THE Government’s approach to the status of EU citizens in the run-up to Brexit is “fundamentally misguided”, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has said.
Speaking on Wednesday, after the Prime Minister lost control of the House of Commons agenda, Bishop Butler said: “There is much to commend in the work that Home Office civil servants have done on the EU Settled Status Scheme but the Government’s approach is revealing itself to be fundamentally misguided.
“We should not require EU citizens — including many vulnerable groups — to prove their legal right to be there. In my view, we should replace the current system with a declaratory system, which would protect those legally here and prevent another Windrush crisis.”
Like all EU, EEA, or Swiss citizens in the UK, the Priest-in-Charge of St Thomas’s, Ipswich, the Revd Jutta Brueck, has had to apply for settled status to ensure that she can continue living in the UK after 30 June 2021. She has lived in this country for more than 30 years and been a priest in the C of E for 25 years. She is married to the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley.
“My application has not been refused,” she said, “but when I filled it in, providing the requested information, including my National Insurance number, I got the reply that they have insufficient evidence of my having been resident in the UK in the last six months, though I pay tax and NI every month.
“This upset me so much that I posted on Facebook, resenting the fact that I have to do this application in the first place.
“Last Sunday, I went back to the application and uploaded payslips for the last seven months. Yesterday I had an email to say that ‘I have submitted a valid application’ and that a decision will be sent in due course.”
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, has expressed deep concern “about a UK that seems intent on closing itself off politically both from its European neighbourhood, and is increasingly shirking its moral responsibilities as a country”. This includes, he said on Wednesday, “cases of people from the EU, from across walks of life, who have worked and built lives in the UK over decades, who are now reporting decisions on failed applications for settled status that seem frankly inexplicable”.
The Government had also suggested that it cared “about what I have called ‘a forgotten million’ who are UK nationals in the EU desperately concerned about their residency, their healthcare, and day-to-day life — yet has not even updated its own official website supposedly dedicated to us in nearly a month now”.
Meanwhile, Dr Innes said, the world saw “human misery in pictures of helpless, desperate migrants in dinghies crossing the Channel, clamouring to secure new hope and life in a country that demonstrably refuses to provide shelter and safe haven on anything like the scale offered by most European neighbours, and whose Government may reportedly even seek to break up settled refugee families”.
Bishop Butler also expressed concern for refugee children in Europe who have family in the UK, after The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Home Office was preparing, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to end applications from asylum-seeking children to be reunited with relatives living in the UK. The Government had privately briefed the UNHCR and other refugee agencies that no new applications would be taken after 1 November, the paper reported. The future of these families in the event of a Brexit deal was also uncertain.
Bishop Butler said: “Leaving the EU would always mean withdrawing from the Dublin regulations. However, leaving the EU must not mean abandoning our commitments to refugees and their families. Granting someone refugee status while keeping them from reuniting with their family would be a hollow welcome. The Government must act to secure family reunion beyond Brexit.”
He had told the House of Lords in March: “It is striking how small a part asylum and resettlement have played in the conversation about a post-Brexit immigration system. Assuming — and praying — that we do not leave without a deal, I hope that discussion of these vital areas will not be limited to the margins of an already limited engagement with the immigration White Paper.”
A spokesman for the UNHCR said in a statement that “if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the Dublin Regulation, which allows for the transfer of asylum-seeking children and adults within the EU to join family members, will no longer apply to the UK. UNHCR urges the UK government and its European partners to work together to ensure that appropriate arrangements remain in place for asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people.”
The Home Office said that only existing cases that had not been resolved by November would “continue to be considered under existing rules”.
The chief executive of the charity Safe Passage, Beth Gardiner-Smith, said that a no-deal could be “fatal” for refugee children. “If Boris Johnson doesn’t protect family reunification in a no-deal Brexit, it could be fatal for separated children who want to be with their loved ones.
“We know from bitter experience that when safe and legal routes aren’t there, more children attempt dangerous journeys on dinghies and lorries to reach protection and family. We are calling on the Government to assure vulnerable children that this safe, legal route to their family will stay open, whatever Britain decides on Brexit.”
The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, has written to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland QC MP to “urgently” debate extending the scope of legal aid to separated children in the UK before the prorogation of Parliament.
After a legal challenge by the Children’s Society last July, the Ministry of Justice conceded an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act, but the amendment had been delayed several times, she warned.
She wrote on Wednesday: “In the meantime, many children have continued to miss out on vital legal advice and support to secure their status and resolve their immigration issues. The urgent need to see progress on this amendment has taken on further importance with the roll-out of the EU Settlement Scheme and the end to free movement. There are an estimated 5000 looked-after children with EU nationalities in the care of the British state that need to secure their status.
“Most of these children, who are covered by this Order, will have complex backgrounds and have difficulty documenting their length of stay in the UK as well as their nationality — they will and are requiring legal advice and aid. Failure to secure settled status could result in them becoming unlawfully resident in the UK after the EU Settlement Scheme deadline.”
Since the prorogation of Parliament, she had become “deeply concerned that the progress made towards bringing unaccompanied and separated children back within scope of legal aid will be lost and delayed once more.”
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that the irony of Brexit highlighting issues about refugees and asylum-seekers, including children, from non-EU countries had increased xenophobia and hate crime.
“There has been an aspect — and we saw it in the immediate aftermath of the referendum vote — that allows some people to use it to legitimise xenophobia, hatred of people of other faiths and ethnicities, and I suspect that there is a danger that flairs up again later this year whatever the outcome.
“The way in which the toxicity of the debate has been used by some to legitimate incidents of hate crime is a deep concern. Often, we find that when hate crime increases, they increase across the board. It is not simply people of a different background, but homophobia, hate incidents against disabled people. . . It is really important that churches, civil society organisations, and the general public simply do not put up with that if it happens.”