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the3million: The Challenges of Digital Status: EU Citizens’ Struggles in Post-Brexit UK
The Challenges of Digital Status: EU Citizens’ Struggles in Post-Brexit UK
The anniversary of the UK’s decision to leave the EU on 23rd June 2023 was marked around the country, not only by British citizens, but also by millions of EU citizens and their family members who have made the UK their home. For many of them, the day marked 7 years of new insecurities about their immigration status and entitlements in the UK. When no-deal Brexit was still a possibility, it laid bare the emptiness of politicians’ promises that “nothing would change” for EU citizens. Even the eventual Withdrawal Agreement did not live up to the pre-Brexit promise that all EU citizens would be automatically granted indefinite leave to remain.
the3million, an organisation born out of the frustrations and concerns in the aftermath of the referendum, started as a grassroots gathering by one small group of EU citizens in a Bristol pub in 2016. It has since grown into the most prominent advocacy organisation for the protection of EU citizens’ rights. Although two and a half years have passed since the Withdrawal Agreement came into effect, there is still much to be done, and the3million continues to advocate for the protection of those rights.
Following the Brexit vote and subsequent negotiations, the government introduced the EU Settlement Scheme, aimed at Europeans already residing in the UK before Brexit. In the years since its introduction, issue after issue continues to present a barrier to EU citizens and their families exercising their rights to live and work in the UK.
The EU Settlement Scheme is the UK’s first digital-only immigration system, the likes of which has never been tested here before. It has been rolled out within a short timeframe, leaving many struggling with unforeseen problems for which there is an absence of adequate solutions.
For many, obtaining settled or pre-settled status digitally was a straightforward process. With an application involving an online form and the use of a smartphone app, it seemed a relatively streamlined way of securing their status in the new landscape of the post-Brexit UK. But there are many others for whom this new process has been anything but straightforward.
Whereas UK citizens living in EU countries are provided with a physical card to prove their rights, the same is not true for EU citizens here. This form of digital status does not exist as a document. To access it, a person needs a computer or smartphone, a good internet connection, and a reliance on the government’s databases running effectively. To be able to successfully prove their status, a person has to rely on the many moving parts of the system. It can fail, and regularly does. Those most affected are often those who are most disadvantaged. Those who lack digital literacy, and many with disabilities, often discover that the inability to use a smartphone app leaves them dependent on others to access their own ID. But it is not only the more vulnerable who are affected.
As part of the hostile environment, immigration status checks have been pushed outwards onto employers, landlords, and other non-government figures. The process for checking the immigration status of those with EU settled or pre-settled status is messy, complicated, and frankly unappealing to those who have to carry out the checks. Research is beginning to show that many landlords simply won’t do it, and instead prefer to offer their vacancies to those who can show a conventional document to prove all that is needed. In today’s competitive rental market, many migrants with digital-only status will hardly stand a chance.
Similarly, for those working in the gig economy and applying for jobs with urgent start dates, employers are likely to opt to hire the easier recruits who can show a passport. Those with digital status are once again losing out.
Glitches in the government databases also mean that problems can arise for anyone, with no forewarning. On top of the inherent unwieldiness of the system, the3million has seen case after case in which people’s digital status is corrupted, or intertwined with that of someone else entirely, displaying a different person’s photo or a different name. The data protection implications are huge, and so are the immediate consequences: losing jobs, missing out on housing. These are the threads which make up the fabric of a person’s life. When they start to unravel, more often follows. In times of increasing financial uncertainty and rising costs, these are vital basics and our government is failing to uphold their obligations to protect them.
The problems that EU citizens face with their digital status is becoming the reality for all migrants. The EU Settlement Scheme has been the guinea pig for the roll out of a wider digital immigration system, with the full digitisation for all migrants underway and biometric documents set to be phased out entirely by the end of 2024.
the3million is dedicated to trying to improve the system so that it works better for all migrants and enables them to access their rights. We have developed a thorough, cost-effective, and workable alternative to the current digital status involving a secure QR code, the details of which can be accessed at: https://the3million.org.uk/node/1100850182.
If you know of anyone who has experienced difficulties with their digital immigration status please encourage them to report it to the3million here: https://the3million.org.uk/report-it and also to write to their MP. The more evidence that is presented, the more likely it is that the government will see sense and move away from the current form of digital status, which simply isn’t fit for purpose.
*the opinions of this piece are the Authors own