A toxic combination of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic is putting the rights of some EU workers to continue living in the UK at risk.
When the UK was part of the EU, freedom of movement was simple. That meant that even though there may well have been technicalities, these were often blurred, unchecked or ignored.
Now, EU workers in the UK who have ‘presettled’ status are only permitted to leave the UK for a maximum of six months- any longer and they would forfeit their right to return and live back in the UK in most circumstances .
The same applies to UK nationals living and working in EU countries with a similar legal status. Let’s say they worked in Spain but returned to the UK to look after a sick relative for longer than six months. As a result, they would lose their right to go back and live in Spain.
EU workers in the UK who have ‘presettled’ status are only permitted to leave the UK for a maximum of six months
This sort of issue is a direct result of Brexit. Now, a new report is warning that tens of thousands of EU nationals may inadvertently find themselves caught up in this kind of situation because of the added constraints related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s thought that up to 1.3 million foreign workers left the UK last year. That’s the biggest exodus since the Second World War. The fear now is that many may have planned to come back to the UK where they have jobs and homes, but have been unable to return within the six month period due to health and travel restrictions.
The report was carried out by the campaign group, Another Europe is Possible. It is also flagging up what it describes as a “time bomb” of uncertainty for millions of people who lost the freedom of movement guaranteed by EU membership.
According to Home Office guidelines, an absence of more than six months from the UK due to COVID-19 would ‘not necessarily’ affect ‘pre-settled status.’ Crucially though, guarantees are only made for those whose return was delayed because they were themselves sick with Covid-19, in quarantine, or studying.
The report cites the example of a Bulgarian woman named Anna. She first came to the UK with her partner in 2016 to work on a farm. She subsequently settled after finding work in Manchester.
She and her partner then went back to Bulgaria so that she could give birth to her baby shortly before the pandemic began last year. They did not feel comfortable to return to the UK until January this year.
Because they were away for more than six months and missed the 31st December cut-off for starting another new period of residence, the report says they lost their right to apply for pre-settled status. That is in spite of having previously been in the UK lawfully, working and paying taxes, for several years.
Many [foreign workers] may have planned to come back to the UK where they have jobs and homes, but have been unable to return within the six month period due to health and travel restrictions
A spokesman for the Home Office said, however, that the rules were clear that an individual living in the UK before 31st December was entitled to be up to a year away from the country for an important reason such as childbirth.
The report also warns that tens of thousands of long-term UK residents who include key workers on the NHS front line could suddenly find themselves subject to a ‘hostile environment’ because they didn’t apply for settled status by the deadline of June this year.
Another Europe is Possible describes as a “time bomb” of uncertainty for millions of people who lost the freedom of movement guaranteed by EU membership
The Immigration minister Kevin Foster described the report’s claims as ‘exaggerated.’
The report highlights other instances of confusion over EU nationals’ rights. It says some have already wrongly been asked for proof of status to access jobs and education whilst others have been wrongly charged for healthcare. The suggestion is that the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) is on the brink of collapse.
Mr Foster is quoted in the Independent as saying, ‘With more than 5 million applications already received and more than 4.5 million grants of status already made, the EUSS is a major success. Given these facts the suggestion it is ‘on the verge of collapse’ is wildly inaccurate and the only effect of doing so could be to deter people from applying.’
The fact is that people’s lives do not fit into a ‘one size fits all’ box. Many EU citizens who have settled in the UK for years may not speak English as their first language, for example. Others may have pressing reasons to return to their home countries for all sorts of reasons, sometimes for months on end. These kinds of complications cause considerable stress to those who try to unpick what all the new immigration rules and regulations really mean for them and their given situation.
Anxiety over legitimately being able to turn ‘presettled’ status into ‘settled’ status at some point in the future is another real and pressing issue for many. It’s very easy for governments to say that everything is sorted, but the reality on the ground can feel very different and uncertain for those caught up in some of the consequences of Brexit.
[Header image: Ivan Marc, Shutterstock]