Unsettled status – European citizens’ post-Brexit struggles

Cat curled up asleep on a blue beret with yellow stars.
Elodie asleep. Photo credit: Julie Hortulanus

Being thrown out of your adopted country because your face no longer fits is what thousands of EU citizens are experiencing. For some, it’s like being back in the authoritarian regimes of eastern Europe. And many others still do not know they are in danger of being becoming illegal immigrants, despite living, loving, and working here for decades.

In anticipation of Brexit, the British government decided to change the law so that even EU citizens already legally resident in the UK were forced to apply to a new Settlement Scheme (EU SS) to protect their residency in this country. If successful, they would be awarded either Settled or Pre-Settled Status; if their application was rejected, they would lose the right to stay here.

Settled Status is a permanent status which, once awarded, means a person will never have to re-apply in order to remain in the UK and, after one year, it provides a pathway to UK citizenship.

Valid for only five years, Pre-Settled Status is revocable by the UK government. It does not provide a direct basis for UK citizenship as it is necessary to apply again and be awarded Settled Status first. And those with Pre-Settled Status are not entitled to welfare benefits unless they can prove they have the right to reside under EEA regulations. Pre-Settled Status, though more secure than becoming unlawfully resident in the UK, is clearly insecure and will leave many EU citizens in limbo.

“My husband feels vulnerable now because he is vulnerable. In five years’ time, he will have to apply again and he is worried that he will only get Pre-Settled Status again, which will leave us with five more years of unsettlement. His English is very good so he doesn’t get the ‘why don’t you go home’ taunts.” (Julie Hortulanus, interview)

Little attention has been given to the ways in which this enforced and drastic change in circumstances has affected EU citizens in the UK. Drawing on interviews with EU citizens living in the UK and data published by the In Limbo project has helped me explore the experience of living through these turbulent times.

With under two months to the application deadline, we know many EU citizens are unaware of this crucial deadline, so readers are asked to contact any and all EU citizens they know to ensure they are made aware of the urgent need to apply by 30 June via the government portal.

Initial responses

The first response by EU citizens was a widespread sense of disbelief. Disbelief that Brexit would ever happen ran deep, and many refused to engage with the EU SS for a long time.

“So many of my friends, even my husband, said it [Brexit] will never happen.” (Louisa Miller, interview)

This was not surprising as there was a deep sense of upset, anger and betrayal at the way in which this hastily revised immigration system was imposed on those who had come here in good faith to make the UK their home, and who had been working and paying taxes and raising their families in the UK for years. Workers in both highly skilled and low-skilled jobs contacted the Guardian newspaper saying they now felt they lived in a “hostile environment” with no trust the government would allow them stay in the country after Brexit. 

“Pissed off and angry … I find it discriminatory.” (Julie Hortulanus, interview)

“I felt so betrayed by Brexit. I felt so betrayed.” (Louisa Miller, interview)

“My first reaction was a feeling of betrayal. Followed by anxiety. I believe it was deeply unfair to ask people that had lived in this country for a long time, were an integral part of the community, to apply for something that they should already have. It made people feel like second-class citizens, and I still feel like that. Also kids, like my daughter who was born here, had to apply for status, when she considered herself British. It really can have an impact on kids too.” (Marta, interview) 

“Once the referendum results became clear we knew that the government would have to come up with some kind of registration system for EU citizens. We were really upset to find out later that instead we had to apply for the Settlement Scheme – this introduced the element of having to prove our legal right to stay in our homes and the possibility of getting rejected. Waiting for approval has caused a lot of anxiety, uncertainty and stress in our community, and for some people this wait in limbo took months.” (Lili Hornyai, interview)

The Settlement Scheme has directly attacked people’s sense of their own identity. This was deeply unsettling and felt like a loss of control over their lives.

“I never considered myself an immigrant to the UK but a citizen of the EU who chose to live here.” (Denisa Popa, In Limbo, p.271)

Montage of quotes from EU citizens
Montage of quotes from the In Limbo project.

Dutch GP Sebastian Kalwij, 51, questioned whether he would be able to continue to practise as a doctor in the long term, even after 22 years in the UK, in a system that would favour the British over others.

“My identity has been stolen. None of us voted for this. We have been forced to give up friends who turned out to be Brexiters and we have lost control. ‘Sovereignty’ is the thing they bang on about; when I handed out leaflets and asked about people’s children and grandchildren having their freedom of movement stolen, they said they didn’t vote for them but for themselves. And they voted for Boris because they didn’t like ‘the other one’.” (Julie Hortulanus, interview)

I grew roots firmly in British soil since 1990. Since June 2016 those roots have been knocked loose and I no longer feel secure in the UK. I am unsettled despite having acquired Settled Status. I’m in an Un-Settled Status.” (Marlies, In Limbo, p267)

“I think the worst thing Brexit did for me was to reinforce that yet again someone else was in charge of my life. My ex used to threaten to have me deported and that I’d never see the kids again … so all that opened the floodgates. The government’s narrative is repeating what my ex told me over 15 years day in and day out … The Home Office with their ‘your activity is not worthwhile or genuine. Prepare to leave immediately’ pretty much describes how I feel about myself.” (Natasja, In Limbo p276)

The background of an EU citizen can intensify their reaction to having to apply for Settled Status. Those with an eastern European background, for example, were taken back to the loss of control experienced when they had lived under a communist regime:

“Applying for Settled Status was as painful as my application for a student visa 20 years before. Like then, I felt powerless and perplexed in front of an implacable authority to whom, it seems, I didn’t really matter that much. There have been weeks of excruciating anxiety waiting for the answer to my application … when I finally got a positive response, I couldn’t really enjoy the moment. Besides having experienced the capricious disregard for people’s rights under a communist regime, nothing can completely eliminate the fear that one day the authorities might simply change their minds and change the rules.” (Denisa Popa, In Limbo, p.271)

Others come from refugee families and had experienced all the sadness of having to leave a previous homeland and flee to another country.

“If you come from a refugee background this is even worse to be told to prepare to leave the country, and the UK used to be so free.” (Louisa Miller, interview).

The hostile environment: no longer welcome in the UK

Bulgarian Deni Stoqnova, with a degree in finance, came to Britain two years ago after she fell in love with a Briton. Despite her qualifications, she said racism prevented her getting work and she now works as a cashier in a shop in Liverpool.

“According to this document, they are offering me and people like me residency for a maximum of only two years. What will happen after that? All that is just disgraceful and I feel disgusted. My reaction to these immigration proposals is just the feeling of being unwanted. It makes me feel sad. I am worried all the time as I work as [what the UK government terms us] ‘lower-skilled EU migrants’ because I am a cashier in a shop. We are not considered people. Each of us migrants feel[s] that hostile environment right now and we are not considered valuable to this country anymore, no matter that we work and do not rely on benefits or on the help of your government,” she said (Guardian, 6 September 2017).

“Lots of people felt bad about registering in the first place but as a German I was surprised that we did not have to register. In the Guardian there were stories of people who had been threatened with deportation; a woman who had lived here for many years was told that she had to leave. According to the newspapers this has already happened, they are saying ‘prepare to leave the country” [interviewee breaks down] “Sorry it makes me cry … until this day I think I will have to fill my car and go, what can I do?” (Louisa Miller, interview).

Andrea Blendl, a German PhD researcher in Scotland, who feared she would be deported earlier this year because she had no private health insurance, said the proposals showed the intent to widen the “hostile environment” policy to EU citizens. “The entire document just adds to the feeling of being unwelcome here,” she said. (Guardian, 6 September 2017

There is certainly a concern that EU citizens living in the UK have now become a very easily identifiable – and therefore an easily targetable – group. To be able to stay in our homes, we all had to put down our names, faces and passport information on a register.” (Lili Hornyai, interview)

“My mum and I have experienced a lot of xenophobic and racist abuse and been regularly asked when we are going back to our country. Even at the supermarket we got told by a female customer that it is absolutely forbidden to speak in any other language than English.” (Iva Augarde, In Limbo, p277)

In a keynote speech to the Brexit ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ conference on 15 March 2018, audience members reported incidents involving EU citizens. Examples included:

  • A French woman who said she hold been told by the authorities she had to leave the UK because, as a stay-at-home mother, she was a low-skilled worker. Her husband and 12-year-old son could stay.
  • A German woman in Bristol whose son had won several Paralympic medals for Team GB, had been spat at and kicked to the ground.
  • A Polish couple in Leicester who wrote that they had been speaking Polish at a bus stop when they were attacked and the woman kicked in the stomach, causing her to lose her unborn twins. Their assailant told them: “No more of you bastards here.”

“Someone I worked with wrote online ‘If you don’t like it then just go home’, but this is my home! And the permission to be rude to foreigners. Now you have permission to say we don’t want you here. That is so 1940s, we thought we were done with that sort of thing … my daughters would not like me to speak German to them on the bus now. My eldest daughter has been told on the bus not to speak German and to go home. Before Brexit this would have really been frowned on and someone would have spoken up but it’s more prevalent now. I am a lot more careful now.” (Louisa Miller, interview)

Already there have been reports of EU citizens experiencing difficulties in terms of getting jobs in the UK.

“They don’t even need bother to ask for Settled Status when you apply for a job. Once they see your foreign name or surname you are done. It happened to me. The person who was supposed to interview me checked my name on the CV and told me straight away before sitting down, ’Let’s not waste time … we are looking for a British born.’” (Diana Moreno, In Limbo p.285)

What does Settled Status mean?

People are especially worried about not having any physical proof of their status which they can show officials or people such as landlords, police officers, border control or airport staff.

“I didn’t want to apply at first but one of my German friends sent me the link and so I did it. I didn’t earn very much so I was worried that might disqualify me. I buried my head in the sand at first … but I was really physically afraid it would not be approved. But I got the email saying you have the right to remain … So far nobody has asked me to show this yet. There is a reference number and website so I assume you can check if this is valid but if I am in the queue at the airport and the internet goes down what then?” (Louisa Miller, interview)

“The worst aspect of the EU Settlement Scheme is definitely not having physical proof attached to our Settled Status. This makes us extremely vulnerable to discrimination. The final deadline when our rights will change overnight is so close, yet even border control staff don’t know how to check EU citizens’ digital status yet, so how could we expect landlords and employers to know? Physical proof of right to work is required to complete integrated online application forms when applying for employment with bigger international organisations. Letting agencies and banks will similarly require some sort of document when approving tenants and loans. The digital-only status is already proving insufficient in securing the continuation of our existing rights.” (Lili Hornyai, interview)

“All I have is a printout of the email they [the Home Office] sent to me which anyone could have produced, even a stamp in your passport that would do. With an email or website you are having to rely on the internet connection and what if ‘computer says no’? I feel a total level of vulnerability and ‘you don’t belong here, you are a foreigner and are not welcome, you’re not from round here are you sort of thing’. The fact that 48% voted to remain is not good enough. Everyone says, where is your home, are you going home for Christmas? I always say I am from Germany. Where are you from?” (Louisa Miller, interview)

People’s technology skills vary, so the application process itself challenges people in different ways. While applying online was easy for some, others found it very stressful and difficult.

“Applying for Settled Status was by far one of the most stressful things I have ever done. After trying for two days, I finally managed to open the downloaded app and follow the instructions, scanning my passport, my face, take a selfie, give my details and my NI number. I felt extremely uneasy when I had to tick the box that gives the Home Office permission to do whatever they wish with my personal data; it was like I had just signed my life away.” (Stefanie Mitchell, In Limbo, p.269)

“The government says that the digital-only status is more secure than any physical proof they could provide us with, but with the recent Home Office data loss scandal we know just how easily they may lose our data. Many EU citizens feel disenfranchised, unwelcome and anxious by the UK government’s treatment of these issues even though we play an important part in the country’s economy and society.” (Lili Hornyai, interview)

“Generating the code that organisations can use to check our status is a complicated, multi-step process – I am technologically savvy, but what about older people, people with disabilities, people in poverty who may not have access to the internet or a smart phone? They are left behind: their rights are in jeopardy.” (Lili Hornyai, interview)

Why are people unaware of the need to apply for Settled Status?

For many reasons, people may not be aware that they need to apply for Settled Status. They include:

  • Older people who’ve been living in the UK for many years, some of whom may be married to a Briton and assume this gives them the automatic legal right to remain permanently
  • People who are incapacitated or with mental health issues
  • People who came here as children but grew up in care
  • Those in controlling domestic or employment relationships.

The social care sector is an important example where there are thousands of EU workers: a third of care workers have not heard of the Settled Status scheme and half do not know about the deadline. “This includes thousands of care workers who have worked tirelessly, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line to get us through this COVID crisis,” said Caitlin Boswell, author of the report for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Myths circulate about who does or does not have to register:

Myth: ‘The scheme is only for people who have arrived recently’

Truth: You must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, no matter how long you have lived in the UK. Unless you are an Irish or British citizen, or you have proof that you have a valid, old-style Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) status (for example, an indefinite stamp in an old passport), then you must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. 

Myth: ‘My children were born in the UK so they are British by birth’

Truth: This is not always the case. If your child was born in the UK, but at the time of their birth neither parent was a British citizen, settled in the UK, nor had acquired EU Permanent Residence, then your child was not born British.

There are many more myths circulating, so do check the Mayor of London’s Mythbuster website.

Children in care face particular difficulties that urgently need to be addressed. A freedom of information request by the Children’s Society has revealed that only 28% of EU children in the UK care system have been awarded Settled Status ahead of the scheme’s 30 June deadline. In other words, there is a contingent of vulnerable children in this country who may face an undocumented future. Being undocumented would, in line with the UK’s historic poor treatment of migrants, likely leave these children destitute and facing a significant challenge to survive. According to the Guardian these children, if undocumented, would have no right to work, rent a home or receive benefits in the UK once they reach adulthood. A campaign has been launched asking people to contact their MP on behalf of children in care.

The UK has no way of estimating just how many people are unaware that they need to apply for Settled Status because the Government did not require EU/EEA/Swiss citizens to register in the UK prior to Brexit. In East Sussex, the EU Settlement Scheme statistics show that at the end of December 2020, only 6,290 people in the county had been granted Pre-Settled Status and 1,270 were still waiting for a decision on their application, so at least 7,560 applicants have not been given the permanent right to stay (press release, James MacCleary Liberal Democrat Parliamentary spokesperson for Lewes).

This is a crucial issue because, as we have seen with the Windrush scandal, there will be very serious consequences for those without legal status after 30 June 2021. First and foremost, missing the deadline means that people could be deported as illegal immigrants, even though they came to live and work here totally legally.

Those who have not secured their Settled or Pre-settled Status by 30 June face a range of other serious consequences. Bearing in mind the current hostile Home Office environment, they are likely to find it difficult to:

  • Retain employment
  • Rent a home
  • Access the NHS
  • Receive state benefits, including pensions to which they were entitled as EU citizens
  • Continue their studies.

How do EU citizens feel now?

I worry for young people from this country who want to travel. My nephew, for example, desperately wants to travel and study in France. He loves France and speaks very good French but now will be denied those sort of opportunities.” (Julie Hortulanus, interview)

Two women at a pro-EU demonstration.

There is some partially positive news in that the Home Office issued EU SS guidance with a ‘reasonable grounds for applying late’ policy. The deadline is in a few weeks’ time. It is helpful that the Home Office recognises the need to take into consideration that there will be a wide variety of compelling and compassionate reasons why someone may have missed the deadline. However, damage done to individuals and groups will not be easily overcome. It will take many, many years to recover the level of love and goodwill which many previously felt for the UK.

“It is very fifty-fifty. I have so many friends here, I have my work, I am on the Brighton bus nominated for an award as a community activist. I ran five different community groups here at one time and I am really part of the community here. There is no Louisa-shaped hole in Germany for me. One friend made an effort but all the others thought I was on holiday and said ‘Oh great to see you’ but that was all.” (Louisa Miller, interview)

“I believe Brexit has damaged a lot [of us] in the UK European community. The feeling of being betrayed, unwanted, different, will stay with us for long, if not forever. The fact that we had to apply for status belittled us even more. I also think that kids were victims here and the feeling of [being] second class citizens is now an integral part of growing up in this country.” (Marta, interview)

“London is the place I call home, although now I have to prove I can still live here. I always thought London was a utopian reality of different cultures living together in peace – a place that can make your dreams come true if you work hard – where talents can flourish in such an inspiring creative hub for artists and for everyone. I want London to still be that dream, that reality. I am not giving up on you London. I still love you.” (Filomena Campus, In Limbo p302)

In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Vote Leave promised that there would be “no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK”, and that they would be “treated no less favourably than they are at present”. Almost five years on, we know this to be untrue (Ebel, 2021).

Support for EU citizens living in the UK

In Limbo project

In Limbo is about making EU citizens’ voices heard through their books, through people leaving their testimony. It is about reaching out through interviews and events, and social media channels. It is a safe haven through the Facebook group, which provides a safe and supportive environment to all members, as many have difficult and painful stories to share.

Settled: Helping EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit

Settled’s information, advice and support services include: multi-lingual telephone advice lines and Facebook online advice forums. Settled is accredited to provide Level 2 immigration advice. Settled is also committed to providing help to those who may struggle to prove and exercise their rights after the June 2021 deadline.

The3million: Giving EU citizens a voice

Their objectives are to defend the right of EU citizens to live work, study, raise families, and vote in the UK as they do now – whatever the outcome of Brexit; protect EU citizens’ rights through advocacy in UK and EU institutions, influence public opinion, and mobilise European and British citizens; and ensure that EU citizens in the UK know their rights and are empowered to stand up for them.

Mayor of London Mythbuster: EU Settlement Scheme

A useful resource to check facts (and bust myths) about the post-Brexit reality for EU citizens.

Many thanks to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this article. Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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