Almost a million immigrants decided to leave the UK and return to their countries during 2020, according to the Immigration Observatory at the University of Oxford (MO). The impossibility of finding work, the lack of social assistance due to their irregular situation and loneliness increased by confinement motivated this exodus.
The new Immigration Law approved by the Government of Boris Johnson, in force since January 1, will greatly complicate the return of those who want to try it in the future. But it is the definitive application of Brexit, in the middle of this year, that threatens to become a time bomb for the thousands of people convinced that they already enjoy a stable and settled life in this country.
“The problem will come in the middle of the year, with the elderly who begin to experience problems, and realize, for example, that they did not even have a renewed passport after so many years,” a source from the Spanish diplomatic services in the United Kingdom.
The Conservative Government launched, as of March 2019, the so-called EU Settlement Scheme ( Settlement Program for EU Citizens) . Through an online service, any community resident in British territory could request their residence by presenting their passport and some document proving a previous stay of at least six months (rental contract, municipal tax or electricity and gas bill).
Once the request was recognized and accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, the rights to mobility, work or social and health care prior to Brexit remained intact.
To date, according to official sources, just over five million people (of them, at least 246,000 Spaniards) have acquired the new status (at the beginning of the Brexit negotiation, there were an estimated 3.6 million EU citizens in the United Kingdom). And until June 30, 2021, the window remains open, on condition of proving residence prior to December 31, 2020, when the transition period ended.
“The majority of EU citizens living in the UK are young and highly educated, and they should have no problem understanding and using a petition process that has been simplified to the utmost,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the MO.
“But it threatens to present many more difficulties for certain groups of people who are either unaware of this process, or belong to vulnerable groups that suffer social exclusion or abuse,” he adds.
The UK census figures are fuzzy, but the MO estimates approximately 140,000 people who came to this country more than 30 years ago. Their average age is around 68 years, and many of them tend to think that they are exempt from the new scheme, or do not even know of its existence.
In the case of children born in British territory, the law does not immediately grant them nationality, so the parents must also register them in the same scheme. Previous figures pointed to the existence in this situation of about 700,000 minors.
The Dutch Wiard Sterk, one of the promoters of The3Million campaign in defense of the rights of community citizens in the face of Brexit, warns that, even in the case that 70% or 80% of residents successfully complete the process of regularization, the possible number of people who will be unprotected is worrying.
“We come across cases similar to the Windrush scandal , in which many people lack documentation despite having resided in this country for most of their lives.” The WindrushIt was the first ship to transport hundreds of Afro-Caribbeans from the British colonies to the UK in the late 1940s.
During the government of the conservative Theresa May, many of them were stranded in their countries of origin when, at the end of their visiting trip, they could not re-enter British territory.
“The Government has already made it clear that whoever meets the requirements to benefit from the scheme and has reasonable reasons for having missed the deadline will have new opportunities to present the petition,” Kevin Foster, the Secretary of State for Immigration, explained to EL PAÍS in a recent interview . But the Boris Johnson Executive has not yet clearly defined what those reasonable motives would be, while the new, much more restrictive immigration rules are already in force.
Various humanitarian organizations have denounced the situation of all EU citizens in vulnerable circumstances that have ended up increasing the numbers of the homeless in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that they could add up to 2,000, the majority from Poland and Romania.
“Their expulsion would be the last resort, and first we would proceed to ask them to voluntarily leave the country with public aid. If they refuse, we may be forced to expel them, ” a spokesman for the Interior Ministry told Politico .
The Johnson Government has launched a voluntary return plan, which includes community citizens residing in the United Kingdom, with aid of up to 2,300 euros, but the number of people who have taken up the offer is unknown at the moment.