Fears of new Windrush as thousands of UK immigrants face ‘cliff edge’ visa change

<span>An estimated 500,000 non-EU immigrants in the UK will need to replace their physical biometric residence permits with digital e-visas.</span><span>Photograph: mundissima/Alamy</span>
An estimated 500,000 non-EU immigrants in the UK will need to replace their physical biometric residence permits with digital e-visas.Photograph: mundissima/Alamy

Lawyers and migrant rights campaigners have warned that the government is heading for a repeat of the Windrush scandal after imposing a “cliff edge” deadline for immigrants to switch to new digital visas.

By the end of this year an estimated 500,000 or more non-EU immigrants with leave to remain in the UK will need to replace their physical biometric residence permits (BRPs) – which demonstrate proof of their right to reside, rent, work and claim benefits – with digital e-visas.

In order to access their e-visa, people will need to open a UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) digital account. The Home Office has recently emailed invitations for a trial group of BRP holders to open digital accounts, but as many migrants used their solicitors’ email address as their Home Office contact, many have gone to lawyers rather than the immigrants themselves.

In addition, because personal details were excluded from the invitations for data security reasons, the lawyers would have no idea which of their potentially thousands of clients the emails were meant for, meaning they could not forward them on.

“After 31 December, a person without access to their e-visa will be un­able to prove their status in the UK,” said Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association. “The Home Office has placed them in a similar situation to members of the Windrush generation. They have status, but they cannot prove it.

“Given the poor reach of Home Office communications on the issue, it is fair to assume that there will be thousands of people who do not apply for an e-visa before the end of 2024.”

From this summer any BRP holder can open a UKVI digital account without an invitation. But immigration lawyers fear the government’s planned publicity drive will miss many older or poorer people who may not speak English as their first language or do not have ready access to the internet.

Zoe Dexter, housing and welfare manager at human rights charity the Helen Bamber Foundation, described the government’s plans as chaotic. She said: “The Home Office’s move to digitise proof of identity is bound to take a huge financial toll on hundreds of thousands of people, including refugees and survivors of trafficking and torture, whose proof of ID is linked to the benefits they receive.”

Critics warn the Home Office does not have measures in place to deal with possible technical failures, and that it has created a cliff edge with its deadline. People can still apply for a UKVI digital account after 31 December, but if they are not aware of the new rules they may only discover this when they are unable to prove their right to return from holiday or claim benefits, leading to disruption.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Bethan Lant of migrant rights charity Praxis. “People will be un­able to evidence their status through no fault of their own, because the Home Office has not communicated well and has given them a cliff edge after which they are going to struggle to access even the basics. We’re not saying don’t go digital, we’re not saying ‘don’t do this’. We’re saying engage better, do it carefully, do it softly, do it over a period of time.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “E-visas provide secure confirmation of someone’s UK immigration status, enhance security and bring cost savings for the UK public. They also offer greater convenience for customers and status checkers, using tried and tested technology. Our April phased launch marked an important step towards replacing physical documents with e-visas by 2025, a key part of the transformation and digitisation of the UK’s border and immigration system.”