The fight to become settled: EU citizens’ rights after Brexit

A project by Anna Colivicchi

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa via Unsplash

It is two years after the Brexit referendum, and students at the University of Cambridge are attending a talk by EU citizens' rights organisation the3million

Lara Parizotto, a politics student, is sitting in the audience. She listens as the young volunteers share their personal experiences. They talk about applying for citizenship, they explain how to make sure to safeguard one's rights after Brexit, they mention comprehensive sickness insurance

“I remember I was sitting in the audience,” says Lara, “and I turned to my friend, and said ‘I don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance! What is that?' I never knew it was necessary. And I started freaking out, because I didn’t know anything about it.”

Born and raised in Brazil, Lara moved to the UK for the first time when she was 13, with her mother and grandmother. Thanks to a distant relative, she was able to acquire Italian citizenship, and moved to the UK for good as she turned 18. 

“I thought I was going to be kicked out,” she continues, “that I was not going to be able to stay, and finish my degree.”

Under the current scheme, EU citizens must apply for 'settled status' or have their right to be in the UK revoked from June 2021. Although a large proportion of EU citizens all over the UK have now applied, not all have been successful. 

At least two million people have been granted ‘pre-settled status’, which expires in five years unless a further application is successful, but tens of thousands of applications have been marked as invalid, refused or withdrawn.

One of the volunteers Lara heard talking at the event in Cambridge was Alexandra Bulat, a Romanian citizen. 

“My dad started working for the NHS in one of those exchanges between doctors from different countries – I was three years old then, and I don’t remember much," explains Alexandra, “but I did return to the UK for good when I turned 18 years old, in 2012.”

She adds: “I did my undergraduate, my master’s and my PhD here. I came to study, but I came with the intention to move here permanently.”

After the Brexit referendum, Alexandra realised she needed to protect her rights, and joined the3million as a volunteer.

She adds: “As someone coming from Romania, I did face some negative comments when I moved to the UK. I can’t say Brexit necessarily changed things significantly – but I know that before Brexit I felt safe here, because I knew my rights - and that's not the case anymore for so many EU citizens.” Alexandra has now obtained her British citizenship, but her Twitter bio recites Your Romanian neighbour. 

Fast forward to today, three years after that talk, Lara and Alexandra are both co-chairs of the Young Europeans Network, the3million's youth wing, which campaigns for EU students’ rights, access to citizenship and political representation. 

“These are people who have lived here for years,” says Lara, “that do so much for the UK – at least as much as the UK does for them. So it’s only right that they participate fully in the life of this country, and that they preserve their rights.”

Photo by Alexander Andrews via Unsplash

'We had to apply to stay in our own home'

“I almost regret bringing up my children in this country now,” says Anna Zajda, a Polish secondary school librarian who has been living in the UK for half of her life. 

She moved to the UK when she was 21, and met her husband at a Polish church in Angel, London. “When you’re young, it feels like an adventure, we didn’t think long term,” she explains, “we just liked it here and we thought ‘why not?’ We ended up never going back.”

She had to apply for settled status, and had to fill in the application for her two children as well, despite them being born in the UK. As her children, they are eligible for settled status too, but the process is not automatic and requires a separate application. 

She adds: “Effectively, it was an application process to stay in your own house. It was a slap in the face, to be honest.” 

Together with the metaphoric slap across the face, there was a promise which was not upheld. “They promised nothing was going to change for us,” continues Anna. 

A Danish citizen, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he found the process of applying for settled status quite unsettling too: “It was an uneasy feeling, having someone else making such a big decision for you. Why do I have to apply to stay in my own house, which I actually own? The whole thing came across as quite divisive.”

He has lived in the UK for three quarters of his life, but he says he feels he's being treated as a “a second-class citizen” purely because he's not British. He also had to apply for settled status on behalf of his three Danish daughters, who are growing up in the UK. 

For Joe Pagnelli, a half-Italian, half-Malaysian journalist based in Leeds, the process felt like a lot of pressure. He says: “Now I’m in a stable job, but at the time I was in and out of restaurants and bars, and really struggling. So I was really nervous, and didn’t think I would be allowed to stay.”

Elena Remigi, the founder and director of the InLimbo Project, who was born near Milan and has been living in the UK since 2005, also says she feels the government has failed to maintain the promise that nothing was going to change. 

She created InLimbo to document the real impact of Brexit, with testimonies from Europeans living in the UK, and Brits living in Europe. These testimonies are collected in a book and shared on social media and during campaigns. She says: “InLimbo unites all of our voices, in order to be heard.”

The unsettling feeling is shared by so many EU citizens living in the UK, so in September 2020, InLimbo launched Unsettled, a new campaign asking people to send an InLimbo book to their MP or other influential figures. Elena adds: “There is nothing settled for us yet.” 

On February 11, Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted saying: “over 5 million people have applied to the hugely successful EU Settlement Scheme. It's the biggest scheme of its kind in UK history and will mean European citizens and their families can continue to call the UK home.” 

In the same week, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove told MPs: “It is a great advertisement for this country. People have chosen to stay in unprecedented numbers.”

The data published by the British Interior Ministry however shows that the figure is not 100% reliable: about 380,000 cases have yet to be completed and almost 141,000 applications have been refused or invalidated.

“It felt like an insult,” says Elena, “that they are advertising it as a success.”

A pro-Europe mural in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Anna Colivicchi

Digital and physical barriers to becoming settled

The EU Settlement Scheme, the first of its kind, is entirely digital and because of its online-only nature, it presents some unprecedented challenges. 

“This happens to be the first group of migrants who will get digital status only,” explains Alexandra Bulat, “and the government are planning to expand this digital system to everyone. But it’s problematic – it’s implemented so quickly, compared to other countries, and the more you rush the process, the less time you have to properly inform employers, landlords and banks.”

According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, applications may be more difficult for people who already face social exclusion of some kind, or whose independence or autonomy is reduced. Elderly and disabled people in particular are having problems to register, encountering issues with digital access, and even language barriers. 

“Some people will just not be able to use it,” adds Alexandra, “because they don’t have digital access. It’s the minority of people, but the system is supposed to work for everyone.”

Lara Parizotto also volunteers with Settled, an independent charity which supports vulnerable EU citizens to get settled status and remain in the UK, and provides advice in different languages. 

“My grandmother doesn’t speak English,” explains Lara, “she didn’t know she had to apply for settled status, she thought she could just continue to stay. A lot of the people who go to Brazilian churches in London for example don’t speak English, and they are not really in touch with the information provided by the government.”

As part of her work for Settled, Lara supports Brazilian and Portuguese communities across the UK, translating and interpreting for them, when they don't speak English.

Another huge problem is the lack of physical proof of the status, which led the3million to start a campaign in favour of a tangible ID. The lack of a physical document is in fact very likely to cause confusion among authorities and employers, as well as discrimination when applying for jobs or when renting a property.

Since January 2021, EU citizens are being stopped at airport passport controls and required to present a proof of their pre-settled or settled status, POLITICO reports, but this is thought to be down to officials not having enough clarity around the new rules, rather than “a hostile environment toward foreigners.”

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As part of this project, two PhD candidates at the University of Warwick talk to Anna Colivicchi about their experience as Italian citizens working in academia after Brexit.