Windrush scandal fuels fear of similar treatment for EU citizens post-Brexit

By Silvia Martelli

The Windrush scandal has raised concerns about the government’s ability to deal fairly with people with the right to be in the UK. Immigration experts have warned that EU citizens who fail to get their paperwork in order after Brexit, may face the same harassment caused to the generation of Caribbean-born UK citizens.

The government’s immigration policies and its administrative frailties have long been a cause for worries among EU officials. The recent Windrush affair has only heightened concerns among the three million EU citizens living in the UK, who now fear a replica of the Windrush scandal on a larger scale. In the likelihood of the event, the elderly, computer illiterate and those with mental health issues will face the highest risk of failing to register for “settled status”. This would determine falling foul of the UK “hostile environment” approach, which obliges employers to demand proofs of the right to residence.

The approach was introduced when Theresa May was the home secretary in 2014, causing serious issues to 50,000 Windrush immigrants who have been living in the UK for decades, yet failing to obtain formal residency documents that meet tightened immigration policy. As a consequence, many have been refused urgent healthcare, lost their jobs and become homeless; if not threatened with deportation or sent to immigration removal centres.

Guy Verhofstadt, European parliament’s ‘Brexit’ coordinator and supporter of EU citizens living in the UK, said he expected the British government to reassure that a similar scandal would not be repeated. The Home Office insisted that it was acting to ensure the application process will be as simple as possible, and minor technicalities will not determine refusals. “EU citizens will have plenty of time to make an application,” the department said. “But we have also been clear that we will exercise discretion if there are good reasons why someone has not been able to make an application before the June 2021 deadline.” EU citizens whose applications are rejected will be able to appeal against the ruling. However, protection of the European court of justice runs out in 2028, leaving cases after that at the mercy of the Home Office.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the ‘University of Oxford’, expressed her doubts that the government will manage to get all EU citizens resident in the UK registers for “settled status”. The absence of ID cards in the UK makes the situation particularly difficult, with spread concerns over how the state’s use of schools, landlords, employers, tax and social benefits offices to crack down on people the system rejects, even when through error.

Next week, the Home Office officials will be quizzed on the application process at a hearing at the European parliament’s civil liberties committee. Roberto Gualtieri, the socialist group’s member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering committee, said: “We will fight to ensure that Brexit agreement on citizens rights is watertight, with clear oversight from an independent body.”