EU citizens living in the UK could become the next victims of the so-called “hostile environment” immigration policies which have hit the “Windrush generation” of Caribbean-born UK citizens, according to politicians, academics, and campaign groups.
“There are large numbers of EU migrants who a few years from now are quite likely to fall into the same trap as the Windrush migrants unless the ‘hostile environment’ policy is changed,” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
“It’s likely that we are talking about tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of people.
“That’s deportation, job loss, housing loss, and healthcare loss. That is what will happen to some people who are completely innocent five to ten years from now unless the policy changes.”
There are approximately 3.6 million EU nationals who live in the UK, and the Home Office faces the task of registering them as permanent British citizens after Brexit — a bureaucratic challenge of unprecedented scale.
Concerns among EU citizens about their future treatment were amplified last week when a series of damning Guardian reports revealed that the Home Office had harassed and threatened to deport numerous ‘Windrush’ immigrants, who moved to the UK legally from the Caribbean from 1948. “The Windrush situation has shown that [the Home Office’s policy] can be quite indiscriminate,” said Nicolas Hatton, co-founder of EU citizens’ rights group the3million. “I’ve received a lot of messages since the Windrush situation started from people that are really worried. It raised the level of anxiety among EU citizens by a notch.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd insists that registration of EU nationals will be a simple and straightforward process — complete with a new, user-friendly ‘app’ — which is “completely different” from the troubled permanent residency system which it currently operates.
She said there will be a “presumption in favour of granting status” which will allow caseworkers to speedily process large numbers of applications.
The concern, however, is that some EU citizens will fail to register, or struggle to provide sufficient documentation to prove their residency status in the UK, meaning they would fall victim to the Home Office’s heavily criticised ‘hostile environment’ policy.
That policy, championed by Theresa May in 2012 when she was Home Secretary, is targeted towards illegal immigrants and designed to make life as difficult as possible for people without the right documentation by forcing employers and landlords to check on the immigration status of prospective applicants.
“Even if the Home Office’s failure rate was one-tenth of what it has been with the Windrush migrants, the population size of EU citizens means that, on probability, a lot of people are going to be faced with a lot of misery,” Ford said.
“That’s what the rules are designed to do. It’s to make the lives of people who fall through the gaps miserable. The basic philosophy of the rules is that they assume the guilty and the innocent can be easily and straightforwardly sifted from each other. They can’t.”
The cause has also been taken up by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, who warned last week that EU citizens face a “bureaucratic nightmare” after Brexit, adding: “Certainly after the Windrush scandal in Britain, we want to be sure the same is not happening to our EU citizens.”
Such pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears within government.
When representatives from the3million met immigration minister Caroline Nokes earlier this week, they sought reassurance that EU citizens would be exempted from the ‘hostile environment’ policy, but Nokes was unable to offer that guarantee. She merely insisted there was a “big distinction” between the Windrush generation and EU citizens because the latter group is better-documented.
The prime minister herself also seems unlikely to ditch the ‘hostile environment’ policy which defined her tenure as Home Secretary.
“Much of May’s success has been built on the idea that it’s never possible to be too hardline on immigration. The public wants control and stern action,” said Ford. “She’s delivered that throughout her career and it’s got all the way to Number 10.”
That sentiment was echoed by one former senior civil servant who worked with May at the Home Office. They told BI that she was slow to reach decisions but did so firmly and was reluctant to back-track on policy positions once she settled on them.
The Windrush scandal tested the limits to May’s hardline immigration stance this week, and saw her record as Home Secretary come under intense scrutiny. She is likely to be tested even more severely if EU citizens are enveloped in a similar scandal.