What future for Lewisham’s 23,000 EU citizens after Brexit?

With March 29 fast approaching, the day when the UK is supposed to be leaving the EU, uncertainty is growing amongst EU citizens, many of whom are in the dark as to what happens next. Freedom of movement will end, the Prime Minister keeps stressing, with EU citizens who’ve made their homes in the UK required to apply for a new ‘settled status’. Anti-Brexit campaigners fear the process is complicated and many will be left undocumented.

Greg Polymerou sells Souvlaki wraps in Notting Hill. Pic: Irina Bordbar

Greg Polymerou came to the UK five years ago. He had a small family business in Greece, a shop where he sold clothes and accessories. After the economic crisis there, Greg and his wife arrived in the UK, hoping for a better future and settled in Lewisham.

It wasn’t long before the couple welcomed their first baby, now two-years-old. Talking about their life together in London, he described it as “brilliant so far”.

Life is busy. He works Monday to Friday in a large company as a purchase assistant and on the weekends runs a small, but successful stall selling Greek street food in Greenwich and Notting Hill. His stall is popular and customers usually start queuing around 11 am.

Polymerou said he really enjoys life in the UK. “I love the people; I love the culture. London is great. A lot of things to see and you’re never bored here, actually.”

But what about the future? What will happen after Brexit? Greg continued: “To be honest with you, I really don’t know.

“Actually, I am a living example of experiencing ‘Grexit’. I have bad memories, to be honest. I don’t want to see that happening here.”

Greg and his family don’t know what to expect from Brexit. Pic: Greg Polymerou

He told EastLondonLines that he and his family are thinking about applying for citizenship, but they haven’t started the process yet. They don’t even know where to begin. He hasn’t yet contacted any organisation or the council to find out about their rights in the UK.

Greg Polymerou, EU citizen in Lewisham

“I really don’t know what will happen. Fingers crossed, everything goes well. What I’ve heard is that if you’re here for more than 5 years, you won’t have any problem. The thing is, with Brexit coming, I really don’t know how the things will turn out and if we can afford living here.”

Ilse Mogensen: “Application process can easily become complicated”

Ilse Mogensen is another EU citizen in London. She came under freedom of movement as a Danish citizen and now lives in South London.

In 2016 she joined The3million, a campaigning organisation, aiming to protect EU citizens’ rights in the UK. She began by signing up for The3million Facebook group, which is now very active and has 36,000 members. They share their stories with other EU citizens and get mutual moral support.

Now she is the organisation’s Public Affairs and Campaigns officer.

She said: “We campaign for all the EU citizens to be able to stay in the UK and to live life just like Brexit hasn’t happened.”

The3million Public Affairs and Campaigns officer Ilse Mogensen tells EU citizens what can they do to protect their rights in the UK.

The3million are organising their own outreach events all over the country. EU citizens will be able to inform themselves about their existing rights and what they need to do to secure them in the future.

People in The3million are worried about the UK Home Office’s ability to register everyone in the time allocated. They are also concerned about people who might end up with no official paperwork, landing them in a difficult situation.

Mogensen said: “The big problem is, once the UK government ends freedom of movement everyone will have to apply for a new immigration status. Probably most people will pass smoothly through that, but maybe some people won’t.

“Maybe some people won’t apply until beyond the deadline that the UK government is giving us and those people are going to end up undocumented. We know from the Windrush scandal that can end very badly. Theresa May as Home Secretary instigated the hostile environment policy which meant that employers, landlords and others have to ask for your immigration status.”

She is also worried about the application process for the new immigration status. She continued: “They say that it’s going to be an easy system to apply for, but so far the trial has shown that it may be not quite as easy as they claim.

“16% of applicants were asked to submit extra documentation. It wasn’t just a case of taking a photo of themselves and proving that their identity and residency is in the UK. They had to send additional papers and then it easily becomes complicated.”

Ilse Mogensen, Danish citizen in the UK, The3million Public Affairs and Campaigns Officer

“I’m going to stay. I’ve lived in the UK for a long time, I came here under freedom of movement as a Danish citizen, and I’ve now applied for dual citizenship. I am both a Danish and British citizen, but not all of the EU citizens have that option, not everyone can apply for dual citizenship. In the short term, I am going to stay, but if I leave – it will be at a time of my own choosing. I’m sad that Brexit has happened, but I’ve made my home in the UK and I intend to stay here and fight for other people to be secure as well.”

Local councils are doing their best to help EU citizens to get through the application process.

Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia talks about what your first steps should be if you are an EU citizen in Lewisham.

Kevin Bonavia, Labour councillor for Blackheath and Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability in Lewisham, told ELL: “We want to represent everybody equally in Lewisham and we are very concerned.

“We’ve got 23,000 residents of Lewisham who come from other EU countries and they had no say in this situation about Brexit, but they’re going to be really affected by it. So that’s why we want to help and give them as much support as we can in these uncertain times ahead.”

They rely on advice they get from the government about what is being done for the status of  EU citizens after Brexit. Bonavia said: “The first thing we want to do is to make sure that all our EU citizens have all the information they need to help them make a decision for their future.”

He recommended people should regularly check the council’s website. On the home page it sets out information which the council currently has from government.

He added: “Also, we advise all our EU citizens to get professional legal advice. We know that a lot of them won’t be able to afford that, so we are talking to our local advice charities. We’re also applying for funding for these advice charities, so they can deal with any extra demand that they get from EU citizens.”

Local councilors are also holding advice surgeries. For more information, please visit Lewisham Council’s: https://www.lewisham.gov.uk/pages/default.aspx




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