From Settled to Unsettled: how the 3 million fought back

Wiard Sterk explains how necessity became the mother of invention for communities who suddenly found their rights under threat after Brexit

Migration can be motivated by any combination of the following: love, despair, hope, desire or the sheer urge to expand one’s horizons. The move can be purposeful, at a whim, driven by necessity, or events beyond one’s control. Every migrant has their own reasons, gathering what they can from their previous life and crossing as many borders as required to settle in their new home. Whatever the reason, none expect it to be easy or hassle free.

Most cross borders for good reasons, to make a change in their lives and a contribution to their new homeland. They often come fully trained, with useful skills and a positive outlook that can benefit society and reinvigorate a nation’s economy. This is why the European Union (EU) recognised that free movement of people and labour between member states was a principle to be enshrined in Article 45 of the Maastricht Treaty, removing some of the hassle for EU citizens when moving from one country to another. What remained were issues of language, understanding the mechanics of a society and getting under the skin of the culture and habits of a new homeland, as well as finding a job and somewhere decent and affordable to live. In some respects, not so different to moving from one part of a country to another. 

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When I arrived in the UK in 1982 I was lucky to find a job quickly and be granted temporary leave to remain. The biggest obstacle beyond finding somewhere decent to live was obtaining membership of Equity, the theatre union, which was still a closed shop at the time. Luckily, unions in the EU accepted each others’ members, just as qualifications are recognised across borders. The Home Office commuted my temporary leave to indefinite a year or so later and I never looked back. That is, until now.

What changed for EU citizens in the UK in the run-up to and after the 2016 referendum, was not just the shock that the UK could even contemplate leaving the EU, but also the realisation how precarious our right to reside still could be. Rights we had taken for granted for so long were brutally brought into question. No need to rehearse the ‘bargaining chip’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’ comments by ministers in the House of Commons again, but they did cut deep. There was the sudden realisation that we were still migrants, secure here only so long as the political wind blew in the right direction. As Nicolas Hatton, founder and until recently the CEO of the3million said: ‘When I woke up the day after the referendum, it felt like I was living in a nightmare and I needed to do something. We ended up being a handful of people in a pub, with huge question marks over our future, our lives and our families. You could feel the anxiety and tension in the air. One thing was clear: inaction was not an option, we had to stand up for our rights’.

One thing set us apart as EU citizens in Britain: we did not see ourselves as outside of UK society, but as part of it. We had agency. We understood the workings of the system from the inside and could speak its language. We had allies to help challenge and lobby from within. Groups like New Europeans and the3million quickly gained traction, with the latter name-checked by Theresa May MP in the House of Commons when she announced the scrapping of the fee for applications to the EU Settlement Scheme, the new immigration status all EU citizens in the UK had to obtain. This was a major concession and demonstrated the3million had become an effective campaigning organisation with a large network of volunteers, almost all EU citizens who had made their home in the UK.

Rights we had taken for granted for so long were brutally brought into question.

They came from across the UK and all walks of life. There were accountants, marketing professionals, academics, IT consultants, lawyers, customer service operatives and beekeepers. None of us had much experience in campaigning and few of us had any in-depth understanding of immigration legislation and the inner workings of the parliaments in Westminster, Brussels or our countries of origin. All of us learnt fast and supportive networks grew exponentially. It would not be rare for us to be more knowledgeable or aware of changes and updates to the proposed scheme than the Home Office staff we liaised with. And we could anticipate the problems that lay ahead. 

The ‘simple and easy to understand’ digital application process for the EU Settlement Scheme still held obstacles for anyone with a hesitant understanding of IT and/or the English language, for those living with disabilities or whose life was not straightforward, or anyone in general with a higher level of anxiety than average. Gaps in documentation to evidence residence in the UK, temporary or permanent homelessness, precarious employment or an obstructive and abusive partner could all stand in the way of protecting your right to stay in the country you now called home. When your rights were derived from those of another person, such as an immediate family member or partner, or someone you provided care for, the situation was even more complex.

Gaps in documentation to evidence residence in the UK, temporary or permanent homelessness, precarious employment or an obstructive and abusive partner could all stand in the way of protecting your right to stay in the country you now called home.

Realising the significant need to assist and advise these EU citizens, the3million initially joined forces with the International Organisation for Migration and legal immigration advisors at Here for Good, to help, free of charge, those facing difficulties or obstacles to navigate the process. As demand for advice and assistance increased, a core group within the3million established Settled as an independent charity, to draw on the acquired expertise and linguistic skills of the many volunteers. They obtained accreditation from the Office for the Immigration Service Commissioner (a legal requirement when giving immigration advice) to assist with Settlement Scheme applications, or offered their services as translators and interpreters. When the Covid-19 pandemic prevented face-to-face advice, services migrated to Facebook forums, WhatsApp chats, Zoom, Skype and a variety of other social media platforms.

Settled was successful in gaining grants from the Welsh and Scottish governments and, thanks to its first CEO, Kate Smart – who joined the organisation in 2020 – developed a strong, independent fundraising track record. She brought in funding from a wide variety of trusts and foundations, as well as independent donations, and established sound organisational and management structures. Soon Settled worked across the UK alongside established advisors such as CAB, Mind, immigration support charities and a wide variety of organisations supporting Roma and travellers communities. 

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The Welsh Government coordinated the efforts of the various support organisations in Wales through regular meetings, whilst providing direct support to Settled, Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru and Ethnic Youth Support Team, to work alongside Citizens Advice Bureau Cymru and Newport Mind, as well as regional Community Liaison officers. They also contracted the immigration law practice Newfields Law to provide advocacy and advice in relation to the EU Settlement Scheme, in particular for more complex cases referred to it by the other organisations. Similar arrangements were set up by the Scottish Government, while in Northern Ireland support was provided through Advice NI. None of this attracted a charge to the service user.

Settled now has its home base in Newport and its relationship with the Welsh Government is ongoing, but it operates UK wide employing 10 staff including three lawyers able to provide legal immigration advice at every level. It can also rely on the support of some 100 volunteers. Late last year Settled was commissioned by the Welsh Government to provide training on ‘Migrant Rights and Public Services’. Its lawyers delivered 18 half-day sessions to 300 public and voluntary sector staff from across the nation, focusing on the EUSS, Ukraine schemes, and guidance in line with Wales Nation of Sanctuary principles, on people with No Recourse to Public Funds, for example. 

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Settled will continue to provide much needed free advice on the Settlement Scheme. Anyone who experienced difficulties completing their Pre-Settled Status application (temporary leave to remain), will experience similar issues when trying to upgrade to Settled Status (indefinite leave to remain) when their Pre-Settled Status expires. Or when they need to update their digital only immigration status records with details of a new passport or ID card. Or when they need to access their online records to provide a prospective employer or landlord with proof of their status. Or when there is a system breakdown when they try and return to the UK after a trip abroad and their status is not recognised. Or when airline personnel, not fully informed of the rights of EU citizens settled in the UK to travel on ID cards instead of passports, prevent you from boarding a plane back home. All real scenarios the Settled team have had to deal with. And although the application deadline to the scheme expired in June 2021, new applications are still being processed, for instance for immediate family members (parent or grandparent, child or grandchild) wanting to join their EU citizen relative in the UK, or new-born children of EU citizens with Settled Status. 

With the need for advice, support and campaigning ongoing, the work of the3million and Settled will continue. the3million, for instance, recently joined the Swansea based Independent Monitoring Authority in a successful legal challenge to the Government, that saw the automatic loss of residence rights removed when Pre-Settled Status expires before a Settled Status application is made.  Settled still welcomes new volunteers, in particular first language speakers of Eastern European languages. As of last March, Settled opened a new service providing advice to Ukrainians on the various UK visa schemes and associated rights, also free of charge, OISC level 3 accredited and multilingual. Settled is currently exploring how it can extend its offer to European citizens in the UK, to include advice on citizenship applications, a dedicated welfare rights team, and promotion and celebration of Europeans’ ongoing cultural and societal contribution to Wales. 

Wiard Sterk is a Fellow of the IWA and a Dutch citizen. He is a trustee of Settled.

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Wiard Sterk

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