EXCL Experts warn over 'ticking time bomb' post-Brexit rights scheme for EU nationals
EU nationals could be caught up in a fresh Windrush scandal under the post-Brexit immigration scheme set to be rolled out by ministers from Saturday, experts have warned.
A top immigration lawyer told PoliticsHome the profession was braced for an influx of enquiries from vulnerable people who fail to navigate the Government's 'Settled Status' scheme.
She also predicted that employers who fall foul of the rules will end up dragged through the courts by people stripped of their rights.
Meanwhile, the Citizens Advice network said immigrants have been left worrying about their future as they grapple with a system set to become their lifeline to legally remaining in Britain.
Campaign group The 3 Million - which represents the EU nationals living in the UK - said Settled Status scheme is a “ticking time-bomb”.
But the Government said the rights of the 3.6 milion EU citizens in the UK will be protected no matter what - and said it had launched a multi-million pound publicity blitz to ensure people from the continent understand the process.
Theresa May has promised EU nationals who apply for the Settled Status scheme - which is rolled out across the country on 30 March - will see no loss in their rights after Brexit.
The system is open to foreigners who have been living in the UK for five years or more, while those who arrived before Brexit but have been in the country for less than five years can apply for pre-Settled Status.
Hopefuls will have to apply before 31 December 2020 if the UK quits the EU without a deal and by 30 June 2021 if the House of Commons backs the agreement Mrs May clinched with Brussels.
Zeena Luchowa, a member of the Immigration Committee at the Law Society and a senior solicitor at the Laura Devine firm, said EU nationals who miss the deadlines face a major threat to their rights.
“We are likely to end up with people who have spent 10 years or more residing in the UK perfectly lawfully who end up with no lawful status simply because they have missed that deadline to register,” she warned.
She said misunderstandings about the system could be “dangerous and damaging” - leaving people without access to services and even stripped of their permission to be in the country.
Ms Luchowa explained that the most vulnerable people, including the elderly, those in care, and UK-born children whose parents do not realise they must be registered, are at the greatest risk.
She said her firm had seen evidence of employers unwilling to offer jobs to EU nationals in the false belief they will lose their rights to work in the UK after Brexit.
And she warned that landlords and other groups who are obliged to check immigration statuses were also at risk of unwittingly discriminating against EU nationals.
Ms Luchowa said: “There is a concern that there may be a repeat of what has happened with the Windrush scandal where individuals at the time didn’t need to have any documentation to be lawfully resident in the UK.
“It was only later on, following the introduction of policy in the hostile environment culture, that individuals found themselves being refused access to healthcare and other services.”
She said her firm had seen “a huge increase in enquiries from European nationals worried about their future” and was providing training to employers and prospective applicants.
And she added: “What we anticipate is that as the number of applicants increase, once the scheme is rolled out, so will the number of refusals and therefore the number of cases against the Government.”
'EU NATIONALS STRUGGLING TO APPLY'
Meanwhile, Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said there were “increasing numbers” of EU nationals seeking help from the body.
She said callers had “concerns about the impact Brexit could have on their rights in the UK” and added: “Many people are also struggling with making an application for Settled Status.”
Ms Guy said the online or app-based application process was not accessible for everyone - noting that one in three people who approach Citizens Advice need help with online services, forms, or tools.
The Government has allocated extra funding to help local Citizens Advice groups cope with the pressures of the Settled Status system.
But Ms Guy warned that “it may be insufficient to meet the needs of everyone once the scheme is fully up and running”.
'TICKING TIME BOMB'
A spokesperson from the 3 Million campaign said: "These concerns show the scheme in its current form is a ticking time bomb – and when it explodes EU citizens either face removal from the UK or having to bring expensive legal cases against the Government.
"Ministers must ensure that everybody who is in the UK right now will receive the status they are entitled to and that their rights are protected for life, in primary legislation.
"The scheme itself needs to change to a simple registration that does not punish those who, through no fault of their own, miss the deadline."
'WE WILL PROTECT THEIR RIGHTS'
But a Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government has already committed to protecting the rights of the millions of EU citizens living in the UK.
“We want them to stay and whatever the outcome of the ongoing discussions about our exit from the EU, we will protect their rights and ensure they get the UK immigration status they need.
“The EU Settlement Scheme is designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible and during testing more than 200,000 people have applied.
“Today we launched a nationwide marketing campaign to encourage EU citizens to apply for the scheme, with other activity planned over the next two years to ensure people understand what they need to do.”
Earlier this week a poweful committee of MPs and peers warned that EU citizens face being stripped of their human rights after Brexit and ending up in a fresh Windrush scandal.
The scandal saw British citizens of Caribbean descent who arrived in the country decades ago stripped of their rights to work, denied access to public services and in some cases deported.