Tens of thousands of Roma people are at risk of facing further exclusion from society because a lack of digital skills in the community means many are struggling to prove their EU settled status – the immigration status all EU national in the UK are required to obtain in order to remain in the UK legally after Brexit – which exists only in a digital format.
The Home Office says it provides successful applicants to the EU settlement scheme with only a digital copy of their status to ensure they can “constantly access proof of their status” and that this is in keeping with the “shift towards digital status in all areas of life”.
But a new report, coordinated by the charity Roma Support Group and seen by The Independent, warns that many risk being left unable to prove their status despite living in the UK legally as a result of having no physical immigration document, and are already being exploited by third parties offering unqualified or paid-for “support”.
In one case, a woman who lost her husband to coronavirus in April was left unable to prove her EU settled status because he was the only person who had the details on how to access it online and she was not digitally literate. As a result she was unable to find work or access welfare benefits for months during the pandemic.
Although government guidance explicitly states that third parties cannot ask EU citizens to prove their status under the EU settlement scheme until after 30 June 2021, many have reported on their experience of being checked by employers, landlords and when applying for benefits through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Official records from 2013 indicate that there are 200,000 Roma living in the UK, the vast majority of whom are EU citizens and therefore are required to make applications under the EU settlement scheme in order to secure their status after Brexit.
The report, which is drawn from data on 7,000 Roma people, indicates that only 3 per cent of the community were able to independently complete an online application like the EU settlement scheme, while 20 per cent owned an IT device such as a tablet or a laptop.
While many Roma families do have at least one smartphone in their household, its usage is limited to phone calls and basic social media activities, the research suggests.
Baroness Janet Whitaker, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, told The Independent the issue amounted to discrimination and called on ministers to remedy the lack of digital capacity among Roma people so that their disadvantages in Britain were not “compounded by virtual disenfranchisement”.
She added: “Security in the national status to which people are entitled is a responsibility of government and to deny it is a fundamental injustice.”
The report notes that during the Covid-19 pandemic, as hundreds of thousands of people across the UK had to apply for universal credit, many EU nationals, including Roma people, were required to prove their settled status in order to have their applications processed.
Due to the difficulties in accessing their digital status, this is said to have transpired in Roma families experiencing poverty, evictions, and mental health difficulties.
In one case, Gina*, a mother-of-eight who moved to the UK with her children in 2017 to join her husband, who had been working here since 2009, said she had been left with no income and unable to access support after he died from Covid-19 in April.
She and her husband had both been working for the same company in the warehouse industry, and he would drive them there, but his passing meant she couldn’t get to work as she didn’t have a driving license – so she lost her job. Gina then received a letter being informed that the family’s tax credits had been suspended.
“I had no idea what I could do and I was desperate. With so many children and with one of them disabled, life is very hard when you cannot provide for your family,” she said.
Gina, 40, discovered she could make a universal credit application, but her first two attempts were unsuccessful because she couldn’t prove her settled status as her husband was the only person who knew the details of how to log on and access their status.
A charity eventually helped her to successfully apply for universal credit, but she is now facing difficulties finding work as a result of being unable to prove her settled status online
“I think it would help so many of us if we could simply have an evidence in our hands, something that we can show to those asking for our residence. I would especially need something like that to be able to get work,” said Gina.
“Now if I go to find work or somewhere else and someone asks me about this digital status I have nothing to show them. And, on top of this, there are many who are trying to benefit from this situation. Many are aware of people like me and our vulnerabilities in this context and are offering support for money.”
In another case included in the report, a mother-of-two was asked to provide proof of her status during a hospital appointment. She had been granted pre-settled status a few months before, but was unable to provide digital proof of it to the hospital staff because she didn’t know how, and had to ask the charity to print her confirmation letter.
While charities have been able to assist many people in the Roma community with making applications under the EU settlement scheme, the report notes that their resources are limited and they have not been able to support everyone.
Mihai Calin Bica, campaigning and policy project coordinator at the Roma Support Group, told The Independent many Roma people had turned to “informal” accountants whom they pay to apply for their settled status, but who then fail to explain how to access it online.
“These are not trained people. They are able to use technology and speak English, but they don’t know all the details behind the scheme. They are helping people to apply and then taking their money, but they aren’t providing the information that people need to be able to then access this digital status,” he said.
“People are happy they have been granted settled status, but when they want to find a new job, rent a house, open a bank account, access health services, they will not be able to, because they don’t have access to their digital status.”
Mr Bica said there was a “huge risk” of people losing their jobs and being unable to get healthcare, and warned that this would have a knock-on effect on public services because it would wind up with more people needing support, such as welfare benefits.
He added: “The majority of applicants are happy with their digital status, but not everyone is ready for it at the moment.
“These people should be given a physical document to avoid all the problems coming up in the short-term, and in the longer-term, the government should work with people to provide resources, training and support so that people can learn about digital status and how to access and use it.”
Christopher Desira, human rights and immigration solicitor at Seraphus law firm, who has been supporting many Roma people with their settled status applications, said a significant section of the community was still not aware of the EU settlement process at all.
He warned that unless “considerable effort” was made by the government to support them, large segments would be living in the UK unlawfully from July next year.
He added: “There are substantial barriers for these these individuals, including the lack of access to IT, no valid ID documents and evidence of residence and low access to trusted information and assistance.”
The report notes that “insufficient” data has been provided on how many Roma have applied to the settlement scheme so far and of these how many have been granted only pre-settled status, which is temporary and requires them to apply again after five years.
Charities are concerned that Roma people granted pre-settled status are more likely to have difficulty securing their immigration status once their pre-settled status expires.
Data collated by the Roma Support Group of more than 1,000 Roma members who have submitted their settlement applications found that 62 per cent of those supported were granted pre-settled status, compared to a national average of 41 per cent.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The EU settlement scheme has provided millions of people with a secure digital status which can be shared with others and is much better than physical documents getting lost or stolen.
“A huge amount of support is freely available, including a dedicated helpline open seven days a week and dozens of charities across the UK who provide support thanks to government funding.”
*Names have been changed