Thousands of EU children in UK risk becoming illegal immigrants on July 1, even if born in the country

Thousands of EU children in the UK may accidentally lose the right to live, study and, in the future, work in the country if they do not apply for their post-Brexit residence status by 30 June 2021.

Many parents are still not aware that their children need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, the new residence system that would safeguard their rights. When they do, many underestimate the procedure. Campaigners are also concerned about children in care being left out.

According to the 2017 Labour Force Survey, there are more than 900,000 children of non-Irish EU parents living in the UK. It is estimated that 80% (around 727,000) are EU citizens and 239,000 are born in the UK from EU parents. Some of the latter may have a right to UK citizenship, while others may not and therefore need to apply for ‘settled status’ to stay lawful.

The Settlement Scheme was created to continue residence rights of EU citizens after the UK exit from the EU. But eligible people have to apply for the new status, and the deadline is less than two months away. 

In December 2020, the Home Office had received 717,080 applications from citizens under the age of 18. Of those, 628,250 were concluded: 616,240 were granted pre-settled or settled status, and 12,010 were refused, withdrawn or considered void or invalid, according to the quarterly statistics released in February 2021.

This would mean some 100,000 children at least were missing from the scheme. The lack of a UK population register, however, makes it difficult to fully understand the gap.

Children have to apply for ‘settled status

Children from the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and children who are family members of someone from these countries, must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme if they were living in the UK before 30 December 2020. The deadline to apply is 30 June 2021.

The application process is the same as for adults and can be done on an app. Each child must have their own application, which can be linked to that of a parent, if they are under 21. If linked, the parent will need to prove the relationship to the child, who will obtain their same status.

As part of the procedure, children need to prove their identity and their residence in the UK before 1 January 2021. This is where things can become complicated.

The rush to the consulate

Obtaining an ID document might not be as easy as thought. Sometimes the problem is the cost or the need to travel to a far-away consulate. Moreover, because of the pandemic, several consulates closed or worked at reduced capacity in the past months, and have accumulated long delays in issuing passports.

In some other cases, the difficulty is obtaining the consent of both parents, which is usually required to issue an ID to a child.

“There is a big problem with children with no ID when both parents’ consent is needed to apply for a new passport and the location of one parent is unknown, or one of the parents doesn’t agree to issuing new documents for the child,” says Gabriela Ingle, EU Settlement Scheme Adviser and Volunteers Coordinator for the Citizens Rights Project, an initiative to help EU citizens in Scotland.  

In these instances, the parent who cares for the child must start legal proceedings and obtain a special issue order to apply for the child’s ID without the consent of the other parent. This is a “lengthy, complicated, and often costly process, which involves lawyers,” Ms Ingle says.

“In the past month only, we have been approached by seven families with estranged parents. When someone starts this process so near the 30 June deadline, there is simply not enough time and clients have to be referred to higher level immigration solicitors to start a paper application with the Home Office without ID,” she explains.

An additional barrier is the list of evidence that the Home Office accepts as proof of residence. This includes tenancy agreements and council tax bills, which only an adult would have.

“Parents are often forced to do a wild goose chase between all the care facilities ever attended by their children and their GPs, to find someone who will issue them with the required residence evidence,” says Dorota Peszkowska, EU Settlement Scheme Project Officer at Feniks, an organisation working with Eastern Europeans. While most of the time they succeed, there are experiences of school administrators refusing the request.

“The EU Settlement Scheme is fundamentally a scheme which is designed with the lives of someone who is working in the UK in mind,” Marianne Lagrue, Policy Manager at Coram´s Migrant Children’s Project, told the parliament’s home affairs committee.

“For separated children, for care leavers, for non-EU stepchildren of EU nationals, for children with any kind of vulnerability, things very quickly spiral into being immensely complex using the scheme. The overall messaging about the scheme being straightforward does not hold for children,” she argued.

Extra burden for the most vulnerable

When a case is particularly complex, a paper application may be necessary, but this can be submitted only under special circumstances. These are discretionary, which means the Home Office can refuse them if the applicant does not have strong enough reasons. They also involve a lengthier and more complicated process, which is usually better managed by a solicitor.

To obtain a paper form, applicants need to document circumstances beyond their control that prevent them from having a valid ID. If the caseworker agrees, the form can take up to two weeks to arrive. Then more time is needed to fill it in and gather all the necessary evidence.

For single mothers and survivors of domestic violence, the procedure is especially painful as it may involve locating their abuser and dealing with court cases that add stress and uncertainty to their lives, affecting mental health.

The Citizens’ Rights Project followed the case of a woman who has lived in Scotland for 14 years. After obtaining settled status, she learnt that her two children needed to apply too. At first, she thought it would be easy and they could apply using their birth certificates rather than an ID. Then she learnt this was not possible and she needed to go to her consulate in London to obtain their passports, which she could not afford.

As she is now gathering alternative evidence to submit a paper application, she is in distress. “She started thinking that the social worker could take her kids away from her, that they could be deported or become undocumented. With her settled status and official birth certificates for the children, she feels it should be easier to prove they live with her in the UK,” a case worker says.

Thinking of being British

Another major problem is that many parents think their children are covered by their own status or are automatically British because they were born in the UK.

But beyond being born in the country, other requirements have to be met to qualify for citizenship, for example regarding the legal residence of the parents.

In April 2018, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford warned that there could be tens of thousands of children wrongly thought to be UK citizens due to the complexity of the UK nationality law.

Organisations providing support to settled status applicants across the UK regularly come across such cases and have alerted the Home Office. The EU delegation in the UK is trying to inform EU citizens too.

Monika Connely, adviser for the Citizens Rights Project, says also educated, informed parents frequently hold wrong beliefs. “Since Easter, I have referred nine families to the Polish consulate In Edinburgh to issue passports for the children because the parents had no idea that they had to apply for settled status for their children, and, of course, they didn’t have valid IDs”, she says.

Barbara Drozdowicz, Chief Executive Officer at the East European Resource Centre in London, says another trend has emerged from their user groups. “Teenagers born in the UK, who have always been in the British school system, have British friends and do not feel or have ever been treated as immigrants are not aware of their legal position”.

Others go through the process by themselves, as this is possible from age 16, but make mistakes or fail to link the application to their parents’, adds Mira Waliwora of the Citizens’ Rights Project.

“It is the parents’ role to make sure children know and have the right status,” Ms Drozdowicz argues.

The problem is the “romanticised view there is among EU nationals about the immigration system,” she says. People generally believe that if parents have a status, children and other dependant are “somehow magically covered,” she continues, “so they don’t bother themselves with children’s applications and when they discover they need to, there is always a drama: no passport, no birth certificate, estranged parents blocking the issuing of the passport, etc.”

The same situation may occur with grandparents who have joined families in the UK to help with childcare, she adds. “We may end up with quite dramatic family situations if people don’t start acting now about their family dependants, in particular if there is a long administrative route to collect all documents and evidence.” This can take 4 to 6 months, Ms Drozdowicz says.

Children in care and care leavers

Support groups are also concerned about looked-after children and care leavers. According to a 2020 survey by the Home Office, 3,300 children in care should apply for settled status, while other organisations believe this is a low estimate.

For children in care, it is the responsibility of their legal guardian or council social worker to apply on their behalf. For those who have left care and are under the age of 25, councils should offer support.

But often local authorities do not record the nationality of the children in their care to avoid discrimination, and this increases the difficulty of identifying those who need to apply for settled status.

In April 2020, the Home Office issued guidance for local authorities to enable social workers to apply for settled status on behalf of EU children in their care without the usual accreditation from the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC).

Applications for looked-after children, however, tend to be complex and social workers may not have the necessary knowledge about immigration rules and the settled status process, campaigners say.

“Our work has shown that there is a worryingly low number of applications made to date from looked-after children and care leavers, and we’re urging local authorities to make sure the children in their care have secured status sooner rather than later,” says Azmina Siddique, Policy and Research Manager at The Children’s Society.

Losing rights as adults

What will happen to all the children who do not apply on time? At the beginning of April, the Home Office released guidance on late applications saying these will be accepted if there is “reasonable ground”.

Any child will be able to apply late if their parent, guardian or local authority failed to apply on their behalf by the deadline, the guidance says. But late applications are “complex cases by definition” and require another level of legal support with “capacity nowhere to be found,” warns Ms Drozdowicz.

Ms Siddique also argues that while it’s helpful that the Home Office has acknowledged children can apply years from now, “there also needs to be some temporary protection”.

As the Home Office has confirmed, anyone who has not applied by 30 June 2021 will have no right to stay in the UK as of 1 July 2021. Even those with pending applications won’t have rights until they are eventually granted status.

“They won’t be able to work, rent a flat, open a bank account, or access benefits. Especially important for young people, they won’t be able to apply for further education or access student finance. They also risk being removed from the UK and sent back to their home country”, Ms Siddique warns. “For many of these children this could be a place where they have no family or do not know as they have lived in the UK for most, if not all, their lives,” she adds.

These children could follow the path of the Windrush generation, young people who after the World War II arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries on their parents’ passports but decades later lacked the documents to prove their rights and were forced out of the UK.

The3million, a group that defends the rights of EU citizens’ in the UK, has long called on the government to fix the problem and extend or minimise the impact of the 30 June deadline.

“We know once children find out they are undocumented life can become very hard, they are left in limbo while they try to regularise their status. This can take many years and this can have a life-altering impact on a young person’s health, well-being and life chances,” Ms Siddique says.

By Noelia Martinez, Project Coordinator at the Citizens’ Rights Project, with Claudia Delpero, Europe Street News

The Citizens’ Rights Project provides information, advice and support for EU citizens in Scotland.

Photo by Fasbytes from Pixabay

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