When I came to the UK in the 1970s from Europe, I found a job, obtained a National Insurance number and made London my home. Over the next decades I worked, earned further professional UK qualifications, and retired in 2007 with a UK state pension. Then, in 2016, the political tide in the UK turned, when the UK decided to leave the EU. It was as if someone had kicked me hard in the stomach, and told me “get out”.
I remember listening in growing horror to an unstoppable stream of lies told by the politicians and blindly duplicated by the media during – and after – the referendum campaign. Reliable information about my rights was hard to come by. The fluctuating Settled Status scheme for EU nationals, which Theresa May described as free, fair and short turned out to require a smartphone or a visit to one of then only three document identification centres in London – one a commercial outfit charging me £25 and no guarantee it wouldn’t retain my passport details. There was a real risk of my identity being stolen, I decided not to take my application any further until I was certain the confidentiality issue had been solved.
In the meantime, the questions and the uncertainty began to pile in: Where will I be next year? When do I sell my home? What will I be doing for a living? Can I take my pension and my NHS health cover with me? When do I begin to review my will? But no one knew the answers to these questions. Even my British friends seemed to be wholly indifferent to the predicament: “I am sure you’ll be allowed to stay”. “Surely, we wouldn’t kick out the EU nationals”. But I have been a political refugee before. Those memories, firmly locked away for 60 years, came piling back in. No friends, no place, no tomorrow.
Brexit, planned for 29 March 2019, dragged on and on. Occasionally, the media would report on the problems with the Settled Status procedure, while the government pretended all was hunky dory. The Home Office made it known that post Brexit, EU ID cards would no longer be accepted as travel documents. That was going to complicate travel for work. Then came the threat of deportation of loitering EU citizens. Theresa May’s hostile environment was in full swing.
In August 2019, the government announced a document identification service would be made available nationwide through local councils. That process seemed to have resolved the confidentiality issue, so the next day, I tried to book an appointment. I was offered a date months away – and just weeks before the new planned Brexit date of 31 October. This was cutting it very fine, so I took my passport to my local Town Hall in person and was immediately offered a cancellation slot. Contrary to what I had heard and read about it elsewhere, my local authority offered a document identification procedure that was brief, confidential and free. This was the only well-organised moment in the whole tragic comedy.
The next day I applied for Settled Status via the internet. According to the Home Office website “if the automated check finds that you receive a State Pension or New State Pension and are currently in the UK, you’ll be offered settled status without needing to provide further information about your residence”. Well I have a pension, I was in the country and yet, my application was refused. “We can find no evidence of your presence in the UK,” the system told me. Despite the fact that I had been at the same address for 40 years, on the same electoral roll for as long as I have had to, and even been called to do jury duty?
“You want my money but you don’t want me,” I remember thinking. There was no confirmatory email and no invitation to furnish additional evidence. The only remaining option appeared to be recourse to the fee-paying administrative review. This could not be done from abroad so would have to wait until I had returned from my holiday. I discovered my initial application had disappeared and so I could no longer seek an administrative review. Neither could I turn to the (not exactly free) helpline.
I decided it was time to call a witness to the absurdities of the application procedure and contacted the3million. Together with one of its representatives, I launched the new application. It was refused, again because it could not find me. This time, I was invited to submit evidence of residence for the last seven years – but according to published Home Office requirements pensioners like me only need to prove three years’ residency (and working age people five). Where did the seven years come from? No one was – or even now has been – able to tell me. Was this deliberate, or just a Chris Grayling-style mess?
I proceeded to dig up and photograph council tax bills, bank statements, pension payment records, all going back to 2012. Bundled together, however, the files exceeded the system’s 10mb limit for uploads. Why 10mb? And why not say so before? Anyway, we bundled the evidence into seven Word documents, one for each year. “Wrong format,” we were told – but again there had been no instruction to that effect prior to the uploading.
After a convoluted and time-consuming process of downloading free file conversion software and filtering through many documents, the evidence was finally uploaded. A decision would be communicated in due course. I was both exasperated and furious and, without the3million’s help, I think I might have thrown in the towel at that point.
A month later, the Home Office requested yet further evidence ‘within 14 days’. The original period to be covered, seven years, had mysteriously been reduced to five, but still covered a period for which I had already furnished ample evidence weeks before. More time had to be wasted. Would other people, less familiar with the law, perhaps unsupported, perhaps unable to find old papers, perhaps less skilled in IT, accept the even less secure Pre-Settled Status? Or just give up at the risk of being deported after Brexit? The logistical, financial and emotional drain of these last three-and-a-half years is enormous – at my age, one begins to become very aware of the fact there is less and less time left and one still had so many things to do.
After yet another long technological process – involving photographing 24 monthly credit card statements, finding an appropriately large monitor at a local adult education college, and the3million converting all my documents into two PDF files to be labelled and uploaded to the Home Office from my laptop – I received a single, simple email to tell that I had obtained Settled Status.
This email states that it has no legal value and cannot be used as evidence of my newly acquired right to remain in the UK. That right can only be proved by going through a different part of the Home Office website; the self same site that failed to find me despite my full 40+ years residency and full NI, tax and pension records. As instructed, I read the accompanying letter carefully. It is full of provisos and begins by firmly reminding EU citizens of the transience of his or her rights:
“Your settled status gives you the right to stay in the UK under UK immigration law. At the same time, you can also continue to rely on any rights you have as an EEA or Swiss citizen or family member of an EEA or Swiss citizen under EU law for as long as it remains in force in the UK.”
An uncertain promise for an uncertain future.
So, what now? Is it time to move? Where to? Somewhere near the sea, less dirty, less xenophobic? I have been using the same tube station for 44 years. Home is London.
Baboule* is an EU citizen living in London, and writing under a pseudonym
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.