Covid-19: UK groups, law firms concerned about lack of support to EU citizens most in need

Law firms and community organisations have written to the Home Office to express concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the operation of the settled status scheme and the ability of EU citizens to access vital economic support.

The risk is to leave some of the most vulnerable EU citizens behind at a time they most need help, because of their uncertain legal position.

The settled status scheme was designed to guarantee citizens from the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland the right to live and work in the UK after the country left the European Union.

To be eligible for settled status, citizens from such countries must have arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020 (the end of the Brexit transition period) and apply by 30 June 2021. The status is acquired after 5 years of continuous residence in the UK and grants access to public funds and benefits under the same conditions of British nationals. Those who have lived in the UK for less than 5 years can obtain pre-settled status and continue building the 5-year period, but access to benefits for them is more complicated.

Reduced service

The first concern of the 30 organisations that signed the letter is the reduced level of support available for people applying for settled status.

As coronavirus is spreading across Europe, causing thousands of deaths and an impending economic crisis, the British government (like many other EU governments) has taken measures to limit movement of people, including the closure of shops, pubs, restaurants and certain public services.

Among these, the Home Office has closed the EU Settlement Scheme Resolution Centre, a help line for EU citizens applying for settled status, although it is still possible to ask questions via email.

The Home Office also said it is not accepting documents by post at this time. This means paper applications, required for people with ‘derivative rights’, such as family members of EU nationals and carers, or for vulnerable citizens who are not able to apply online, cannot be sent.

The possibility for vulnerable groups to get legal advice is also reduced, as information events, outreach activities and face-to-face support had to stop, and only some of these services continue online.

“The current situation is having adverse effects on our lawyers’ ability to assist the most vulnerable and at-risk communities,” said Isabella Mosselmans, joint CEO of Here for Good, a charity providing free immigration advice to EU citizens most in need. “The people we are helping often require in-person assistance to complete the online or paper application process due to their specific vulnerabilities. Many of them also do not have access to the necessary technology, i.e. phone app and online form,” she added.

Many EU nationals are also struggling to obtain documents through their embassies because these have reduced opening hours, citizens’ rights group the3million noted in a submission to the parliament committee on home affairs.

The signatories of the letter, which include the3million, New Europeans, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the online forum UKCEN, Migrant Voice, the AIRE Centre, the Law Centres Network and law firms Bindmans, Seraphus and Newfields Solicitors asked the Home Office how applicants can continue to receive support.

Separately, left wing campaigning group Another Europe is Possible is urging the British government to give all EU citizens currently residing in the UK a right to stay guaranteed in primary legislation. “We must remember that this crisis puts the lives and rights of migrants into even more uncertainty and danger. Unless we act to prevent it, we could be facing an additional catastrophe in terms of the rights of millions of people living in the UK,” the group said.

Access to government support

Another reason for concern are the barriers some EU citizens may face when applying for universal credit or other forms of economic support announced by the government to protect incomes during the coronavirus crisis.

The problem affects citizens who have obtained pre-settled status or are yet to apply. This could be a significant number of people, as 41% of the 3 million applications processed by the Home Office so far resulted in pre-settled status.

In a recent paper, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) noted that migrants are most at risk of losing their livelihoods due to the coronavirus crisis, as they are more likely to work in industries such as accommodation and food services, or to be self-employed or in temporary jobs.

Around 9% of EU workers are employed in accommodation and food services, 17% are self-employed and 6% are in temporary positions, according to the research.

All people without settled status will have to undergo the Habitual Residence Test proving that they have the ‘right to reside’ in the UK in order to access benefits.

Barbara Drozdowicz, CEO of East European Resource Centre, one of the signatories of the letter, told Europe Street that applying for universal credit is a “fairly long” process for people with pre-settled status. “Settled status gives higher protection as it removes the residence test and expands eligibility to benefits. This is particularly important for stay at home parents, for example,” Drozdowicz said. “Of the 145 cases we have received in the past week, many were asking if they have to apply for settled status now or wait until the crisis is over. We encourage everyone who can to apply now, and not to be discouraged.”

Lawyers and citizens’ rights groups are also calling on the government to allow those who have pre-settled status to access benefits in the same way as those with settled status. “It is vital that everyone can access the safety net of state support during this crisis,” the letter says.

The IPPR argued that the Habitual Residence Test should be removed for everyone, so that all workers in the UK can easily access benefits and public services during the crisis.

Absence from the country

An additional hurdle for EU citizens and their family members with pre-settled status could be the loss of rights due to protracted absences from the UK due to border closures or the need to take care of family members in other countries. Unlike citizens with settled status, who can leave for up to 5 years without losing their residence rights, those with pre-settled status can only be absent for 6 consecutive months.

Christopher Desira, director at Seraphus, a legal firm working with the European Commission to provide advice on residence rights, said unless the Home Office publishes new guidance, people with pre-settled status who are away from the UK for more than 6 months should return before the end of the transition and apply again, thus re-starting the 5-year residence period. “That is the unfortunate consequence of this situation,” he said.

The Home Office caseworker guidance allows exceptions to such rule permitting “a single period of absence of more than 6 months but which does not exceed 12 months… where this is for an important reason, such as pregnancy, childbirth, serious illness, study, vocational training or an overseas posting.” But it is not clear yet whether the exception will apply in the coronavirus crisis.

“We will need to seek clarification with the Home Office that absences as a result of Covid-19 will fall under this exception but we would hope that they would,” Isabella Mosselmans told Europe Street.

Extending the application deadline?

Given the difficulties, the joint letter asks the Home Office whether the settled status application deadline of 30 June 2021 would be extended.  

Under the withdrawal agreement, the deadline should automatically be prolonged by one year in case of technical problems preventing people from applying.

But pressure from businesses and some members of the European Parliament is also mounting to extend the transition period and allow more time for the Brexit negotiations, considering the current emergency and its economic impacts. The decision on the extension of the transition period has to be made by June 30th.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has set up a helpline for immigration queries related to coronavirus. 

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.

Photo by Pierre Blaché from Pixabay.

This article was first published on March 29th and was revised on March 30th adding information about the Home Office services and the Right to Stay campaign.

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