Britains may lose their right to live in Britain after Brexit

8 minutes
Britains may lose their right to live in Britain after Brexit

In this photograph from May 11th, 2016 a British government Home Office van is seen parked in West London, UK. Toby Melville File Photo REUTERS

When Dutch boat captain and engineer Ernst-Jan de Groot applied in Britain after Brexit, he became trapped by an online glitch and says he will now lose his job.

Under new immigration rules coming into force, de Groot faces the prospect of losing the right to come to England to work if he cannot apply for a visa through a government website by end of June.

Following its departure from the orbit of the United Kingdom at the end of December, Britain is changing its immigration system to replace EU citizens over people from outside of Europe.

While the government has processed more than 5 million applications from EU citizens in order to continue living in Britain, lawyers and campaigners believe there are tens of thousands who, like de Groot, risk missing the deadline.

Those who succeed are not given a physical document to prove that they have the right to work or live in Britain, so they remain hostile to websites when they need to show evidence of their existence at borders or when they apply for mortgages or loans.

The experience of de Groot and eight other applicants spoken to by Reuters shows how Brexit has put some EU citizens at the mercy of government websites and officials, and how Britain may be discouraging people with the skills it needs.

I am trapped in a bureaucratic maze that would even astonish Kafka and there is no exit, said de Groot. I have tried all I can think of to communicate the fact that their website is not functioning as it should be.

De Groot, 54, has worked in Britain happily on and off for the past six years.

He sails Long, narrow barges from England to the Netherlands to be used as floating homes. He spends a few months the year building boats near Scotland and on the summer he takes a high ship around the west coast of London.

A fluent English speaker, de Groot says he followed the post-Brexit rules by applying for a frontier worker permit in Britain which allows him to work in Britain but not being resident.

The online application was simple until he was asked to provide a photo. The next page of his application, which was reviewed by Reuters said: you do not need to upload new photos, and there was no option to provide one.

A few weeks later his application was rejected for not having a photo.

So began a bureaucratic nightmare of telephone calls, emails and labyrinthine derangement in modern society. He estimates he has spent over 100 hours contacting government officials who he said were either unable to help or gave conflicting information.

Some officials told him there was a technical issue that would be resolved quick. Others said there was no problem.

Each time he called, de Groot said he asked the person to make a record of his complaint. On his last call, he said an official told him that they did not have access to individual cases, so it was impossible to access all.

He tried to start a new application to bypass the glitch, but each time he entered his passport number it linked to his first application and remained trapped in the photo-upload loop.

The Home Office, the immigration department that administers the country's immigration policy, did not respond to requests for comment about de Groot's case or the lack of physical documents proving the status of successful applicants.

Britain has experienced unprecedented immigration over the past two decades. When it was part of the EU, citizens of the bloc had a right to live and work in the country.

A demand to force Britain to take back control of the border was a driving force behind the campaign for Brexit in 2016 by supporters calling for that country to take back control of its territory.

Most EU citizens who want to stay will have applied for settled status before July. Others, such as de Groot, need to work in Britain for visas.

From next month, Landlords, employers, the health service and other public departments will be able to ask from EU citizens for proof of their immigration status.

The Home Office has a reputation for attacking people who do not have the correct documentation.

The government apologises three years ago for the treatment of thousands of Caribbean migrants, who were denied basic rights, including some who had left undocumented in Britain decades earlier despite having arrived legally in Caribbean.

So far in this year, 3,294 EU nationals were denied entry to Britain, with some taken to detention centres because they could not show a correct visa or their residency status.

Lawyers, charities and diplomats say that some EU citizens are wrong to apply or are struggling to navigate the bureaucracy.

Chris Benn, a British immigration lawyer with Seraphus, a law firm contracted by the EU delegation to the United Kingdom to provide information about the rules, has spent the last three years discussing at events telling European citizens how to navigate the new system.

Although Benn said it was impossible to know how many people need to apply, he is worried that up to tens of thousands of people or possibly hundreds of thousands could miss the deadline.

Benn says he is still meeting fluent English speakers who don’t realise they need to apply. He is especially worried about rural people and that people working in rural areas, such as farmers, may be unaware of new rules.

If even a very big percentage gets away, you will have very widespread problems, he said.

While the system has worked well for millions, the nine EU nationals who have stressed themselves with applications involving Reuters say it seems that it’s not nearly so successful. They complain of long waits to speak to representatives in call centres and, when they get through, they are not given case-specific advice.

One of them, a Spanish student in Edinburgh, said Reuters that he was concerned he would be unable to complete his studies because his settled status application in November has been put on hold.

Three days after applying, he was informed in documents examined by Reuters that police considered him being investigated for significant and reckless conduct – an offence in Scotland for behaviour that exposes an individual or the public to the significant risk to their life or health.

The student who asked not to be name public for fear of jeopardizing his career prospects said he had never been in trouble with the police and he had no idea what the alleged investigation might be related to.

He demanded details from Scottish police. In replies seen by Reuters, they said their databases indicated that he was not regarded as for any crime, nor under investigation.

He directed His University, campaign groups for EU nationals and the Spanish embassy for help. So far, no one has been able to get him out of the bureaucratic maze.

The panic has been gradual and constant, he said. I end up thinking about it all the time because I could get kicked out of the country literally.

A spokeswoman for Scotland directed questions to the Home Office.

The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment on the student's case or complaints about call centres.

De Groot is also frustrated. The company that usually employs him to captain a ship in the summer has started to look for someone else.

What will Britain do with EU citizens who don't get the right documents?

The government has said that those who miss the deadline will lose the right to services such as free non-urgent healthcare and could be deported. Guidelines suggest leniency will only be granted in certain cases, such as for people with physical or mental incapacity.

Even those with settled status are concerned that if they do not have a physical document as proof, they could end up in immigration limbo if sites fail.

When Rafael Almeida, a research fellow in neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, applied this year for a mortgage, he was asked to provide a share code generated by a government website to prove his current status.

Almeida said that the website will not work and he was greeted with a message: There is a problem with this service at present. Try later.

After a month of failed attempts to generate the code, Almeida's mortgage broker persuaded the lender to accept only his passport as proof of identity. The website remains not working.

The Home Office did not answer requests for comment.

Almeida is concerned that he will never get healthcare from month one, or apply for a job if he ever wants to or return to Portugal to see family or friends.

I am incredibly anxious, I am frustrated with the people who should have taken care of this, he said. I am just really worried about the future.

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