In the last week, it was revealed that the UK’s voluntary returns scheme has been expanded to include EU citizens. What does this mean for the EU Settlement Scheme?
The government’s voluntary returns scheme was expanded at the start of this year to include EU citizens. On this scheme, migrants to the UK are offered financial incentives to return to their country of origin – which can be as much as £2000 on top of money for flights.
This move is worrying. It’s months before the June deadline for applying the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), when almost all EU and EEA citizens will need to have put in an application to get a new immigration status in the aftermath of Brexit. The Government have stated their commitment to getting all eligible people in the UK signed up for the EU Settlement Scheme, but by adding EU citizens to the voluntary returns scheme many months before the application deadline, there is potential for some confusion of this message.
If EU citizens genuinely wish to return to their country of origin, then it’s a really good thing that the UK Government is seeking to help them do this. But the problem arises when vulnerable people are incentivised to leave the UK, but not made properly aware of the ways in which they can stay. This policy risks preying on the lowest-income and most vulnerable EU citizens if it doesn’t come alongside a concerted effort to publicise the EU Settlement Scheme.
Benjamin Morgan, who runs the EU homeless rights project at the Public Interest Law Centre, said, “This mixed messaging around settled status on the one hand and voluntary returns on the other, seriously undermines the government’s claim that the rights of vulnerable Europeans will be protected after Brexit.”
A Home Office spokesperson has stated that the extension to the voluntary returns scheme to EU citizens isn’t in contention with a commitment to the EUSS. But for vulnerable EU citizens who aren’t aware that they need to sign up for the Scheme, and those struggling to make ends meet in the UK during the pandemic, it’s easy to see how the voluntary returns scheme could work against the aim of making EU citizens feel at home in the UK. The move risks cultivating distrust towards EU citizens who choose to remain in the UK, even with a settled status, or discouraging them from seeking settled status at all.
Recent research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants warned that thousands of European key workers, especially care workers, were unaware of the EU Settlement Scheme, its deadline, and how to gather the necessary information to complete an application. It’s clear that the message about the EU Settlement Scheme hasn’t got to everywhere it needs to be.
On top of this, immigration rules have recently changed to mean that rough sleeping is now grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the UK. The new rule isn’t being enforced yet but when it is, those who haven’t yet signed up for the EUSS may well feel the full impact of the hostile environment.
JPIT’s partner churches have been outspoken about the need for the UK to be a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of their passport, immigration status, or place of birth. This is a belief rooted in Biblical principles.
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Every human being is a child of God, and should be treated with dignity and respect, so society has a duty of care to welcome people – especially the most vulnerable EU citizens who may not be aware of or able to complete an application to the EUSS. Giving people a financial incentive to leave the place in which they have made their home while not supporting them to apply to the EUSS properly risks creating a divide between those with British passports and those without.
If you know someone who might need to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme, or are looking to support someone through an application or appeal, check out our resources here. They’re aimed at church leaders but can be used by anyone looking to help vulnerable EU citizens stay in the homes which they have made in the UK.