Millions of EU citizens can now apply for settled status in UK

21 January 2019, 03:29 | Updated: 21 January 2019, 09:34

Millions of EU citizens now have until June 2021 to apply for settled status in the UK, as the post-Brexit registration system opens nationwide.

The government say it has made the £65 process as easy as possible, developing a smartphone app, hiring 1,500 new caseworkers and investing £175m in the scheme.

But it is feared it could sow the seeds of a new Windrush scandal with hundreds of thousands of people potentially unaware or unable to register their right to remain in the UK.

Think-tank British Future warned that of the 3.5 million Europeans currently living in the UK, one third could struggle to properly make an application.

It warns that vulnerable groups like the elderly, people with limited English or IT skills, or people isolated from the wider community may be particularly affected.

And if just 5% of applicants have their bid to remain in the UK refused or disrupted by problems, 175,000 people could be left without legal status.

Alexandru, who was born in Romania but has lived in the UK for six years, applied for settled status as part of a pilot scheme completed last year.

He told Sky News he struggled with the app, which requires users to upload documents, answer questions and submit photographs of themselves using a smartphone.

"I don't know how to use a computer, I don't know how to put my personal data into an application, I didn’t even know what steps I had to take," he told Sky News.

"I didn't have any information. It was very stressful."

Alexandru was able to complete the application with help from Roma Support Group, a local organisation.

But Mihai Bica, who works at the centre, said many more people will struggle to complete it without help.

"Vulnerable people include our parents who are older and who don't have access to IT, people who do jobs like cleaning or construction who don't use computers," he told Sky News.

"Those people will need support and they are a part or society, not just economically but culturally too."

In a trial conducted with the government pilot, 65 members of the Roma Support Group applied for settled status using the app. Mr Bica told Sky News only seven could complete the application unaided.

"People are really really really concerned about this," he said. "But our capacity to help them is limited.

"Last year we worked with 3000 individuals, out of perhaps 200,0000 in the whole Roma community. We believe the majority have no idea what settled status is."

The government has insisted it has learned the lessons of the Windrush scandal and will support applicants to show their residency using a wide range of different documents.

Among the measures to be taken are translation, a phone line for people experiencing problems, and even providing support to people in their homes if they have limited mobility.

European embassies are also offering support to their citizens, running advice clinics for people worried about their status.

In pilot at the end of last year 29,987 people made an application for settled status, of which 27,211 have already received positive decisions, with no refusals.

"It's a big test for the Home Office - one they know they'll be under close scrutiny over. So they need to get it right," Steve Ballinger, of British Future, told Sky News.

"If they get it wrong they could be creating a very big Windrush style scandal for themselves but on a much much bigger scale."

For people like Alexandru, getting it wrong could means turning his whole life upside down.

"This where my children are, where my grandchildren were born," he said. "This is my second country, but that from a second country has turned into my first country, in my soul and for all my family."