The Future Of EU Citizens In The UK Has Never Been More Uncertain – Politicians Must Take Action Or Forever Be Remembered For Failing Millions

For over 965 days now we have been one of three things – often all three together: bargaining chips; a punching bag; and subjects of hate
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A little while ago leading Brexit backers were outraged by Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” tweet. For a split second I felt some sympathy: after all, who wants to be in hell? But it really only was a split second. Because then I realised that hell is exactly the place those leading us towards Brexit chose to push EU citizens into time and time again. That really is not an exaggeration. For over 965 days now we have been one of three things – often all three together: bargaining chips; a punching bag; and subjects of hate. All that when, what we really are, are your neighbours, colleagues, friends, lovers and family.

Never has our uncertainty been greater than now. While Brexit poses many serious threats to many people, for EU citizens and our British friends at home in another EU country, these threats are existential. There are people who do not know whether they will have a job in 40 days because of the changes to their rights that Brexit would enable, deal or not.

Yet despite all that, we are being told that all is fine. The British Ambassador to Germany and many other politicians, for instance Greg Hands and Robin Walker, have been tweeting happily that our rights are guaranteed. But that is simply not true. The Government’s own guidance tells us that. Yet here we are, representatives either ignorant of, or deliberately distorting, facts and reality. That would be bad at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

For EU citizens, times are difficult primarily because of settled status, the new status we all have to apply for if we want to stay. There are already so many problems with settled status that it is difficult to know where to even begin. While Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes hails the processing of thousands of applications as a success, all I can see is that many applications resulted in the granting of pre-settled status only. That status has a time stamp on it and it does not automatically change to settled status. What this means is that we could end up in a situation where EU citizens become illegal in a few years.

If patterns continue in a way similar to now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of illegal EU citizens. Together with immigrants from elsewhere, they would, as we learned last weekend, essentially be hunted. And they could include a lot of children.

One of the greatest risks for EU citizens lies in the immigration bill currently before Parliament. If that bill is passed without amendments, it will strip us of our legal status and protections without replacing them. EU citizens would essentially be irregular immigrants until granted the new status after application (if successful). Additionally, the bill gives sweeping Henry VIII powers that could enable drastic changes to EU citizens’ rights immediately. Ministers would be able, for instance, to simply change our social security rights.

This is why Yvette Cooper is right: this is “Windrush on steroids”. That is the case not least because of the plan to provide settled status as a digital status only. This will not work. We need the government to change this and provide us with a physical document that can be shown easily to prove our status. This must also be valid without the need to constantly update details for the rest of our lives — as it stands, we would have to always update our passport details each time we get a new passport; each time sending our passport to the Home Office for checking. 3.6 million people doing this for the rest of their lives. That is an unacceptable burden and it will never work practically.

An easy to use physical document is also so important because we are already looking at a hotchpotch of citizens’ rights, with the government having made some individual separate agreements for some EU citizens. This is already creating not just a class of EU citizens, which would be problematic enough, but separate classes of EU citizens with different rights.

Yet while the government is responsible for all of this, they chose to implement an application system. Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes recently asked the3million, the leading NGO working to protect EU citizens’ rights, what they are doing. To pass responsibility to EU citizens themselves to help with this system, one that is essentially the opposite of what we were promised by everyone, from Vote Leave to the Prime Minister, takes some beating. Settled status cannot mean that grassroots organisations that run largely on volunteered time are responsible for making sure that EU citizens are safe. They should not have to carry that burden. The government must do much more.

Part of the solution is simple: it is still possible to change settled status, to make it a straightforward declaratory system. That, together with ring-fencing the citizens’ rights agreements reached in the Withdrawal Agreement regardless of whether there is a deal or not, would now be the right, the only human, thing to do.

Politicians should not be driven by what legacy they wish to have. But, for once, I think they should consider it because on one thing Theresa May is absolutely right: “History will judge us all for the parts we have played in this process”. So the question for all politicians is: do you want to be remembered for enabling that hell we EU citizens find ourselves in – or for pulling us out of it?


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