Brexit may have been re-scheduled for Halloween, but cross-party talks appear once again to have hit an impasse. Acutely affected by this perennial Brexit limbo are the 3.8 million EU citizens living in the UK, now having to apply to remain in a country that for many has been their home for decades.
Laure Olivier-Minns, a French national who has lived and worked in the UK for over 30 years, is one of the many EU citizens who has felt forced to make the unimaginable decision to leave her life and British family behind in the UK, due to the increasing hostility of post-referendum Britain. We sat down in a cafe in Nantes, the hometown to which she recently returned, where she told me that her trust in her adopted country is gone.
“I was pushed to leave, it was physical”, she recounted. “Daily I was suffering so much, I felt sick and my sleep was affected…I was suffocating”.
Despite the warning of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that the recent Immigration Bill risks “stripping away” the rights of EU citizens, the human face of Brexit continues to be ignored by policy-makers. Millions of UK residents are left anxiously battling for their voice to be heard at the Home Office.
Olivier-Minns, a former French teacher-turned artist, moved to the UK at the age of 19 where she soon fell in love with both the country and her future husband, a Norwich GP. Having raised two children in the city, Laure explained how her life was very much grounded in the UK. “For 30 years things were fine for me, I felt at home, I felt integrated...part of the community. I was not worried, I never thought in a million years I would have to leave one day.”
EU citizens wishing to remain in the UK will have to apply to the Home Office’s EU Settlement Scheme, officially launched at the end of March. The Settlement Scheme requires that EU citizens send the Home Office proof of their identity, five years continuous residency in the UK and any record of criminal convictions, either online or via an app.
“It will be as simple as possible for EU citizens to get the status they need,” the Home Office claimed. “They will only need to complete three key steps,” after which “successful applicants will get digital proof of their status through an online service”.
According to many prospective applicants, however, the Settlement Scheme has proved a derogatory and anxiety-inducing experience. For carers, stay-at-home parents and those with breaks in their employment records, in particular, finding and processing the necessary paperwork can be a worrying and uncertain experience.
“To force me to apply to stay in the country where I have lived for 32 years, where I have a British husband and British children? It’s absolutely ludicrous. I still feel incredibly insulted by it all,” said Oliver-Minns.
Many EU citizens have expressed similar concerns. Anna-Maria Tuckett, former-journalist and now full-time carer for her autistic son, moved to the UK from Poland 16 years ago.
“You couldn’t, if you tried, find a person who is more of an anglophile than I am,” she enthused. “I’m a National Trust member, I’m always going on about how wonderful this country is and how much I love the culture. And yet because of the fact that I happen to have been born in a different country, I’m considered a lesser, Category B citizen, it feels just so unfair.”
Apprehension and a pervasive fear of rejection resonates in the testimonies of these EU citizens uncertain of their future legal status to stay in the UK.
“That is the crux of the matter; it’s an application, not a registration. If you apply for something you can be rejected, you can be denied. That is the definition of an application,” Tuckett said. “The prospect of filling it in and then the possibility of being rejected is just too stressful. I’ve got a child who is disabled, so I’ve got that to deal with every day,” said Anna-Maria.
The3million, the principal non-profit campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK, advocates a simpler registration (rather than ‘application’) process that would provide “necessary, unambiguous protection” for those wishing to stay after Brexit.
Yet the Home Office has remained steadfast, insisting that the application for Settled Status is not only a necessary process, but one that is easily accessible.
“EU citizens are our friends, family and neighbours and the Government has been clear that we want them to stay, whether we reach a deal or not,” a spokesperson said. “A wide range of documentation may be submitted, reflecting the variety of people’s individual circumstances, and we will work with applicants without official documentation to establish their eligibility under the Scheme. We are working in partnership with vulnerable group representatives, local authorities and other experts to make sure we reach everyone”.
Olivier-Minns laughed as I relayed to her the Government’s message.
“‘We want them to stay!’” she echoed. “Theresa May and the Home Office have done everything to demonstrate the opposite, it’s so infuriating!”
This sentiment was shared by Tuckett, who described how she felt the Government had deliberately created a hostile environment for EU citizens wishing to remain in the UK. “People’s anxiety levels have been through the roof and they feel as though they’re not welcome anymore. It’s the complete opposite to what the Home Office is saying”.
Prospective applicants to the Settlement Scheme have also expressed fears of bureaucratic incompetence, following last year’s Windrush Scandal.
“Given their track record we have no trust in what the Home Office is promising, they’ve handled things terribly badly,” Tuckett added.
Sabine Schuster-Nussey, a German mother of three and former BBC employee, who moved to the UK in the 1980s, is similarly worried about administrative and cultural issues the Home Office.
“If you’ve got someone who doesn’t want to help you, it’s a potential problem. After the Windrush Scandal broke, you find out that there’s lots of people who are not particularly competent in the Home Office, people who seem to be very vindictive in the Home Office. Who’s to say they’re not going to come for me?”
It is evident that regardless of efforts to restore confidence in their department, the Home Office is failing to reassure many concerned EU citizens. It appears, however, that a large proportion of the British public seem unaware of this struggle.
Olivier-Minns attributes this to a sense of national apathy and detachment towards the Brexit process. “People look the other way because it’s too uncomfortable to hear. And because they don’t want to hear it, they are unable to comprehend how deeply it affects us and how dangerous the situation is,” she says.
For her, Brexit has brought life in the UK to an end. Back in the Nantaise cafe, she ends our conversation with a solemn warning: “Brexit does throw people’s lives upside down, Brexit does ruin relationships, Brexit does split families.”