A new report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) found that thousands of EU care workers currently in the UK risk being criminalised overnight and losing their right to work. JCWI issued an urgent warning that there is a lack of knowledge on the post-Brexit EU settlement scheme (EUSS), risking further devastation to the care sector amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The post-Brexit framework requires all EEA+ residents (EU, EEA, Swiss citizens and non-European family members) to apply for the EUSS to renew their legal right to live and work in the UK by the deadline of 30 June 2021. If they do not do so, they are liable to removal by the Home Office, facing the “full force of the Hostile Environment”, including criminal charges, detention and deportation. Nearly 4.9 million people have so far applied for the scheme, but as the total number of EU workers in Britain is unknown by the Home Office, there will likely be a significant number of people who do not apply.
The care sector employs roughly 250,000 non-UK nationals, making up 16% of the workforce, 113,000 of whom are EU citizens. The report found that vulnerable people, marginalised groups, and many low-paid or exploited workers are at high risk of losing their legal status overnight. Even if a small fraction of people do not apply for the scheme, this leaves tens of thousands at risk of losing their immigration status. The JCWI conducted an online survey and in-person interviews with 259 EU care workers and found that:
“One in seven care workers surveyed online did not know or were not sure what the EUSS was, and one in three did not know that there was a deadline or did not know when it was. From those surveyed in-person, one in three had not heard about the EUSS, and over half did not know when the deadline was.”
Outreach and support for those trying to apply for the scheme was deemed inadequate. The Home Office has provided £17 million to 72 different charities across the UK who assist people with immigration matters, but this has created a reliance on charities and employers to inform and help people, which the JCWI called “unrealistic and dangerous.” Just under half of the care workers surveyed online received help with their application, with 77% saying that support was “quite” or a “very” important part of the process. Yet, nine out of ten care workers surveyed in person did not know where to find assistance with the EUSS. Lack of support by the Home Office has worsened due to the loss of face-to-face contact during the pandemic, as there is a shortage of people to help others apply.
As well as this, one in three surveyed online reported wholly negative experiences or feelings around applying for the scheme. Many people were worried about the lack of physical documentation provided by the EUSS, given the increased deportations under the Hostile Environment policies and the denial of crucial services to those who are unable to produce papers. This is especially concerning in the pandemic, where the care sector has struggled to cope after suffering severe cuts in recent years. Between 2010-2015, councils cut spending on adult social care by almost 9.3%, and although there was a slight increase from 2015 onwards, spending is still 2.1% lower than 2009/2010 levels. The Brexit vote took place amidst a “crisis in care”, the report details, which had “major implications for the social care industry, which as we have shown, relies so heavily on EEA+ labour.” The ending of free movement exacerbates difficulties faced in the care sector, with more crippling staff shortages and leading to thousands more in need without care.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored just how much our communities, our economy and our health depend on workers considered by some to be “low skilled”. Workers who put their lives and their families’ lives at risk daily to care for others. Workers who now face the real prospect of losing their legal status in the UK overnight,” the report said.
The report also warns that these problems are not just to care workers, but will affect EU citizens more broadly, particularly elderly and disabled people, domestic abuse survivors, homeless people and Roma communities. The Roma Support Group found the “vast majority of Roma people knew about Brexit but did not know how to apply through the scheme. They state that a lack of clarity about Brexit before the 31st January 2020 made people disengaged and confused about the process.”
Whilst the research of the JCWI report focused on care worker staff, it also noted concerns for EEA+ citizens who receive care and live in care homes. Care home residents, often very isolated even before the pandemic hit, are now at even more risk of not receiving help with the EUSS. Many are elderly, disabled, have limited mental capacity, or don’t have family around them, therefore face significantly more barriers. One case study in the report described the experience of a 72-year old German citizen who has lived in London for over 50 years, arriving in Britain in 1968. She struggled to apply for the EUSS using the digital app, but after failed attempts was locked out of the system. It took almost three months, two visits to the local town hall on an hour bus journey each way, a £15 appointment fee and numerous calls to the Home Office before her status was approved. After living in the UK for such a long time, she felt frustrated and dispirited having to go through such a difficult and lengthy process to remain here. She is one of many elderly people who face the same challenges, with bus journey’s and town hall visits no longer possible with the COVID-19 risk.
Another group of people vulnerable to losing their right to work and live in the UK are those not formally employed, such as gig economy and zero-hour contract employees. Many people employed in such circumstances are “isolated and out of reach”, lacking an employer who has an interest in keeping their staff regularised with the right to work. Out of the care workers interviewed in person, three-quarters told the JWCI that they had not received any information about the EUSS from their employer, but this is due to the fact that five out of seven care managers had not received any information about the scheme from the Home Office.
The report stresses the fact that there is no true indication of how many people are eligible for the EUSS, and how many people have applied. The government’s official figures estimate that there are 3.4 million non-Irish EU citizens resident in the UK, but this number is likely too low given that over 4 million people have so far applied for the EUSS. This figure does not include non-EEA+ family members, who are also part of the eligible population. Because of this, it makes it difficult for charities and organisations who assist people to prepare and do so. Additionally, the number of applications can include repeat applications, for example those who applied for pre-settled status and then settled status. The 3 Million found that “thousands of repeat applications had been counted towards the total, which makes Home Office statistics unreliable and raises questions over the integrity of its reporting.”
It recommends that the deadline for applying to the EUSS be lifted so that nobody is forced to lose their legal status and their rights, and instead EEA+ citizens should be given automatic settled status. A more robust monitoring and outreach system is needed, as the government has a duty to find out who is at risk of being left out and making sure that they are assisted. If a deadline does remain, the government should publish comprehensive and flexible guidance for late applications, as it would be “a cruel and counterproductive act to put unnecessary barriers up against citizens being able to stay with their families and communities here.” All EEA+ citizens should be provided with physical documentation as proof of status to avoid relying on government IT, and to prevent them facing housing, work, or other forms of discrimination. Ultimately, the Hostile Environment needs to end, as it has “been shown to cause racism and destroy the lives of migrants caught up in it, like those of the Windrush generation.”
“The new rules expose millions more migrants to these risks, and make further abuses like Windrush ever more likely. It needs to be scrapped,” the report concludes.
EUSS cases should also be brought within the scope of legal aid. The current system provides no legal aid which has a great impact on vulnerable EAA+ citizens, “particularly non-EU family members who tend to have complex cases and need help to navigate the system.” Independent legal advice is needed to ensure people who are eligible for status actually receive it. Finally, the confusion between pre-settled and settled status is in need of being clarified, to avoid repeat applications and miscounts, and prevent people who are unaware that their status is not yet secure from slipping through the cracks. “Pre-settled status simply moves the risk of becoming irregular from June, to five years in the future. This will create a silent wave of people becoming irregular in future,” the report warns. It recommends everyone who applied for pre-settled status to receive automatic settled status after five years.
The government should urgently consider the recommendations made by the JCWI report in order to prevent thousands of people in the care sector and from vulnerable communities losing their status and right to live and work in the EU. This is crucial now more than ever with the hard hitting impact of COVID-19 on the care sector and the risk of further collapse.
This post was originally published on International Observatory of Human Rights.