Elly Wright is a 77-year-old Dutch widow living in Epsom, Surrey. She’s a painter, and has been in the country for 52 years, earned her Master’s degree at the University of Kent, has a British son, and is an upstanding member of her community. She got permanent residency in November 2017, which means that obtaining settled status, the Home Office’s post-Brexit plan which would provide EU citizens with the right to stay, should be an extremely easy and straightforward process. Yet, in the current pilot scheme, which the government is testing out before 29 March, Elly’s experience has been nothing short of horrific.
“Pulling my hair out. Tears of frustration. Been phoning the [government] helpline several times,” she wrote on Facebook. The reason behind her difficulties appear to be linked to complications surrounding her last names, having two married and one maiden surname. They’ve given her settled status with her maiden name, despite having permanent residency and multiple documents with her married surname, which she took 28 years ago, and now the process of having it amended is arduous, and is still pending.
Elly’s experience raises the question – is it right for someone in her position, an elderly woman living alone, to be put through this amount of stress and anxiety, just to be allowed to stay in a country where her rights should have been guaranteed in the first place? Her story is far from the only one. The In Limbo Project, which collects testimonies from European citizens and of which Elly is a member, publishes numerous accounts of people with similarly negative experiences of the pilot scheme. The process has proved itself problematic for those who are self-employed and who may have technological issues connected with the Android-only app, ranging from crashes to incorrect advice.
A general feeling of dread, anxiety and even panic is palpable throughout these testimonies, as many European nationals living in this country are unsure about what lies ahead. This is ultimately symptomatic of a government which has repeatedly offered empty reassurances while having put millions of people through nearly three years of uncertainty. Only last April, home secretary Amber Rudd herself said that applying for the scheme would be “as easy as setting up an online account at LK Bennett” – a phrase so myopic and elitist that it begs the question: have these people ever listened to the concerns of the approximately 3.7 million EU nationals currently residing in the UK? I can remember how I felt when, despite having obtained my qualifications in a country I’d lived in for over a decade and being admitted to university, I was forced to spend more than £100 to take an English test for my British citizenship to prove I could speak my first language.
Imagine how belittled and degraded countless people who’ve lived here since before I was born would feel having to apply for their right to stay in their home. As with everything, it will be the most vulnerable in society – the elderly, the poor, those with language barriers – who will be put in the most difficult situation.
As of now, the Home Office maintain that 95 per cent of applicants have had no problem with the app’s identity verification, with only 16 per cent being required to give further evidence. Are these number acceptable? If the error rate were even as low as 1 per cent, that could result in nearly 40,000 people finding themselves in a deeply uncertain situation, possibly even facing detainment or deportation. While the government announced that there was a 100 per cent success rate for the first private beta test, the second test withheld roughly 9 per cent of people as a result of either the need for additional evidence and clarifications, erroneous information, or technical updates.
What's more, 30-35 per cent were assigned “pre-settled status”, which expires after five years and has restrictions on the number of days spent outside the country. Since the system can offer settled status applicants “pre-settled status” if they don’t find all the documents the need, there is a serious risk that many people will be unaware of the technical difference between the two, putting themselves in a perilous legal situation for the future. In summary, the whole process can provide especially confusing for people who have linguistic limitations or technological difficulties. Worse even, several Europeans living here, especially the most vulnerable, do not even know that they have to apply for settled status in the first place.
By this point, bells should be ringing loudly. We all know what happened with the Windrush scandal, as thousands of Brits of Caribbean descent have had their lives affected through wrongful treatment and deportations. By now, it should be common knowledge that having built your life in the UK, working and living here for decades even, is no sure-fire guarantee that you won’t fall through the cracks at the Home Office. Labour MP Yvette Cooper herself has recently asserted how the EU settlement scheme could turn out to be a “Windrush on steroids”, while noting the risk it could pose to many European nationals’ children. Once again, is this a fitting way to treat millions of people, who contribute immensely to this country with their hard work, taxes and community bonds?
The Windrush scandal should have been damning enough, a visible sign of both the insidious malice and incompetence of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy, one which has had a disastrous effect on the lives of numerous people. We’re told we should learn from history to avoid repeating our mistakes, but it seems that the government has forgotten this maxim. It is time that European citizens in the UK are guaranteed the full rights they deserve – and not through a demeaning, haphazard settled status scheme. Because it takes just one mistake to ruin a person’s life.