EU citizens in the UK – people like me, 3.7 million of us who are your neighbours, your colleagues, your friends and your family – have lived in limbo for over 850 days now. During that period we have had to deal with an increase in hate directed at us, and have had to come to terms with the fact that we are all going to have to apply if we want to stay in the UK. Apply to stay in our own home.
Against that wider backdrop I, a campaigner for the rights of EU citizens in the UK, genuinely thought that I had now seen it all. That we had reached rock bottom in terms of how low the UK government would be prepared to sink in their attempt to extend the hostile environment to us and strip us of rights. Because let’s be clear: that is the sole purpose of settled status – designed as an application system, it was never about protecting our rights.
But I was wrong. That is what Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes’s questioning at the Home Affairs Committee made crystal clear. It documented, in an at times hair-raising manner that revealed both incompetence and ignorance, the severe problems and immediate threats to livelihoods that a no-deal scenario poses for EU citizens.
The overarching concern is how those of us who already live in the UK will be able to prove, after a no-deal Brexit, that we have rights here, particularly in the period prior to acquiring settled status. What, for example, of the right to work? For this Nokes confirmed that employers would be expected to check whether an EU citizen has the right to work in the UK in the event of no-deal, even if such a scenario were to include a transition period.
What makes this statement extraordinary is not only that it signals a shift in policy, but also that Nokes herself said, repeatedly, that it will be ‘incredibly difficult to differentiate’ between EU citizens who already live in the UK, and new arrivals. But instead of recognising the implications of that situation for millions of people and their immediate livelihoods, the government seem to have decided to simply pass the bucket, placing the onus of checks on employers – and the onus of providing evidence on EU citizens.
But what should that evidence be? The pilot for settled status is still underway, and the full system will only be rolled out from March 2019. 3.7 million of us EU citizens have to apply to stay. Little more than 600 of us have been ‘processed’ as part of the settled status pilot so far. 150 days are left until the UK is set to leave the EU, deal or not. You do the maths. There simply will be no way, and for quite some time, to differentiate between an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for a decade, as I have for example, and a new arrival.
Yet despite that knowledge, and its public admission, Nokes insisted that we would have to prove our rights. She had no qualms, in fact, about stating that ‘this provokes an enormous challenge’ for EU citizens already in the UK. Shameful does not get more shameful than that, especially given that both Vote Leave and the government promised us that nothing in our lives would change.
The government have already failed EU citizens so many times that I have given up counting. But now they have failed us at the most foundational level: by revealing so publicly that they simply have no idea – and that there will not be a solution in time for a problem they deliberately created in the first place – they are actively enabling the discrimination of a specific group of people. Which employer is going to hire an EU citizen with all this uncertainty hanging over our heads? Which landlord will extend tenancies or issue new ones?
But of course there is a wider point to make about the impact of this on us. How are we meant to deal with the stress that stems from this existential threat? A threat that is placed upon us on top of any general concerns we might have about Brexit and a no-deal scenario. Kindly stockpile your food and medicine… and then please come up with some way to evidence to your employer that you actually have the right to work here.
So after 850 days, this is the government’s endgame for us. But because, to this day, there is no real public outcry about our situation; because, to this day, the most common response most of us get remains ‘but you will be fine’ even though every single piece of evidence says otherwise…because of that now it is our – certainly my endgame – too. This is the last chance the UK has to redeem itself and protect the rights and future of those 3.7 million of us who are your neighbours, your colleagues, your friends and your family. The question is: will you finally do it?
If you agree that the government’s treatment of EU citizens who are at home in the UK is unacceptable, then please consider becoming an EU citizens’ champion. For details on what you can do please visit the campaign website http://eucitizenschampion.co.uk/.