What’s happening with Europeans in the UK?
Hey friends and followers, I know you’re all much more interested in US politics these days than what’s happening in the UK, but here is a very brief summary of why I will be visiting parliament next Monday instead of going to work.
As you might know, I live and work in the UK, but I have a Dutch passport. You might think that I have nothing to worry about, that I can definitely stay after Brexit. After all, I have lived here a while and have a PhD, and I used to be a permanent resident in Canada so I must be qualified to live in other countries. Well, it’s not so simple. Not simple at all…
Here are some misconceptions about Europeans’ current status in the UK and the Brexit transition period, followed by two frequent types of responses that you might have upon reading this. It’s a bit long, so you can just skip to the specific misconceptions that you might have.
To make it a less boring read, I’ve added pictures of cute animals that have all migrated from the European mainland to the UK over the years.
Misconception 1: Any Europeans who are already living in the UK will be able to stay
We have been trying to get the government to make exactly this promise, which a lot of people take as a given, but they have not done so. They’re waiting for all other EU countries to make a similar promise for UK residents abroad. Both Europeans in the UK and British citizens in EU countries are being used as bargaining chips. If you see an “I’m not a bargaining chip” image on social media, that’s what this is about.
The insecurity about the future status of EU residents in the UK is already causing people to leave, creating labour shortages.
Misconception 2: If you’re a skilled worker with degrees, you can definitely stay
(a.k.a. “People like YOU can stay” — version A)
There is an immigration route into the UK for skilled workers from outside of the EU (and you might, for example, have American friends who moved here via that process) but this immigration pathway is NOT currently available for Europeans to use.
There is only one immigration pathway for all Europeans regardless of degrees or jobs, and the system is malfunctioning (more on that below).
The immigration requirements are actually extra hard for scientists and other academics, who can get disqualified either because they didn’t have the right insurance during their full-time PhD (which often doesn’t leave time for, or doesn’t allow, an additional job on the side), because they spent too much time out of the country for field work or professional development, or because they work for international research centres that are physically in the UK but organisationally established elsewhere. The international nature of academic research does not fit the mould of an immigration system based purely on residence in one single country.
The international nature of academic research does not fit the mould of an immigration system based purely on residence in one single country.
Misconception 3: If you have strong ties to the UK, like a British spouse or children, you can definitely stay
(a.k.a. “People like YOU can stay” — version B)
Ironically, some of the people who have lived here the longest — who did their degree here and/or raised kids here — are now told they might not be able to stay
Having a British spouse or British children is entirely irrelevant for the immigration procedure for Europeans in the UK. You can only apply to become a permanent resident if you have “exercised treaty rights” for five years in the UK. That either means that you have worked during that period, and paid national insurance contributions via your employment, or that you had your own “comprehensive sickness insurance” during the years you were not employed.
Until people started looking into immigration after the referendum last summer, most EU citizens in the UK had no idea that they were supposed to have had this kind of insurance. Nobody ever told them. Nobody ever asked for it. Nobody ever checked. Until now.
In particular students and stay-at-home parents are affected by this insurance requirement. Many people who have been married to a Brit for decades are now being told that they are not qualified to become a permanent resident of the UK. A British spouse can not be a “sponsor” for their immigration application.
So, ironically, some of the people who have lived here the longest — who did their degree here and/or raised kids here — are now told they might not be able to stay.
Misconception 4: Okay, I think I get it: If you worked continuously in the UK for at least five years, you will definitely be allowed to stay
Well….maybe. This is currently the most likely guarantee, but there are snags in the system.
First of all, we don’t know for certain that permanent resident status achieved on the basis of fulfilling EU treaty requirements will indeed remain valid after Brexit. That’s again something we would like the government to confirm. Many people are applying anyway, because it’s the only immigration route we qualify for, and the non-EU route (which we might have to use in the future) is twenty times as expensive.
Second, the evidence required to prove that you have indeed fulfilled all the requirements to be here legally is enormous and elaborate. Do you still have all your old payslips? I didn’t, and I have now had to go back to two previous employers to request them (and a letter) to be able to complete the employment evidence section of my application.
if you thought you were being environmentally friendly with paperless billing and electronic bank statements, that is a huge disadvantage
Employment evidence alone is not enough. To prove that you lived in the UK continuously, you also need things like old utility bills or other pieces of official mail sent to your address throughout the years. Electronic documents do not count, so if you thought you were being environmentally friendly with paperless billing and electronic bank statements, that is a HUGE disadvantage when you need to prove that you lived in the country all this time. And if you were living with housemates or a partner, you better have been the person the bills were addressed to!
Finally, the Home Office wants to see proof that you were an EU citizen during the five year qualifying period, so if you renewed your passport recently you will need to still have the old one. Many embassies keep the old passport when they give you a new one, so this also a challenge for a lot of people!
Misconception 5: UK citizens in other EU countries are having similar problems.
They are not!
Each country sets their own immigration procedures, and the Members of European Parliament that looked into the situation have not found evidence that the procedures for UK residents to settle in other EU countries have been as challenging.
The permanent resident application system has lots of bugs in it. One commonly encountered issue is that someone who used to receive child benefits in the past, but doesn’t anymore, is technically unable to fill in the online application form. When they follow the steps in the online application, the thread of questioning brings them to a dead end where it is impossible to answer that they don’t currently receive any benefits.
It’s a weird, broken, application process and it needs to be fixed.
Question 1: Wow, I didn’t know this. What can I do to help?
There are a few things you can do:
- Raise awareness. On February 20, you can participate in “One Day Without Us”, which highlights different aspects of contributions that immigrants make to UK society. There are various events going on throughout the country, and some of them are specifically focused on EU residents in the UK.
- Contact your MP. I will be visiting parliament on February 20 as part of a mass lobby for EU residents rights in the UK. We are mainly pushing for the government to make a firm statement about our status, i.e. to make it official that everyone who was already here can stay. This has been hinted at, but is not yet certain. (See “misconception 1” above). Everyone will try to speak to their MP about their own experience. Even if you can’t be there in person, anyone in the UK can contact their own MP to ask them to push for clarity and security for EU residents in the country. If I manage to get to talk to my MP, I want to focus in particular on the challenges that academics/researchers face with the current application system (see “misconception 2” above)
- Sign the petition. There is a petition asking for a reform of the permanent resident application, which addresses some of the same issues I described above.
Question 2: Why don’t you shut up about Brexit? It’s going to happen anyway.
This is NOT about whether Brexit should or should not happen. We are all resigned to the fact that the UK will leave the EU.
This is about the bureaucratic process that will help people stay in the country where they have already been legally living and working for years.
(Update: I got some comments about this last part. No, I don’t want Brexit either, but for the purpose of the arguments in this piece, it’s a premise. If Brexit somehow won’t happen, you can ignore the entire piece. None of the other issues would even be a problem. But they are a problem, because we do assume that we need to get permanent residence, because Brexit. It’s the basics of argumentation logic: You can’t make the argument without accepting the premise.)