Public confusion about residents’ “settled status” and the rights of EU citizens during the Brexit transition period is leading to some being denied access to social services, employment and exercising voting rights, the Tower Hamlets Brexit Commission has heard.
At the Brexit Civil Society Oral evidence session on Wednesday, Chris Desira, a solicitor for Seraphus, which specialises in immigration law, told the panel of local authority commissioners: “I’ve spoken to many who have already faced the question of whether they have the right to work here, even though they’re EU citizens.”
Desira said “third country nationals” from the EU were also experiencing discrimination from “landlords or accessing the NHS” because they do not have evidence of their status.
The settlement scheme, which will open fully in March 2019, will allow EU citizens to live and work in the UK after December 2020.
Although EU law continues until this point, so an EU passport is still “the gateway to employment” and “to accessing rights”, Desira said that many people continued to be confused, especially on the meaning of “settled status”.
Desira said he expects questions to increase by March unless the wider British public are educated about the scheme and EU rights in the transition period. He also said there was a lack of legal assistance and advice to assist EU citizens with gaining the required status, especially for people with dependency needs, mental health issues, or people part of more disengaged groups such as travellers or Roma gypsies.
Lucy Rix, who is the advice team lead for Praxis, which provides legal advice for migrants in East London, said the demand for advice and free immigration services had “increased substantially” since Brexit was announced.
Rix, whose organisation was fundamental in bringing the Windrush generation scandal to light, fears that EU citizens may experience similar state hostility. She also said: “We are concerned that there is potential for this situation to be repeated following Brexit.”
Ilse Mogensen, of the 3 Million Group, an organisation formed after the referendum to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, recommended the council make clear to employers and landlords that “EU citizens are not illegal immigrants”.
Mogensen also brought a petition on the voting rights of EU citizens in local elections to Tower Hamlets council last week.
In May this year it was reported that local election officials in Tower Hamlets wrongly turned away EU citizens from voting because of confusion among public service officials over their voting rights.
The petition, which received a sympathetic reception by Tower Hamlets’ labour council, aimed to gain political assurance that the voting rights of EU citizens, who make up 14 per cent of the borough’s population, would be guaranteed after Brexit.
Mogensen said: “We’ll continue paying council tax after Brexit, so we should continue having a say in who runs our local services.”
She finished by saying: “Migrants are not just an economic resource but are part of the community, whether they hold a UK passport or not.”