Recent statistics published by the Home Office show that, so far, over 30% of EU citizens living in the UK have registered on the EU Settlement Scheme. While this is encouraging, the reality is that reaching all potential registrees by 31 December 2020, in the case of a hard Brexit, or by 30 June 2021, if the UK Parliament supports the Withdrawal Agreement, is challenging. Similar registration schemes around the world show that it is almost impossible to reach 100% coverage, or even get close, without significant financial investment.
These statistics also identify registration disparities between nationalities. To date, 179,800 Polish and 141,200 Romanians have registered. In 2018, the Office for National Statistics estimated (based on overseas-born population) that there were 832,000 Polish and 392,000 Romanian residents in the UK. This means that proportionately more Romanian citizens have registered than those who are Polish. It needs to be investigated why some nationalities responded better to settled status than others. If there are any systemic barriers, they need to be tackled as soon as possible.
Discussions are ongoing as to how vulnerable groups of EU citizens, such as older people, victims of modern slavery or domestic violence, are disadvantaged in applying for settled status. The policy group ‘British Future’ argues that if 5% of EU citizens don’t register this will be around 175,000 people, and it may lead to a repeat of the Windrush scandal. In such a scenario EU citizens could be denied access to the NHS and other public services. The UK government states that it supports EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK, but has not clarified what will happen to those who miss the deadline or decide not to apply for settled status. Large numbers of unregistered EU citizens in the UK will be problematic for the NHS. For staff working in the NHS, charging EU citizens will be professionally challenging in a system which values free care at the point of need. If, for example, 10% of EU citizens do not register this is circa 350,000 people, which is more than the population of Newcastle. Uncertainty exists not only for EU citizens but also public bodies as they prepare for exiting the EU.
Piotr, from the School of Nursing and Midwifery, recently conducted a study, alongside the School of Applied Social Studies, exploring the impact of Brexit on the mental health and wellbeing of EU citizens. Participants shared stories of themselves or their friends and family members struggling with the settled status application. For example, despite residing in the UK for over five years, people were offered only pre-settled status. These experiences made participants anxious about their future and negatively impacted their mental health.
Some of the participants decided not to apply for settled status as they preferred to wait for the outcome of Brexit and many hope that Brexit will not happen. Those who haven’t applied feel like they are living in limbo. The results of the Brexit referendum shifted EU citizens’ perception of belonging in the UK. Our participants described their local community as home, but the result of the vote made them feel rejected as the Leave campaign focused on migration levels in the UK. EU citizens also felt disenfranchised as the referendum was a life-changing vote, but the majority of them were not allowed to vote. This rejection made them feel different. Thus, asking EU citizens to register for settled status or, as some of the participants pointed out, to ‘apply’ for the right to stay in their home, is a challenging task.
EU citizens are a diverse group - they represent 27 nationalities, all age groups and are employed in a range of occupations. As such, they have diverse views on how to respond to settled status. Some participants indicated they had already registered or planned to register in the future. Others were waiting to see what happens and some noted they were not planning on applying at all. Some of this disparity can be explained by the findings from RGU’s study in which participants described Brexit as a sad, traumatic event and likened the feelings they experienced to grief and mourning. Mixed and fluctuating feelings of denial, sadness and acceptance of what was happening was reported by participants. Brexit is still ongoing and its outcome remains uncertain; so EU citizens keep reliving and re-experiencing these feelings. However, clarity on Brexit is only a part of the solution, and fundamentally more work needs to be done to rebuild trust with EU citizens.
Based on RGU’s research findings, if the UK wants to send the message to EU citizens that ‘they are welcome to stay here and be a part of the community,’ then the country needs to invest more resources into the settled scheme, and support organisations which are improving the social cohesion and integration of diverse communities. Integration does not equal assimilation and any activation activities need to bring together EU and British citizens. The Home Office has already provided £9 million to charities supporting EU citizens to assist with the registration process. However, more funding is needed to cover outreach work until the last registration day and to bring communities together.