Written by Maike Bohn, Co-founder, the3million
This week, the House of Lords is debating an amendment to the immigration bill that is hugely important to the future of millions of EU citizens: to give everyone who needs it a physical proof of their right to live and work in the UK.
The ability to prove who you are has become a fundamental and universal human right. EU citizens soon will no longer be able to prove their rights simply by showing a document. The UK government has decided to make their status digital-only, without a physical backup for people and at breakneck speed.
A large group of UK residents are about to become the guinea pigs in a digital-only experiment, played out amid the hostile environment and brought in via the back door, by a government with a patchy track record when it comes to data management.
EU citizens will depend on the digital-only system working 24 hours a day, every day, to prove their immigration status – when seeking a new job opportunity, finding a place to live, opening a bank account, getting treatment at a hospital, or returning home after a holiday abroad. To do this they also depend on access to the email account or telephone number registered against the status, broadband, no system outages, digital literacy and others’ willingness to engage with this system.
This rushed move to a digital-only system will create barriers to opportunity and wellbeing. There are circumstances where digital does not yet work. Many people, among them the most vulnerable in this group, will need a safety net when the digital-only status the UK is planning to give them fails.
Not everyone will have the skills they need to navigate the new system – many older people who don’t use the internet except for email will depend on others for help. People without smartphones, digital literacy or English language skills will struggle to prove their status to employers, landlords and job centres.
The UK government’s own assessment concluded that digital-only would cause serious issues for many and that a physical backup should be retained for now:
“There is a clearly identified user need for the physical card at present, and without strong evidence that this need can be mitigated for vulnerable, low-digital skill users, it should be retained.”
the3milllion, the EU citizens’ rights group, wants to ensure that no EU citizen will face problems staying, re-entering, working, finding housing and accessing education and essential services, due to a lengthy online process of which the functioning is not always guaranteed. Let’s not forget that around 22% of people do not have the essential digital skills required for dealing with this process.
“We are seeing more and more cases of people who can’t access their immigration status online”, says Saba-Gabrielle Moussa, who runs an advice clinic at the Salvation Army in Bradford as director of the charity UK Butterflies.
“We recently had a few cases of Polish citizens where a community charity had applied on their behalf, and they didn’t know how to access their status. The centre had created an email address on their behalf, and used the charity worker’s private phone as a contact. We were able to sort out the situation with the charity’s help, but most of the people we deal with are not computer literate, and that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.”
Everyone living in the UK now has to navigate the hostile environment and be able to prove their immigration status to get a job, rent property, open a bank account and access social services. We are already seeing EU citizens being refused access to universal credit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, the digital-only system presents an extra barrier to getting help for people who don’t have the right login at the right time.
“We had a client fleeing domestic violence who couldn’t access universal credit, and ended up in a refuge for three months with her children”, says Vie Clerc, an outreach coordinator and immigration adviser at UK Butterflies in Bradford. “She had settled status and was entitled to help, but her husband had applied on her behalf using his phone, email and security questions and refused to give her the details”.
the3million is campaigning for changes to the immigration bill to provide those who need it with the option of physical proof as a backup to their digital immigration status. This will help prevent discrimination and give EU citizens the peace of mind they so desperately need right now.
But this won’t solve the fundamental problem that requiring landlords, hospitals and employers to check immigration status increases discrimination against all foreign nationals and people of colour. Only dismantling the hostile environment will create a truly fair society in the UK.
GMIAU are supporting the DeniedMyBackup Campaign and you can get involved by signing up here.