EU citizens have launched a campaign for the government to give them physical proof of their right to remain in Britain after Brexit – amid fears that they could be locked out of homes, jobs and healthcare by technical problems.
The Independent reported this week on how the Brexit settlement scheme's "digital-only" design is already causing problems for EU nationals, some of whom are already being held up in airports and facing delays in moving house.
But campaigners worry that the scheme's flaws could have even more serious consequences, denying EU citizens living in Britain their rights to homes, jobs, and healthcare – all of which require them to prove their right to live in the UK.
Under the scheme, EU nationals are not given an ID card or other document as proof of residence once they are accepted, but have to rely on an online system. They say that if the system were ever to go down or suffer from technical glitches, they would be unable to do simple things such as open a bank account, take a job, or return home after a holiday.
The "Access Denied" campaign, launched by EU citizens' campaign group the3million, is calling for the government to give EU citizens physical documentation to avoid problems. They say provisions could be made for the modified system in the forthcoming immigration bill set to go through parliament later this year.
The government digital service's own assessment of the policy concluded that there was “very strong evidence” that digital-only proof would cause “a lot of issues”, but ministers pressed ahead with the plan for a digital-only approach anyway.
The Home Office now says the government will be eventually shifting all migrants towards digital-only documentation and a spokesperson noted that physical proof can be lost or expire – though campaigners are calling for cards in addition to their digital proof.
Speaking at a virtually rally to launch the campaign on Thursday evening, one EU national, named Paula Uusnäkki, told attendees that she had already effectively disappeared from the system after having been granted pre-settled status.
"I logged onto the system and there was nothing there. They had absolutely no record of me every applying, so I had to do the whole process again from the beginning," she said.
"I have settled status now, hopefully it's still online, but you never know... if I'd had to officially prove my status that first time I wouldn't have been able to do that, because there was absolutely no record of me on the system.
"But if I'd had a card, for example, I could have taken it out of my wallet, shown it, and be on my way. Technology breaks, it fails, but a physical proof of identity is always in your wallet. We need to to avoid situations like what I had."
Maike Bohn of the campaign group the3milllion, said a large group of UK residents were "about to become the guinea pigs in a digital-only experiment".
"A lot can go wrong for them: from system outages, lack of digital literacy, and broadband to others’ willingness to engage with this digital check. The new system has many moving parts, if any one of them fails, the whole fails," she said.
"Few of us have experienced the anxiety of not having access to something that proves our fundamental right to have healthcare, work or rent a flat. Millions of people could be in this situation from 2021 if the government doesn’t change course."
Ms Bohn said the government should adapt the regulations to include a physical ID card using its immigration bill, which is set to go through parliament when MPs return from recess.
She added: "Too much is at stake right now for EU citizens. Used as digital guinea pigs at a time when many of them feel worried, insecure and lacking in trust, we need to give those who want it physical proof of their right to live and work in the UK. A safety net when digital fails."
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Physical documents expire, become invalid, or can be lost, stolen or tampered with. A digital status ensures that EU citizens who are granted status in the UK can constantly access and securely share proof of their status. We intend to develop our digital services to mean that all migrants, not just EU citizens, will be provided with digital status only over time.
“We already provide a telephone helpline for landlords and employers to provide guidance on conducting right to work and right to rent checks, and we’re developing an extensive package of communications to ensure individuals, employers, landlords and other third parties are fully aware of the move to digital.
“Our services are highly resilient, and we have ensured customer data is backed up across multiple data centres – therefore if one fails, another will take over so we will always have continuity of service.”
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