UPDATE: After publishing this piece on Monday 21 January, Theresa May has since announced EU citizens will not have to pay to apply for settled status
Brexit day is another two months away, but for EU citizens at home in the UK our watershed moment has come. As of today the EU Settlement Scheme is open for all of us. Open so we can all now be forced to pay to apply to stay in our own home.
Pay to apply if we want to remain your neighbours, colleagues, friends and family. This is a difficult moment for us.
At present, this is still classed as a test phase, but we do not really need a test to know about the settled status scheme. A scheme developed to force millions to apply so they can continue to live in their home — such a scheme is a failure. Settled status was never about protecting our rights. It is there to control who of us can stay.
What today also confirms is that Vote Leave got away with one of their biggest lies. In June 2016 they published a statement noting that “there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK [...they] will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain [...] and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”
Settled status is nothing like that promise.
The process itself may well be straightforward for many, but to assume that that would generally be so is wrong. Over the last few weeks more and more stories of EU citizens either unaware of the need apply, or failing as they were doing so, made that very clear. Think of the Italian-born women invited to work in the UK; or of Roma or of children in care, who may never even hear about settled status until they are illegal. Settled status will, there can be no doubt, create a new Windrush generation on an unprecedented scale.
As if that was not bad enough, no-deal still looms as an even more serious threat. While the government produced a no-deal policy paper recently that sets out the implementation of settled status in the event of no-deal, the paper limits our rights further. Critically, the Immigration Bill contradicts and overrides the paper. This could mean that all of us 3.6million EU citizens end up having no immigration status overnight and fall into the hostile environment. With that could come the inability to work, rent, open a bank account, or visit a doctor.
In light of recent developments, this is a human tragedy in the making. That is why it is now absolutely critical that the UK and the EU agree to ring-fence citizens’ rights. To continue to gamble with the lives of five million people — this affects British citizens who live in another EU country just as much — is not only irresponsible, it is directly harmful.
To us EU citizens in the UK the message that settled status sends could not be any clearer: our lives here, our contributions, even if made for decades — they do not matter. If they did matter the government would never have chosen to develop an application system.
So even if settled status is secured, even if one manages to look past the fact that it changes our rights retroactively and that we will not be able to live our lives as before, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to overcome that message sent.
Who are we now in this country, the place we help make tick every single day of our lives, the place that we believed was our home? Singled out as queue-jumpers or, more recently, as “bloodsuckers” on live TV, with our status about to be changed from EU citizens to people with a special ID number on a special register only for us.
I have no idea how to come to terms with that.
I have lived in the UK for 10 years — almost to the day: I arrived on 25 January 2009. I had lived here twice before, once to do a voluntary social year in Edinburgh and then to study at the University of Edinburgh. But it was a decade ago that I really made home here.
I remember my arrival well. I was a little anxious because this was one of the, fairly rare, occasions that I had let myself be guided by my heart rather than my head. So I arrived with two suitcases even though I had no job yet. I did that because my heart told me that this was my home.
I took a taxi from the airport to my B&B. The taxi driver was a real Geordie, thick accent and all. He asked me what I was doing “in Toon” and I told him I was hoping to get a job and live in the UK. He took me on a tour of Newcastle, showing me several sights and important places. He didn’t charge me a penny for it. That is the UK I love. That is the UK that my said was my home.
Today, as I look at the roll-out of settled status, I wonder whether I should again listen to my heart, or go with my head this time. My head has been telling me that it is time to leave for quite a while. My heart tells me to stick around. But only just. And I am not sure it will succeed this time.
Tanja Bueltmann is a professor of history and Faculty Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University