The specter of illegality hangs over thousands of Europeans in the United Kingdom

The countdown is almost over. Until 31 December at midnight, an EU citizen who moves to the United Kingdom will have the automatic right to live and work there. The day after, it will be too late and a work permit will be required.

With the entry into force of post-Brexit agreements, Europeans living in the United Kingdom will therefore be divided into two distinct groups, according to their date of arrival in the country. But how to distinguish them? In a country that has no identity card, nor centralized population database, the British authorities had to embark on a huge exercise of recording some 3,7 million Europeans living across the Channel. These have until 30 June 2021 to register. Beyond, they will fall into illegality.

Many associations are sounding the alarm, fearing that tens of thousands of people, maybe more, are slipping through the cracks. «At term, there are going to be a lot of individual tragedies”, worries Monique Hawkins, of the association “The 3 Million», which represents Europeans living in the United Kingdom.

Le «settled status», created especially for these Europeans, is assigned relatively easily. You just need to prove your UK residency. If it is less than five years old, a temporary status («pre-settled status») is granted; more than five years, and the status becomes permanent. For someone who has an employment contract, for example, it's simple.

But many cases turn out to be complicated. Shortly before the pandemic, Jakub Krupa, a volunteer at the Polish Center in London, saw the arrival of a Pole who had been in the United Kingdom for fourteen years. “He didn’t have a bank account, because he only did jobs paid from hand to hand. He did not have an employment contract. He did not have a rental contract for his room, that he sublet. And he no longer had his plane or bus tickets showing his arrival in the United Kingdom. At the end, we ended up submitting our London Underground travelcard as proof of residency.”

Barbara Drozdowicz, director of the East European Resource Center (EERC), sees many similar cases. “Many people who come to our center read poorly, and are not capable of assimilating a complex administrative document.” We must support them step by step in their approach, hoping to find documents in order. “There are also older people who have come to the UK to look after their grandchildren, while their children work here”, she continues. The latter generally do not have a lease, nor employment contract. But if they want to stay legally in the UK beyond 30 June, they will have to obtain “settled status”. In total, the EERC helped 8500 people to register.

So they have their case resolved. But how many are not even aware of the steps to take?? From association to association, worrying examples are multiplying. It's about older people living in the UK for a long time who didn't realize the issue affected them; of travelers, notably Roma and Irish Travelers, who have not heard of the subject; minors born in the United Kingdom but who do not have British nationality, and for whom the parents do not take the step… The few 3000 European prisoners sentenced to less than 5 years also have the right to “settled status” (beyond, they are excluded). But how to inform them? “I also receive emails, especially Romanians, who are surprised that babies have to be registered”, continues Monique Hawkins, of the association The 3 Million.

How many Europeans risk becoming illegal immigrants?? If the British authorities managed to register 99% Europeans living across the Channel, which would be an achievement, around 37,000 people would become illegal. And if the figure falls to 90%, we are talking about 370,000 people illegally.

Anyway, the number of Europeans living in the United Kingdom (3,7 millions) is only a rather vague estimate from the National Statistical Office. Lack of mandatory registration so far, there is no reliable figure. The 30 June, it will be impossible to know how many people are missing.

The situation is reminiscent of the beginnings of the “Windrush” generation scandal. These Jamaicans, arrived from 1948 in the United Kingdom by a boat of that name, landed on British soil without registering anywhere. Many of them then made their lives, until the Ministry of the Interior tightens its rules in 2012. From now on, owners, doctors or even teachers are supposed to check the right of residence of the people with whom they deal. Official aim is to create a 'hostile environment' for illegal immigrants. Suddenly, some migrants from the Windrush generation found themselves expelled from a country where they had spent their entire lives, and others were refused coverage for their treatment for cancer. “With the Europeans, we are witnessing an exact replica of the Windrush scandal”, fears Monique Hawkins.

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