often of poor quality and as a result the applicant is granted pre-Settled Status rather than full EUSS.

Immigration advice and services regulation require urgent review if EUSS users are to be protected from extortion and abuse. OISC needs to be strengthened, and it should be possible for people to anonymously report ‘cowboy’ operations.

EUSS currently only exists as an online product, with no decision letter or online card, so users who need to prove their status often resort to taking a screenshot of their entire immigration profile which is a serious breach of data protection principles. Landlords and employers are already asking for proof of Settled Status, even though it is illegal for them to do so until the end of 2020, and some are asking for a user’s login details which opens up the potential for abuse of this sensitive data. We therefore recommend EUSS is delivered as a decision letter (perhaps a printable PDF, to save costs) or a card (potentially an extra, paid-for option).

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on the EERC’s EUSS and vulnerable Eastern Europeans: lessons learnt (July 2019).

Barbara Drozdowicz is the CEO of the Eastern European Resource Centre.

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