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Free movement of EU and UK citizens ended in the UK on 31 December 2020. The UK has put arrangements in place to allow EU citizens who had been living in the UK prior to that date to continue doing so after 1 January 2021.
In the UK, EU citizens must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) by 30 June 2021 in order to stay in the UK. However, the pandemic raises challenges for people applying to the scheme and the Senedd has heard that EU citizens in Wales may struggle to be able to stay without more support.
For background information, see our previous blog posts.
What is the EU Settlement Scheme?
The EUSS creates a ‘settled’ and a ‘pre-settled’ status for EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens living in the UK before the end of free movement. Irish citizens are exempt under separate arrangements. .
To get settled status, an applicant must have lived in the UK for five years with no absence of more than six months, with some exceptions. Eligible residents who have lived in the UK for less than five years, but arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020, are granted pre-settled status. Both settled and pre-settled citizens can work in the UK, and access healthcare, education, and public funds. They can also travel in and out of the UK.
However, pre-settled citizens cannot bring family members to join them and lose their status if they spend two years outside the UK (this is five years for settled-status holders). In addition, pre-settled status expires after five years and must be converted to settled status via a second application.
Applications to the EUSS: latest statistics
Despite a high number of applications to the EUSS, the application rate in Wales slowed down during the first wave of the pandemic. According to João Vale de Almeida, the EU Ambassador to the UK, some EU citizens reported that travel restrictions meant that they could not access their documentation, which they needed to provide evidence of their residence in the UK.
As of 31 January 2021, the UK government had received 5.06 million applications, against an estimated 3.8 million eligible residents. 83,800 applications came from Wales, against an estimated 66,000 eligible residents. The reason for more applications than estimated eligible citizens living in the UK is sometimes attributed to a combination of uncertainty of the exact number of eligible residents, repeat applications and double-counting.
Out of the total number of applicants, 44% had been granted pre-settled status, meaning that almost half of EU citizens will need to complete a second application in future to be able to stay in the UK.
COVID-19 raised barriers for EUSS applicants
The Senedd’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation (EAAL) Committee recently completed follow-up work to its 2019 inquiry on the impact of changes to free movement after Brexit. The Committee found that the pandemic has not only exacerbated existing issues with the scheme, but has also introduced new challenges for EU citizens applying to the EUSS. In a recent letter to the Welsh Government the Committee made recommendations to address these issues.
The move to digital platforms during the pandemic impacted vulnerable groups
In 2019 the Welsh Government issued a package of free support to help EU citizens stay in Wales. However, evidence submitted to the Equality Committee by the Bevan Foundation (PDF, 687KB) highlighted that the Citizens Rights Programme providing face-to-face support to EU citizens, including drop-ins, was interrupted by COVID-19. In its letter to the Welsh Government, the EAAL Committee recommended continued engagement with EU citizens to raise their awareness of the scheme and to confirm its support of EU citizens in Wales.
As the EUSS is a digital-only application process, it poses particular challenges for vulnerable groups already affected by the digital gap, such as older people and the homeless. Evidence shows that COVID-19 has intensified the UK’s digital divide . The EAAL Committee urged the Welsh Government to acknowledge the needs of the most vulnerable citizens, particularly those who might be at a risk of digital exclusion.
Challenges will remain beyond the 30 June deadline
The EAAL Committee heard that EU citizens in Wales may struggle to qualify for full settlement as a result of the pandemic. Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory, warned that people with pre-settled status may not know that they need to convert their status through a second application, and might forget their deadline without reminders. The EU’s Ambassador to the UK also explained that some EU citizens with pre-settled status have had to leave the UK during the pandemic and may be stranded in a different country due to travel restrictions. These citizens may struggle to provide evidence of five years of continuous residence needed to get settled status. As a result, the Committee urged the Welsh Government to consider alternative strategies to support citizens who missed the application deadline due to circumstances caused by COVID-19.
Evidence suggests that the end of free movement will undermine sectors reliant on their EU workforce, including the care industry. The EAAL Committee recommended that the Welsh Government should support Welsh employers to deal with the new immigration system.
The Welsh Government replied to the EAAL Committee’s letter on 11 March and accepted its recommendations in full, including a commitment to extend support to organisations providing advice to EU citizens beyond the 30 June 2021 EUSS application deadline. The response reiterates the message of welcome and support expressed in the Welsh Government’s open letter to EU citizens on 6 March, in which the First Minister urged EU citizens who have not yet applied to access the support on offer.
Article by Marine Furet, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament