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When Dutch boat captain and engineer Ernst-Jan de Groot asked to continue working in Britain after Brexit, he found himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare due to an online glitch and said that ‘ he was now at risk of losing his job., write Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Macaskill.
Under new immigration rules coming into force, de Groot risks losing the right to come to work in Britain unless he can successfully apply for a visa through a government website by the end June.
After leaving the orbit of the European Union at the end of December, Britain is changing its immigration system, ending the priority given to EU citizens over people from elsewhere.
While the government has so far dealt with more than 5 million applications from EU citizens to continue living in Britain, lawyers and activists estimate that there are tens of thousands who, as de Groot, may miss the deadline.
Those who succeed do not receive a physical document proving they have the right to live or work in Britain, so they remain hostage to websites when they need to prove their status at the borders or when applying for mortgages. or loans.
The experience of de Groot and eight other candidates interviewed by Reuters shows how Brexit has put some EU citizens at the mercy of websites and government officials, and how Britain can inadvertently discourage people with the skills she needs.
“I am trapped in a bureaucratic maze that would amaze even Kafka, and there is no way out,” de Groot said. “I tried everything I could think of to communicate the simple fact that their website isn’t working the way it should.”
De Groot, 54, has worked happily in Britain for the past six years.
He sails long, narrow barges from the Netherlands to England for use as houseboats. He also spends a few months a year building boats at a shipyard near London and is the captain of a tall ship around the west coast of Scotland in the summer.
Fluent in English, de Groot says he followed post-Brexit rules by applying for a border worker permit to allow him to work in Britain without being a resident.
Applying online was straightforward until she was asked to provide a photo. The next page of his request, which was reviewed by Reuters, said “you don’t need to provide new photos”, and there was no option to upload one.
A few weeks later, his application was rejected – for not having a photo.
So began a labyrinthine nightmare of phone calls, emails and bureaucratic mess. De Groot estimates that he spent more than 100 hours contacting government officials who he said were unable to help or gave conflicting information.
Some officials told him there was a technical issue that would be resolved quickly. Others said there was no problem.
Every time he called, de Groot said he asked the person to record his complaint. On his last call, he said an official told him they did not have access to individual cases, so it was impossible.
He tried to initiate a new request to get around the problem, but every time he entered his passport number it was linked to his first request and he got trapped in the photo upload loop.
The Home Office, the government department that administers immigration policy, did not respond to requests for comment on de Groot’s case or the lack of physical documents proving the status of successful applicants.
Take back control
Britain has experienced unprecedented immigration over the past two decades. When it was part of the EU, the citizens of the bloc had the right to live and work in the country.
A demand for reduced immigration was the driving force behind the Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, with supporters calling on Britain to “regain control” of its borders.
Most EU citizens who wish to stay will need to have applied for settlement status by July. Others, like de Groot, must apply for a visa to work in Britain.
Homeowners, employers, healthcare and other public services will be able to ask EU nationals for proof of their immigration status from next month.
The Home Office has a reputation for aggressively targeting people who don’t have the right documents.
The government apologized three years ago for the Home Office’s treatment of thousands of Caribbean migrants, who have been denied their basic rights, including some who have been wrongfully deported, although they had arrived legally in Britain decades earlier.
So far this year, 3,294 EU nationals have been refused entry to Britain and some have been taken to detention centers because they could not show a correct visa or their status. resident.
Lawyers, charities and diplomats say some EU nationals may not know they need to apply or find it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy.
Chris Benn, a UK immigration lawyer at Seraphus, a law firm hired by the EU Delegation to the UK to provide advice on the rules, has spent the past three years speaking out at the events explaining to EU citizens how to navigate the new system.
Although Benn said it was impossible to know how many people still need to apply, he fears tens of thousands, and possibly 100,000, will miss the deadline.
Benn says he always meets well-educated, fluent English-speaking English speakers who don’t realize they have to apply. He is particularly worried about the elderly and people in rural areas, such as those who work on farms, might not be aware of the new rules.
“If even a very small percentage is missing, you will have widespread problems,” he said.
AN IDENTITY ERROR
While the system has worked well for millions of people, the nine EU nationals struggling with requests polled by Reuters say it appears outdated. They complain that they wait a long time to speak to call center staff and when they arrive they do not receive specific advice in each case.
One of them, a Spanish student in Edinburgh, told Reuters he feared he could not complete his studies because his application for residency status in November was suspended.
Three days after his request, he was told in documents reviewed by Reuters that police considered him to be under investigation for “culpable and reckless driving” – an offense in Scotland for behavior that exposes an individual , or the public, at significant risk to their life or health.
The student, who asked not to be named publicly for fear of jeopardizing his career prospects, said he had never had any problems with the police and had no idea what to do could carry the alleged investigation.
He asked the Scottish police for clarification. In responses seen by Reuters, they said their databases showed he was not listed for any crime, nor under investigation.
He contacted his university, campaign groups for EU nationals and the Spanish Embassy to ask for help. So far, no one has managed to get him out of the bureaucratic maze.
“The panic has been constant and gradual,” he said. “I end up thinking about it all the time because I could literally be kicked out of the country.”
A Police Scotland spokeswoman asked questions of the Home Office.
The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment on the student’s case or complaints about call centers.
De Groot is also frustrated. The company that usually employs him to order a ship in the summer has started looking for someone else.
Diplomats say another problem looms: What will Britain do with EU citizens who don’t have the right documents by July?
The government has said those who fail to meet the deadline will lose the right to services such as free and non-urgent health care and could be deported. The guidelines suggest that leniency will only be granted in certain cases, such as for people with physical or mental disabilities.
Even those with established status fear that without a physical document as proof, they could still find themselves in immigration limbo if websites fail.
When Rafael Almeida, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Edinburgh, applied for a mortgage this year, he was asked to provide a share code generated by a government website to prove his institution status.
Almeida said the website would not work and was greeted with a message: “There is an issue with this service right now. Try again later. “
After a month of unsuccessful attempts to generate the code, Almeida’s mortgage broker persuaded the lender to only accept his passport as proof of identity. The website is still not working.
The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Almeida fears that from next month he will no longer be able to access healthcare, apply for a job if he wishes or return to Portugal to see his family or friends.
“I’m incredibly anxious, I’m incredibly frustrated with the people who should have taken care of this,” he said. “I’m just very worried about the future.”