'Utterly betrayed': EU citizens in UK fear chaos and uncertainty
By Zhou Minxi

Imagine that you have lived, worked, started a family and built a life in a country which you now call home. And all of a sudden, your rights to do all these things are questioned and soon going to change. Will life be the same?

That is a real question faced by some estimated 3.6 million people from European Union member states who are now living in the UK, after the country voted to leave the 28-member bloc in June 2016.

British lawmakers on Wednesday voted against leaving the EU without a deal, one day after they rejected for a second time Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal plan. As Britain's divorce from the EU is thrown into further disarray, the future of millions of EU citizens in the UK and Britons on the continent hangs in the balance.

What happens to EU nationals in the UK after Brexit

Last month, the UK Parliament adopted an amendment to safeguard the rights of British citizens living in the EU and vice versa, whether or not a deal is agreed.

EU nationals and their families who have been living in the UK are now required to apply online for the so-called "settled status" during a two-year transition phase if they want to stay in the country legally.

Demonstrators hold banners during a protest to Lobby MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, September 13, 2017. /VCG Photo

Demonstrators hold banners during a protest to Lobby MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, September 13, 2017. /VCG Photo

The digital scheme is a huge undertaking and has left many questions unanswered, as the issue of citizens' rights has often been eclipsed by discussions of political and economic consequences in the event of a "no-deal Brexit." With less than three weeks until the scheduled Brexit date, which is likely to be delayed, citizens' rights campaigners worry that the government is not doing enough to make sure all those affected can live their lives as usual.

Maike Bohn, a co-founder of the UK's largest EU citizens' organization The 3 Million, said vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly and those with disabilities, risk falling through the bureaucratic cracks into an immigration grey zone.

"This means landlords, employers and healthcare providers risk huge fines if they deal with someone without clear immigration status. The result: huge discrimination and chaos for hundreds and thousands of people," Bohn told CGTN.

There is also a lack of transparency, Bohn added. "We don't know exactly what checks the Home Office is doing to establish whether someone is entitled to settled status or not." 

'Hostile environment'

During her time as the Home Secretary, May instituted what is known as the "hostile environment policy," a set of measures intended to make life so difficult for those without legal statuses that they would leave the UK voluntarily. The policy was widely seen as the government's strategy to cut down immigration numbers as it had promised.

After the eruption of the Windrush scandal in 2018, which saw lifelong Caribbean immigrants wrongly detained and deported, the public has become aware of the extent of the UK government's crackdown on immigration.

The Windrush scandal has shown the hostile bureaucracy the UK has created for immigrants, Bohn said. And now EU citizens are worried that they will get caught up in the same nightmare due to the ongoing need to prove one's identity and records and update details for the new settled status.

"How will it be in 20-30 years for old people, for ill people in hospitals or care homes, people who have lost their vision and who are disabled, old and alone? How will they manage to go online and update the information? Is it their aim to create more difficulties for people and especially for vulnerable ones?" said Vivi, a Bulgarian member from The 3 Million.

The status change can feel personal, too, especially for those who have been living in Britain for a long time and integrated.

Two young protesters hold up signs during a rally to call on the government to guarantee EU citizens' rights in the UK after Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, February 20, 2017. /VCG Photo

Two young protesters hold up signs during a rally to call on the government to guarantee EU citizens' rights in the UK after Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, February 20, 2017. /VCG Photo

"People are hugely upset that they have to apply to stay in their homes. They have turned from EU citizens happily living in one of the 28 European countries into immigrants, people who will have a special ID, singled out, different from their neighbors, friends, colleagues," Bohn said.

Peter, a resident from Germany, agreed: "In view of what Brexit means for EU citizens, and how it demotes us to being second class citizens with an uncertain future in the UK, I'd feel utterly, utterly betrayed!"

Blamed for the problems

The 2016 referendum has changed how many people feel about Britain, a country once seen as open-minded. Over the past decade, more than one million people from the eight Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 (EU8) moved to the UK under the EU's Freedom of Movement.

Before the Brexit vote, Eurosceptic groups and media had been hyping up fears that millions of new arrivals, particularly Bulgarians and Romanians, were coming to take British jobs or misuse the country's welfare system. 

"The referendum made this debate even more toxic and changed how many Eastern Europeans feel. Front page after front page the British population was told that EU citizens are the root of UK's problems, Eastern Europeans in particular," Bohn said. "Many now think they are not wanted or welcome and that it doesn't seem to matter that they work and contribute to the economy and society."

A research project called "Here to Stay?" led by the University of Strathclyde found Eastern European youths who migrated to the UK after 2004 feel "uncertain" (56 percent), "worried" (52 percent) and "scared" (27 percent) over their future since the Brexit vote. A majority of 77 percent reported experiences of racism and xenophobia because of their nationality, accent or the way that they look.

People pay their respects at a shopping center where Polish national Arek Jozwik was killed in a suspected hate attack in Harlow, east of London, September 3, 2016. /VCG Photo

People pay their respects at a shopping center where Polish national Arek Jozwik was killed in a suspected hate attack in Harlow, east of London, September 3, 2016. /VCG Photo

These sentiments are also reflected by a net fall in immigration from the EU8 countries. In the last period ending September 2018, more EU8 citizens left than arrived - part of a downward trend of all EU migration to the UK, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

For those who plan to stay, The 3 Million group told CGTN that it is now closely monitoring how the new settlement scheme will be implemented in the UK while working with relevant organizations to reach and inform all the 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK about their rights and obligations.

"Groups at risk are at the forefront of our mind. No one can be left behind," Bohn said.

(Top image: Demonstrators hold banners during a protest to Lobby MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, September 13, 2017. /VCG Photo)