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Post-Brexit legal status leaves more than 2 million EU citizens still vulnerable to removal from the UK

29 Mar 2022

More than two million EU citizens and their family members hold a temporary status that could see people lose their residence rights in the UK, and become classed as irregular migrants, a new report by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows today. 

The Observatory’s new report, Indefinite Need to Explain?: How Secure Is Pre-Settled Status for EU Citizens After Brexit?’ explains that the risk applies to more than two million EU citizens and their non-EU family members who have been granted temporary ‘Pre-Settled Status’ under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). Many of these people may not be aware of the fact that they need to reapply to secure long-term residence rights – or how or when to do so.  

Pre-Settled Status is given to people who were resident in the UK before the end of free movement in December 2020, but had either lived in the UK for less than five years, or didn’t have evidence to demonstrate the full five years that would make them eligible for permanent, settled status. By late 2021, 2.1 million people held pre-settled status.  

People with pre-settled status who do not reapply within five years will automatically become ‘irregular migrants’ under current rules. They will lose their right to live, work, access housing, and claim benefits, and could be removed from the country. The Independent Monitoring Authority, which is responsible for monitoring the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, has launched a legal challenge against this policy, arguing that the government is not allowed to remove EU citizens’ legal status automatically purely on the basis that they did not reapply.  

The Migration Observatory report identifies several factors that create barriers to securing permanent status for EU citizens. Based on a review of evidence and interviews with practitioners, it points to evidence that some applicants do not understand the difference between settled and pre-settled status and may thus not reapply. It also identifies five main features of the EU settlement scheme that could create challenges for people living in the UK with pre-settled status:  

  • Applying for permanent, settled status is more onerous than for pre-settled status, since people need to have evidence of five full years of residence; 
  • Support that has been available for first-time applicants may no longer be there for people upgrading to settled status, as government-funded programmes wind down; 
  • There is no single deadline—each applicant’s deadline depends on when they received pre-settled status—which complicates communication; 
  • Digital status makes it harder for some applicants to understand their status and when it expires; 
  • Applicants can lose their status if they spend long periods outside the UK and some are confused about what absences are permitted.  

Dr. Marina Fernandez Reino, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford and author of the report, said: “People often look at the fact that over 5 million EU citizens have applied successfully to the EU Settlement scheme, and assume that the job is basically done. It isn’t. For some of the two million people with pre-settled status, the process will actually be harder than it was the first time around.” 

For most applicants, applying to the EUSS has been fairly straightforward. More than 5.2 million individuals had received status through the scheme by the end of 2021. However, the report outlines evidence from research and from individuals working with applicants, showing that some already struggle to understand the scheme or need substantial support.  

Dr Fernandez Reino added: “While most applicants will find the process very straightforward, more vulnerable groups could struggle. Over the past three years, the evidence has become clear that some people find it much harder to engage with the scheme, including such as victims of abuse, people with poor English skills, or those with health problems. Many of the same groups will struggle to secure permanent status, especially if there is less support available to them in the coming years.” 

The fact that people have already applied once means that the Home Office can follow up and remind people to apply. However, not everyone is easily reached, especially if someone else applied for them or their contact information has changed.  


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