The United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020. Since then, the government has been rolling out changes to the immigration system, adapting it to a world without free movement to and from Europe. Today, the government finally revealed its plan for post-Brexit economic migration in Britain. At its core is the idea of “taking back control,” a slogan which won the 2016 Brexit referendum, implemented through the end of free movement, a new visa system for EU and third-party nationals alike and a focus on “skilled migrants” to reduce overall immigration.
Under the current immigration rules, EU citizens do not need a visa to work and live in the UK because they benefit from freedom of movement. Those from outside the EU have to meet certain requirements such as English language skills, sponsorship by a company and a salary threshold in order to apply for a visa. There is a cap of 21,000 on the number of visas awarded per year.
Following the new plan, freedom of movement with the EU will end, and EU nationals will be subject to the same exact rules as non-EU nationals. As such, people coming to the UK from any country in the world for the purpose of work or study, other than some short-term business visitors and short-term students, will have to obtain a visa for which they will pay a fee. In addition, employers will have to pay an Immigration Skills surcharge on their migrant employees, and migrants from in and outside of the EU will have to pay an Immigration Health Surcharge. The only group unaffected by the new rules are Irish nationals, which the government states will be able to enter and exit the UK the same way they always have.
… to an Australian points-based system?
Freedom of movement will be replaced by with what the government calls a points-based system, supposedly modelled after the Australian immigration system which allows economic migrants to settle if they can demonstrate that they have a blend of skills and qualifications adding up to enough points. The selling point of a true points-based system is its flexibility, as it allows migrants to mix and match from a list of characteristics to reach the necessary threshold, and then settle in the host country without having to meet any mandatory requirements, such as an employment sponsorship as one needs in the US for example.
The government proposals released today, however, fail to offer that flexibility and probably explains the complete absence of the term ‘Australia-style’ system. The plan requires all economic migrants wanting to come to the UK to fulfil three essential requirements, which are worth 50 points all together. In addition to that, individuals will have to score another 20 points based on their salary expectations to reach 70 points overall, and be eligible to apply for a visa. The minimum salary threshold to reach 70 points automatically is set at £25,600. If the applicant earns less than that required minimum salary threshold, but no less than £20,480, they may still be able to reach 70 points by demonstrating that they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation such as nursing, or that they have a PhD relevant to the job. The policy paper specifically states that there will be no regional concessions to different parts of the UK, nor will there be a dedicated route for self-employed people.
The three essential requirements are knowledge of the English language, a job offer from an approved sponsor, and a job at the appropriate skill level. These mandatory requirements differentiate the system from its Australian counterpart, and therefore, the plan is not a true points-based system. Especially the job offer requirement flies in the face of the Australian analogy, where every year, the largest percentage of new economic permanent resident visas are awarded to individuals without a job offer, but who make up for it with other skills or abilities from the list.
For highly-skilled workers, the government laid out its extended Global Talent visa route on the day Britain left the EU. Through this scheme, the most highly skilled, who can achieve the required level of points, will be able to enter the UK without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant and competent body. For now, this forms the only exception to the job offer requirement, although the policy plan promises to roll out a broader unsponsored route within the points-based system to run alongside the employer-led system in the future.
The appropriate skill level under the points-based system is set at the equivalent to A-levels. Anyone who does not meet that level will not be able to apply, as it is one of the mandatory requirements. Additionally, the plan explicitly states that there will be no general low-skilled or temporary work route ‘…shifting the focus of [the UK] economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe…’, leaving immense labour shortages in specific industries. The list of low-skilled workers industries includes waiters, waitresses, elementary agriculture workers and fishery workers. The report unhelpfully states ‘Employers will need to adjust.’
Special arrangements are put in place for certain sectors such as scientists, graduates, NHS workers, to fill the gap, but these arrangements are unlikely to resolve the immense labour shortage created. The cap for the agricultural sector, for example, is increasing to 10,000 places per year for seasonal workers who harvest the fields, but remains far below the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) demands for 70,000 temporary visas in 2021. Nothing is mentioned of other groups likely to get caught up in the low-skilled workers group such as care home workers, waiters, cleaners or domestic workers. This drew immediate criticism from people in the sector, as the hospitality sector, for instance, famously relies on an EU national workforce, with Pret A Manger reporting that only one in 50 job applicants was a British national in 2018.
The newly released plan indicates a major overhaul in the UK’s approach to economic migration. It does not, however, affect students, family migration, or asylum law. Notably, none of these changes will take effect immediately. The transitional period, in which EU nationals are still free to exercise their free movement rights in the same way they were when the UK was still a part of the EU, is set to end on 31 December 2020. On 1 January 2021, then, is when the proposed changes will come into force. Even then, they will not take effect retroactively. As such, they will not affect the millions of EU citizens already living in the UK, and the job market is not going to change overnight. They will, however, change the composition of who comes and stays in the UK in the future. But for the 2016 Brexit voters, that future may be too far away to offer satisfaction.
The World Health Organisation defines Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ FGM is an intrusive and extremely painful procedure which stains a girl’s entire life, and is linked with severe long-term consequences including cysts, infections and complications in childbirth.
A 2016 government report states that FGM is child abuse. It promises not to tolerate this practice in the UK, and expresses a commitment to taking concerted action to prevent and ultimately end FGM.
As such, the government has taken active steps to combat it. In the UK, agencies have been set up and legislation passed to fight the practice aggressively. FGM has been a criminal offense in Britain since 1985, and new legislation in 2003 introduced a jail term of up to 14 years for British citizens carrying out FGM abroad, even in countries where it is legal to do so. Beyond British borders, the government pledged to invest £50m in grassroots organisations working to stop the practice across Africa, where it is most prevalent. As it stands, there are over 30 countries where young girls are still routinely subject to FGM. That begs the questions: what happens to girls who escape the practice in their home country and seek refuge elsewhere? Does the commitment to prevent and end FGM extend to them?
In order to qualify for refugee status in the UK, an asylum seeker must show a fear of persecution in their home country. Claims made based on fear of FGM have to fit into this legal terminology in order to succeed. Three basic elements must be proven for the claim to be successful. Firstly, the asylum seeker must have a well-founded fear of persecution. Secondly, the individual must be subject to the persecution for reason of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Lastly, the asylum seeker must prove that they cannot be adequately protected against the persecution in their country of origin. These three elements are worth discussing each in turn.
FGM has been classed as a form of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, and as a violation of the human rights as well as health and bodily integrity of women and girls. It violates numerous human rights statutes such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which asks to ‘protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse.’ As such, FGM constitutes persecution in the legal sense of the word.
Considering the second element, FGM can be claimed under a couple of these umbrellas. Since it is a practice that affects only women and these women experience discrimination in their countries of origin, they can be considered to belong to the particular social group “women.” FGM is a form of violence against women and girls which is in itself both a cause and consequence of gender inequality, and therefore targets a particular social group, namely a particular gender. Opposition to FGM can also be considered a religious or political opinion. Either argument can satisfy the second element of an asylum claim.
Lastly, the claimant must prove that they cannot accurately be protected against persecution in their home country by for example relocating or seeking protection from the local authorities. This is where it usually goes wrong. The Home Office, focused on meeting net migration targets, often claims that contrary to the evidence, the risk of FGM in such cases is low because the mother can single-handedly protect her daughter from familial, religious or community pressure to undergo FGM; or that, just because the mother has been cut, it does not necessarily follow that her daughter will be cut; or that the state can protect the girl from FGM. As a consequence, asylum is often refused, even though it is widely documented that, when considering the risk of FGM, the most important factors are whether the girl’s family has a history of practising FGM, whether it is known to be practised in her community or country of origin, and whether laws to facilitate protection against are actually enforced in that particular country (hint – they often are not.)
If a girl has already been subjected to FGM when she claims asylum, the claim will usually also be refused. The physical and psychological trauma of having been through the mutilation does not, under current law, form a sufficient basis for an asylum claim, since the claimant is not at risk of FGM in the future. As such, unless there is a reasonable degree of likelihood that the procedure might be redone after the birth of a baby, or that FGM might be performed on the claimant’s daughters, someone who has previously been cut will not be granted asylum on that basis alone.
Even when a FGM claim succeed, that only guarantees status for the person directly at risk. More often than not, these claimants are children on the cusp of puberty. Since parents cannot be dependants on their daughter’s asylum claim, the Home Office has to evaluate whether accompanying parents qualify for refugee status on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution in their own right. This may be either as a member of a particular social group, that group being the accompanying parents of a daughter at risk of FGM, or for other reasons in the country of return. If this is not the case, the parents may be granted discretionary leave, but, predictably, this is entirely at the Home Office’s discretion, effectively bringing these children at risk of separation from their parents if they want to avoid mutilation back home.
This exemplifies the duplicity of the government’s public commitment to ending FGM with real support for victims. On the one hand, the rhetoric against FGM is strong and unequivocal. In the UK, as well as for British citizens abroad, the practice is criminalised and heavily punishable. On the other hand, women and girls at risk of mutilation abroad are deported. As Charlotte Proudman, a Goldsmiths chambers barrister and academic specialised in FGM cases said last year, if the government was genuinely committed to protecting women and girls from FGM, it would be concerned with them being cut at home as well as overseas.
The government published their third set of quarterly statistics on the progress of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) today. It states that as of 31 December 2019, over 2.7 million applications were received, of which over 2.4 million have been concluded. The Home Office processes about 20,000 applications per day. Of the concluded applications, 58% of applicants were granted settled status, 41% were granted pre-settled status and 1% had other outcomes, including withdrawn or void applications. To date, six applications have been refused on suitability grounds.
Whilst the statistics may seem favourable from the Home Office’s perspective, they are not as rosy as they seem. In our last post on EUSS statistics we highlighted some of the issues with the Scheme, including double applications, inaccurate estimates of the number of EU nationals living in the UK, and the Home Office’s ability to ensure vulnerable communities apply to the Scheme. In the latest set of statistics, published on 6 February 2020, these issues are mentioned, but not resolved.
The report explicitly recognises double applications as a concern. It states:
“The data in this report account for the number of applications to the system, including individuals making applications on more than one occasion. An individual who has been granted pre-settled status can make a new application at a later stage to apply for settled status. As these are separate applications with separate outcomes, they are counted separately in the statistics.”
In the upcoming months after Brexit, the number of applicants wanting to convert their pre-settled status to settled status, and thus applying to the EUSS for the second time, will keep rising. As such, the significance of the total number of applicants mentioned in the Home Office statistics will only lessen, until the numbers published mean nothing at all.
The report also reminds readers that the EUSS statistics refer specifically to applications made to the EU Settlement Scheme, and therefore cannot be compared with estimates of the resident population of EU/EEA nationals in the UK. This is because figures include non-EEA family members as well as eligible EEA citizens not currently resident in the UK.
Additionally, it states that support is available for those EU citizens in the UK who do not have the access, skills or confidence to apply independently. Clearly, that additional support is insufficient, since the number of applicants from the age group of 65 or older remains low, at 2% of the total number of applications.
No solution is offered to resolve these issues. On the contrary: after explicitly conceding all of the above, the Home Office boasted that the EU Settlement Scheme has reached “a new milestone.” Home Secretary Priti Patel said she is “delighted that there have already been more than 3 million applications to the hugely successful EU Settlement Scheme,” even though the statistical report shows that this number is misleading.
From a legal point of view, there is also a likely misrepresentation in the statistics regarding refused applications. Appendix EU to the Immigration Rules, which lays out the EUSS in law, states that applications are automatically refused when the individual who applies is subject to a deportation order due to their criminal record. Additionally, applications may be refused if the Secretary of state believes that the decision to refuse is conducive to the public good, even when there is no deportation order against the individual.
In light of this, six refused applications may not seem like a lot, but it is becoming apparent that this number might be manipulated, as the more difficult cases are left at the bottom of the pile. Additionally, we have seen proof that under certain circumstances, previously granted status may be revoked or invalidated. One EEA national, who was convicted to six months imprisonment for a battery offence, was detained upon completion of his custodial sentence irrespective of him having obtained settled status under the EUSS. His status is set to be revoked because of his failure to disclose previous offences which he committed in the Netherlands years before moving to the UK, even though they may not be serious enough offences to justify a refusal of status in the first place. We know for a fact that there is ministerial involvement in this case, following the Home Secretary’s decision to authorise the enforcement and removal action in this and five other test cases. This case has been ongoing for nearly five months, during which the individual remains held in detention. In the meantime, the Home Office try to justify his removal based on a failure to disclose, rather than based on his danger to the public – so much for hailing the simplicity, fairness and flexibility of the scheme.
Moreover, more refusals for non-EEA nationals with EEA national spouses/partners are expected. Non-EEA nationals can apply for a family permit under the EUSS based on a genuine and subsisting relationship with an EEA national who has status in the UK. Christopher Desira, Seraphus’ founding solicitor, confirms that decisions on such applications are currently abnormally delayed:
“I know of some EEA nationals with Non-EEA national spouses/partners who previously applied for residence cards but were refused based on the belief that the relationship is one of convenience. They since applied to the EUSS scheme. The Home Office know of the previous refusals so are likely to refuse again but they are currently not making any decisions for reasons I can only guess are political. Refusing EUSS status for serious offending is one thing, but refusing because they don’t trust a relationship is another.
Decisions should not be put on hold for long periods of time, whether they end up being refused or not; they should be issued so individuals know where they stand, challenge the decision where necessary, and move on with their lives.”