According to a report published in 2019 the number of self-harm incidents in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) has tripled since 2016. In 2015, 393 suicide attempts were reported in UK immigration detention centres. That same year, 2957 people in detention were put on suicide watch. In 2018, more than one person a day needed medical treatment for self-harming in detention, with the number of detainees on regular suicide watch still on the rise. Yet, the risk of suicide in detention is barely on the Home Office agenda.
In 2016, the Home Office called upon Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, to use his expertise and write a review on the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention. As a former government employee himself, he openly criticised some of the most irrational aspects of the Home Office’s policy towards vulnerable detainees.
In his report, Shaw highlighted some of the issues with the UK handling of Foreign National Offenders. These are the people who, once they finish their custodial sentence and are released from prison, often get stuck in detention for the longest periods of time. These are also the people who the Home Office have insisted on keeping in detention during the nine-week long (and counting) COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, even though there has not been a realistic prospect of removal for months as planes were grounded all over the globe.
It is therefore on Foreign National Offenders that the effects of detention often weigh the most. Case in point is Michal Netyks, 35, who jumped from a first-floor window in HMP Altcourse in Liverpool on 7 December 2017. He had been due to be released from prison, having just completed his short criminal sentence. An inquiry found that Mr. Netyks had packed up his belongings and was waiting for his release when he was informed that he would continue to be detained under immigration powers pending possible deportation to Poland. He took his own life that very same day.
The Coroner’s report outlined numerous concerns with this practice, echoed in Shaw’s report. By de facto depriving ex-prisoners of their liberty indefinitely beyond their custodial release date, the Home Office shatters any hope and expectation of rebuilding and rehabilitating after a criminal offence. This is made infinitely worse by not giving prisoners any prior notice that they will be detained upon release from prison. In his review, Shaw wrote that this practice is most detrimental to the detainees’ mental health, fuelling suicidal tendencies and tragedies like Mr. Netyks’. Nevertheless, the Home Office made no changes to its policy; the responsibility for the horrendous consequences of this failure to act rests entirely on the government’s shoulders.
As a response to Shaw’s findings, the Home Office developed a new Adult at Risk policy for people held in detention under immigration powers. This new policy is underpinned by the rule 35 mechanism, which supposedly ensures that potential vulnerable adults are examined by a medical practitioner and that their detention is only maintained when there is absolutely no other option.
But the numbers tell us otherwise. In 2018, an average of two suicide attempts a day happened in UK detention centres. 56% of these attempts were committed by individuals who had a rule 35 report and were recognised vulnerable adults. Clearly, the rule 35 regime is not effective, despite the Home Office’s continued argument that they do everything in their power to flag up potential concerns about detainees’ suicidal tendencies.
Shaw also raised concerns about the concealment and coverups of deaths in detention. Generally, when someone dies in an IRC, the Home Office does not conform to the Ministry of Justice’s practice of publishing data on deaths of immigration detainees who passed away under Home Office supervision. That is why numbers and explanations are elusive, and thus, exacerbations of harm even harder to prevent. In Mr. Netyks’ case, the Coroner’s report found that files had actively been deleted and redacted by senior management, an alarming example of how non-transparent the Home Office is regarding death in detention.
Between 2000 and 2015, at least thirteen people committed suicide in detention. This accounts for 36% of the deaths that happened in detention in that same period of time. The high rate of self-inflicted deaths reflects the high rates of mental despair among immigration detainees caught in a system which is difficult to understand, and seems arbitrary and unfair. To prevent these horrible and inhumane results, it is not a question of improving the management of vulnerable people. Rather, the Home Office should ensure that they are not put in detention in the first please so as to avoid unnecessary and inhumane deaths and trauma.
On 15 May, the Home Office published an update to government nationality policy. The updated policy includes changes to the requirements for EEA nationals who want to become British citizens, and has major ramifications for EU citizens who apply for naturalisation after obtaining settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS).
After Brexit all European residents in the UK, as well as their family members, need to obtain immigration status under the EU Settlement Scheme. This is to ensure that they can continue to enjoy residence rights in the UK under national law instead of EU law when EU law stops being applicable at the end of the transition period. Under the Scheme, an EEA or Swiss citizen or their family members who have a 5 years’ continuous qualifying period of residence in the UK are eligible for settled status (provided they also meet any other relevant eligibility and suitability criteria). Put simply, if the individual can prove that they have been in the UK for five years, they are granted settled status, a status which is supposedly equivalent to indefinite leave to remain. Those with a continuous qualifying period of less than 5 years’ are eligible for pre-settled status.
As a general rule, anyone who wants to naturalise as a British citizen must have lived in the UK for five years (or three years if they are married to a British national). The period of residence must be a lawful period of residence, and only a certain number of absences from the UK are permitted during that period.
The Home Office has long considered EU citizens physically present in the UK without a right of residence under EU law as individuals in breach of UK immigration law. As such, EEA citizens living in the UK without studying, working, or looking for work are not exercising treaty rights and therefore, unlawfully resident. But the EUSS partly abandons that rhetoric, as settled status is granted irrespective of what the individual was doing in the UK for five years, as long as they can prove that they were present in the UK for the required period of time. Immigration lawyers had previously expressed concern on how this would affect naturalisation applications from people who obtained status under the EUSS. The new guidance now confirms their fears, clarifying that when individuals apply for naturalisation, settled status alone might not be enough to fulfil the criteria for citizenship.
The updated guidance states: “However, this grant of settled status (also known as indefinite leave to enter or remain) will not confirm that they were here lawfully under the EEA Regulations during that time, as defined by the British Nationality Act 1981 as this is not a requirement of the EU Settlement Scheme. You may therefore need to request further information from the applicant to demonstrate this. The naturalisation application form (Form AN) asks for information to confirm the applicant was lawfully in the UK for the relevant 3 or 5 year qualifying period.”
An applicant who is applying based on their settled status can still get citizenship, if the caseworkers exercise their discretion when considering the application. EU nationals will have to “provide sufficient evidence to justify discretion being exercised in their favour.”
In other words, the policy update confirms that because settled status-type leave to remain does not directly prove that the applicant’s residence up to the point of getting settled status was in accordance with immigration law, an individual wanting to become a British citizen will have to show that they were, in fact, lawfully resident for the qualifying period when they apply for naturalisation in addition to proving their settled status. This goes against previous Home Office verbal assurances that ‘they’ll be flexible and pragmatic’, that ‘it would be odd to grant settled status and then go on to refuse naturalisation applications because of this’ and that ‘they’ll update the guidance in due course.’
To make matters worse, the policy can be applied retrospectively. There have already been reports of the Home Office reaching out to applicants who previously applied for naturalisation to ask for additional evidence of exercise of treaty rights.
The inevitable conclusion is that EU citizens are less likely to successfully naturalise than others. As always, this will have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable applicants. Getting citizenship is an expensive ordeal: the cost of an application for one adult is £1330, and for a family, can easily ramp up to thousands of pounds. The heightened risk of losing such a significant amount of money and having their application refused will discourage many eligible EU citizens, especially those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, from applying at all. Additionally, the guidance also applies to family members relying on a qualified family member for their EEA status, who will need to include evidence of the family member’s right to reside. Vulnerable applicants, such as domestic violence victims, may not be able to get the evidence required, and therefore have their application refused.
Instead of changing the rules to reflect the Home Office’s rhetoric of EU citizens as “our partners and friends,” the updated policy poorly clarifies the existing rules, needlessly complicating the application process. Indefinite leave to remain under the EUSS seems “less valid” or tied to different conditions than other forms of indefinite leave to remain, as applicants are left with no other option than to rely on Home Office (arbitrary) discretion to secure their citizenship.
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An eventful day in the immigration world, as the Home Office released a Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules, as well as their most recent set of EU Settlement Scheme quarterly statistics.
The Statement of Changes to the Immigration rules carries some good news. For one, it confirms that victims of domestic violence for durable partners will be eligible for status under the EUSS. This is in line with other government initiatives to tackle domestic abuse in the UK.
In the same vein, any family member within scope of the EUSS whose family relationship with an EEA citizen breaks down is now eligible for status under the EUSS. Previously, only ex-spouses and ex-civil partners of EEA citizens could apply to retain a right of residence after divorce or breakdown of a relationship.
Additionally, for family members of the people of Northern Ireland, the proposed changes extend the EUSS to dual Irish/British citizens, allowing eligible family members of the people of Northern Ireland to apply for UK immigration status under the Scheme on the same terms as the family members of Irish citizens in the UK. Prior to this change, family members of Northern Irish people could not access the EUSS – under the new rules, they are able to do so on the same basis as those of the Republic of Ireland.
These are welcome changes which broaden the applicability of the EUSS. It comes as no surprise, then, that the government considers the EUSS a great success. Today’s EUSS press release boasts that with over a year until the application deadline, currently set at 30 June 2021, almost 3.5 million applications to the scheme, making it the biggest scheme of its kind in British history. 3.1 million of those applications have been concluded, of which 58% were granted settled status, 41% pre-settled status and 1% had other outcomes. Other outcomes include 640 refused, 23,740 withdrawn or void and 10,030 invalid applications.
Most EUSS applications are made online, and are relatively straightforward. But the online service is not available to everyone. The EUSS sets out that applicants must send in paper applications if they don’t have biometric ID documents, or if they are applying on the basis of a derivative right to reside. The latter includes people who are not EU, EEA or Swiss citizens but are applying under the scheme as the family member of a British citizen they lived with in the EU/EEA/Switzerland, the family member of an EU/EEA/Swiss citizen who has become a British citizen, the primary carer of a British, EU, EEA or Swiss citizen, the child of an EU, EEA or Swiss citizen who used to live and work in the UK in education, or such a child’s primary carer.
Immigration lawyers and front-field workers were looking forward to this release of quarterly statistics, as the Home Office had promised to integrate paper applications into the statistics in March, something they had not previously been able to do.
Despite this promise, there is still no information about the paper routes to be found in the newly released statistics. The reason given for failing to deliver on their promise is the COVID-19 pandemic, as the statistics state that it was the Home Office’s “intention to develop electronic integration of the two systems to provide a more complete account of all applications received for the quarterly publication in May 2020, but due to the impacts of Covid-19, this has not been possible.”
The Home Office have also temporarily stopped accepting ID documents by post, which delays the processing paper applications. Nevertheless, the statistics reaffirm that the deadline to apply to the EUSS will not be extended.
Paper applications are amongst the most complex applications under the EUSS, and often represent the most vulnerable individuals in society. As a consequence of the pandemic, charities and outreach projects which assist vulnerable applicants in their applications are unable to operate. As such, the people most unlikely to apply to the EUSS on time (those without ID), and whose applications are most affected by the pandemic (as they have to submit ID documents), are quite literally being left out in the cold: they cannot currently apply, their applications are excluded from the statistics and there is reduced community assistance available. The Home Office is working hard to overcome obstacles and delays caused by the pandemic, and resume normal operation. It is only logical that they should take the same approach towards applicants dealing with hindrances on their side of the process.
In brief, other, non-EUSS related changes to the Immigration Rules include:
Changes to the new Start Up and Innovator visa categories, tightening the requirements that endorsing bodies have to take into account when giving their endorsement
A change to student visas (Tier 4), whereby all applicants who apply under Appendix W who are sponsored for their studies in the UK by a government or international scholarship agency now have to obtain written consent from the relevant organisation.
The new Global Talent visa has been finetuned, as the Rules merge the old Exceptional Talent visa with this new category, and minor amendments have been made at the request of the endorsing bodies.
Changes to the Representative of an Overseas Business visa category, restricting its scope. Representative of an Overseas Business visa holders are employees of overseas businesses which do not have a presence in the UK, to be sent to establish a branch or wholly owned subsidiary of the overseas business in the UK. The changes include that the overseas business must be active, trading and intending to maintain their principal place of business outside the UK; that applicants must have the skills, experience, knowledge and authority to represent the overseas business in the UK; and that applicants must be senior employees of the overseas business.
Some amendments and clarifications regarding family life, including that if an individual is granted leave as a fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner, this automatically enables the marriage or civil partnership to take place in the UK, as well as clarification for the spent period for applicants under the family rules who have been convicted and sentenced to a period of imprisonment for a period between 12 months to four years is 10 years.
Read the full explanatory note here.
On Monday, a group of 52 asylum seekers and refugees, including 16 unaccompanied minors, flew from Greece to Britain to be reunited with their families in the UK. The transfer had been delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Under the EU Dublin III Regulation (the Dublin Treaty), family reunifications are facilitated if a close relative is already in the country of destination. As such, section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 provides that unaccompanied refugee children can lodge an asylum claim to come to the UK from another Dublin State if they have family in the UK to be reunited with. The burden of responsibility for those children lies on the State in which the child has family ties, in this case the UK, and it is up to that State to make arrangements to transfer the child.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, family reunification has been suspended across much of Europe as a natural consequence of closed borders and cancelled flights. After a six-week corona-related delay, a joint effort by the UK and Greek governments allowed a flight with over 50 migrants to go ahead and bring over 50 migrants to the UK from Athens on Monday. The individuals on the flight included people from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of them have been living in Greece’s overcrowded refugee camps for months, alone and in problematic sanitary conditions. There are currently 42.000 people on the Greek islands. Amongst these are at least 1500 unaccompanied minors, in addition to another 3500 unaccompanied children who are stranded on the mainland.
The UK and Greece recently committed to a Joint Action plan on migration in which they focus on family reunification, and specifically on the best interests of unaccompanied children in Greece. Monday’s flight can be considered a first direct product of this pact. Although this renewed commitment to family reunification efforts under the Dublin treaty is welcome, the pact comes with significant shortcomings.
On the one hand, the Action Plan is only valid for “as long as the UK remains bound by the Dublin Regulation.” In other words, it will only stay in force until the end of the transition period – which is less than eight months away. Once the transitional period ends, and the Dublin Treaty is no longer binding on the UK, there is no guarantee that unaccompanied minors will still be able to join their family members in the UK. Additionally, the pact only addresses unaccompanied children who qualify for family reunification. It does not satisfactorily deal with the relocation of other unaccompanied children stuck in Greece. In order to protect all children refugees adequately, relocation efforts for unaccompanied children in Greece’s refugee camps who do not have family members or relatives in the UK should be in addition to the UK’s pre-existing legal obligations under Dublin III. There is no mention of that in the Joint Action Plan.
The success of this particular flight was a result of intense advocacy by refugee families in the UK working with charities such as Safe Passage, a campaign group which fights for family reunification and two cross-party members of the House of Lords, Lord Alf Dubs (Labour) and the Earl of Dundee, a Conservative peer with responsibility for child refugees at the Council of Europe. Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of the refugee charity Safe Passage International, said in a news release: “The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties.”
Let’s hope they keep doing so in the future.
When Brandon Lewis MP stated that EU citizens who miss the EU Settlement Scheme deadline could face deportation, it was a wake-up call for all EU citizens in the UK. The 3 Million, the largest campaign organisation for EU citizens in the UK, and one of many organisations advocating for a declaratory instead of a constitutive scheme, called upon the government to ensure that law-abiding EU citizens living in the UK do not fall subject to the hostile environment as unlawful migrants merely due to a formality such as a missed deadline.
At the time, the Home Office sussed the situation by reiterating that they “are looking for reasons to grant status, not refuse, and EU citizens have until at least December 2020 to apply.” A spokesperson said: “We’ve always been clear that where they have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, they’ll be given a further opportunity to apply.” Mr. Lewis personally clarified that EU citizens will have enough time to apply, and highlighted that the Home Office will accept late applications.
“It is not true that as a general rule, eligible persons who remain in the UK without registration are here ‘unlawfully’. For most purposes, there ought not to be legal consequences,” said Professor Bernard Ryan of the University of Leicester. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Brexit spokesman, also reported being told by the Government that there would be no automatic deportation for EU citizens who fail to apply to the Scheme.
Now, the Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel confirmed in writing what grassroot organisations always feared, and Mr. Lewis hinted at in October: that those who fail to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme by the deadline of 30 June 2021 will be unlawfully resident in the UK. If information regarding EU citizens’ rights after Brexit was previously conflicting, the Home Secretary now clarified once and for all that late applicants will be subject to the hostile environment rules during their period of unlawful residence.
Ms. Patel made the remarks in response to a letter from the Home Affairs Committee outlining various concerns regarding EU citizens’ rights in the UK after Brexit. The Home Secretary wrote that “those who have not applied to the EUSS by the deadline will not have lawful status in the UK. This means, for example, they will not be able to evidence a right to work or rent if they seek new employment or a new private rental property during the period in which they have no lawful status.”
In the same breath, Ms. Patel stated that late applications to the EUSS “for good reason” will be accepted as valid. Some examples of good reasons given are children whose parent or guardian do not apply on their behalf, those in abusive or controlling relationships who are prevented from applying or accessing the documents they need to do so, and those who lack the physical or mental capacity to apply. If these examples are an indication of what may constitute “good reason,” the bar seems to be set high and at the Home Office’s discretion.
In other words, people who fail to apply to the EUSS by the deadline will lose the right to rent and work, as well as lose access to most social services and benefits including free NHS treatment. They will be subject to the hostile environment rules until they acquire status under the Scheme, assuming they do successfully apply late, which in itself is a strong assumption to make considering late applicants must meet the “good reason” policy. Even if they do get status, late applicants will face consequences of their interim unlawful residence until years after the facts, not in the least because they will not be able to naturalise as British citizens for a further 10 years.
Last week, the Home Affairs Committee hosted a livestream with Ms. Patel to discuss the Home Office response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The online discussion was meant to offer reassurance at a time of crisis. Concerning EU citizens’ rights, Ms. Patel confirmed that there will not be an extension to the deadline to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme. Except of that reiteration, she did not address many of the concerns which EU citizens in the UK have brought to her attention since the COVID-19 outbreak. Most importantly, she failed to address the effect of breaks in continuous residence due to the coronavirus outbreak, except to say that the government will be “flexible.”
A pattern emerges here, whereby there is a lot of talk about Home Office flexibility and cooperation at the government’s discretion, but very little clarity about what that translates to in practice. The Home Secretary’s letter reiterates the government’s known position on a number of issues without offering clear answers to the questions asked. It provides vague statements instead of hard facts and lacks a legal framework to resolve the pitfalls the Committee flagged up.
These ambiguities and failures on behalf of the Home Office will impact the most vulnerable and marginalised citizens most devastatingly, as they are least likely to apply to the EUSS at all, let alone before the deadline. As per the 3 million, even if the EU Settlement scheme performs as well as the UK's most successful campaign ever - to switch everyone to Digital TV (97% of people signed up by the time analogue TV was disactivated) - over 100,000 EU citizens would still lose their legal status and face the full consequences of the government's hostile environment. Following the Home Secretary’s comments, those 100,000 people will be at the discretionary mercy of the Home Office.
In March, the PM promised that destitute migrants would receive the necessary accommodation and funding during the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks later, food banks are struggling to meet demands, asylum seekers are moved out of their flats without warning, and local authorities fail to offer guidance on how to offer shelter to rough sleepers during the crisis.
Under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” rules, individuals without immigration status in the UK do not have access to public funds. The hostile environment prevents them from accessing many benefits, ranging from healthcare to housing to public authority assistance of any kind.
In an open letter to the Government, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) asks the Prime Minister to grant all immigrants who currently do not have status a period of Leave to Remain for the time of the pandemic, to avoid the hostile environment’s detrimental effect on public health. The letter is signed by over 30 organisations and charities who work with asylum seekers, refugees and other individuals with insecure immigration status, including Bail for Immigration Detainees, Women for Refugee Women and many others.
The JRS’ letter asks the PM to “to grant a period of leave to remain, with recourse to public funds and access to the labour market, to all those with insecure immigration status,” stating that “This is a vital step to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when public health demands that everyone has ready access to housing and healthcare, insecure immigration status acts as a barrier and puts everyone’s health at risk.”
Although the government has made all COVID-19 treatment free of charge irrespective of the patient’s immigration status, many people with precarious status are reluctant to get help. They fear that data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office, another pillar of the hostile environment policy, will lead to their deportation if they go to the hospital. If they think they might be sick, many migrants prefer staying under the radar so as to avoid the risk of getting into trouble, leading infected people to remain untested and at large.
In order to avoid a crisis of exploitation, destitution and homelessness on top of the coronavirus emergency we are already going through, all migrants should be encouraged to access public funds and especially healthcare.
As charities which normally support vulnerable asylum seekers have been forced to shut down, destitute and vulnerable asylum seekers have been left out in the cold. A #HumaneMigration system including temporary amnesty and leave to remain for migrants who are in the UK during the pandemic is the only viable solution not only to help all the people who are currently slipping through the cracks, but also to limit the spread of the virus in the wider community. Only unprecedented measures can reflect the unprecedented nature of this crisis, and ensure the health and safety of the nation as a whole.
On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds welcomed a healthy baby boy to this world. The birth of the PM’s son brings some uplifting news in difficult times, as the PM comes out of a tough personal recovery from coronavirus, whilst facing a daunting national crisis for the weeks and months to come. But the PM might not be out of the woods yet. COVID-19 might impact the Prime Minister on a personal level yet again – not by infection this time, but in relation to his new-born son.
In the UK, there is no central government authority to register births. Instead, this has to be done in the area the child was born. Ever since all local authorities closed down their offices on 23 March, birth registration appointments are no longer carried out. Parents of new-born babies in the UK are therefore unable to register their child as normally required, with potentially unduly harsh consequences.
The general rule is that parents need to register the birth of a child with their local authority within 42 days of birth. If they fail to do so, they risk a fine or some other form of reprimand. Fortunately, this rule has been relaxed due to the coronavirus outbreak: government guidance states that no action will be taken against parents who fail to meet the deadline due to no fault of their own. In addition, parents can exceptionally make claims for child benefits and/or universal credit prior to obtaining official birth certificates.
These are welcome changes, but they are not enough. In order to issue ID cards and travel documents, embassies have to see the birth certificates of children born in the UK. As ID cards are currently not being issued, parents cannot obtain passports or ID cards for their new-borns. In other words, the suspension on issuing birth certificates contributes to citizens ending up without identification and travel documents.
For non-British citizens, these concerns are exacerbated even further. In a global pandemic, emergency situations are not rare occurrences. Yet, because new-borns cannot get IDs under the current circumstances, parents cannot travel abroad in those emergencies unless they leave their new-born child behind.
Not only are all non-British parents unable to travel with their children should they need to do so, they also face additional challenges when applying for immigration status in the UK. EU citizens, specifically, will find that applying to the EU Settlement Scheme without a form of ID is a complicated endeavour.
When asked to clarify on these pressing issues, a Home Office official wrote that his office will evaluate on a “case by case basis” any application where a parent is unable to obtain an identity document for their child from an EU27 embassy due to circumstances beyond their control. Concerning the EU Settlement Scheme, the Home Office employee reiterated that the deadline to apply under the scheme is not before 30 June 2021, and, assuming that local authorities will resume their functions soon enough, parents therefore have plenty of time to apply before then, should they be unable to do now.
The case-by-case evaluation proposed by the Home Office is at their discretion and therefore, does not offer a solution to the structural consequences of suspending birth registrations.
In theory, this chaos affects everyone in the same way. One cannot help but wonder whether the PM will face similar obstacles when registering the birth of his son. Might that prompt the Home Office to find a temporary solution to avoid that more citizens, British and European alike, end up without IDs?