© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: This photo dated May 11, 2016 shows a UK Government van parked at the Home Office in West London, UK. REUTERS / Toby Melville / File Photo
By Andrew MacAskill and Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) – When Dutch boat captain and engineer Ernst-Jan de Groot applied to continue working in the UK after Brexit, he got caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare because of an online disruption and says he is now likely to lose his job .
With the new immigration rules coming into effect, de Groot is at risk of losing the right to come to the UK to work unless he can successfully apply for a visa through a government website by the end of June.
After exiting the EU orbit at the end of December, the UK is changing its immigration system, ending priority for EU citizens over people from other countries.
While the government has so far processed more than 5 million requests from EU citizens to continue living in the UK, lawyers and activists estimate that there are tens of thousands who, like de Groot, risk missing the deadline.
Those who succeed are not given a physical document to prove they have the right to live or work in the UK and are therefore held hostage by websites when they need to prove their status at the borders or when they have mortgages or loans apply for.
The experience of de Groot and eight other applicants that Reuters spoke to shows how Brexit has turned some EU citizens over to government websites and officials, and how the UK may inadvertently discourage people with the skills required.
“I am trapped in a bureaucratic maze that would astonish even Kafka, and there is no exit,” said de Groot. “I’ve tried everything I can to convey the simple fact that your website isn’t working the way it should.”
De Groot, 54, has enjoyed working in the UK for the past six years.
He sails long, narrow boats from the Netherlands to England to serve as floating houses. He also spends a few months of the year building boats at a shipyard near London and in the summer he is the captain of a tall ship on the west coast of Scotland.
De Groot is fluent in English and says he followed the post-Brexit rules by applying for a cross-border commuter permit that would allow him to work in the UK without being a resident.
Applying online was straightforward until he was asked for a photo. The next page of his application, which was reviewed by Reuters, said, “You don’t need to post any new photos,” and there was no way to upload one.
A few weeks later, his application was rejected – because he did not have a photo.
So began a labyrinthine nightmare of phone calls, emails and bureaucratic clutter. De Groot estimates he spent over 100 hours contacting government officials who he said either couldn’t help or provided conflicting information.
Some officials told him that there was a technical problem 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. The last time he called, he said an officer had told him they had no access to individual cases, so it was impossible.
He tried to start a new application to work around the glitch, but every time he entered his passport number it was linked to his first application and he was caught in the photo upload loop.
The Home Office, the government agency that manages 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
In the past two decades, Britain has seen immigration unprecedented. When it was part of the EU, the bloc’s citizens had the right to live and work in the country.
The call to reduce immigration was a driving force behind the campaign for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, with supporters calling for Britain to take back control of its borders.
Most EU citizens wishing to stay must apply for settlement status before July. Others, like de Groot, need to apply for a visa to work in the UK.
Landlords, employers, the healthcare sector and other public bodies will be able to request proof of their immigration status from EU citizens starting next month.
The Home Office has a reputation for acting aggressively against those who do not have the correct records.
The government apologized three years ago for the Home Office’s treatment of thousands of Caribbean migrants who were denied basic rights, including some who were wrongly deported despite having legally arrived in the UK decades earlier.
That year, 3,294 EU citizens were denied entry to the UK and some were taken to detention centers for not having the correct visa or their residence status.
Lawyers, charities and diplomats say that some EU citizens may not know when to apply or find it difficult to navigate the red tape.
Chris Benn, a UK immigration attorney at Seraphus, a law firm hired to advise on the rules by the EU Delegation in the UK, has spoken at events for the past three years to help EU citizens learn how to use the new system to explain.
Although Benn said it was impossible to know how many people left to apply, he fears that tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, could miss the deadline.
Benn says he still meets well-educated, fluent English-speaking people who don’t know they need to apply. He is particularly concerned about the elderly and people in rural areas who work on farms, for example, who may not be aware of the new rules.
“If even a very small percentage goes down, you’re going to have very widespread problems,” he said.
While the system has worked well for millions, the nine EU citizens grappling with requests Reuters spoke to say it seems overwhelmed. You complain about long waiting times when talking to the employees in call centers and do not receive any case-specific advice when making through-contacts.
One of them, a Spanish student in Edinburgh, told Reuters he was concerned he would not be able to graduate because his application for settlement status was suspended in November.
Three days after his application, he was told in Reuters-verified documents that the police believed he was being investigated for “culpable and reckless conduct” – a crime in Scotland for conduct that affects a person or the public to a material degree Exposing risk to their life or health.
The student, who asked not to be named publicly for fear of jeopardizing career prospects, said he had never had any trouble with the police and had no idea what the alleged investigation might relate to.
He asked the Scottish Police for details. In replies viewed by Reuters, they said their databases showed that he was not listed for a crime or investigated.
He reached out to his university, campaign groups for EU citizens and the Spanish embassy for help. No one has yet got him out of the bureaucratic labyrinth.
“The panic was constant and gradual,” he said. “In the end, I think about it all the time because I’m literally being kicked out of the country.”
A police spokeswoman for Scotland put questions to the Home Office.
The Home Office did not respond to requests for comments on the student’s case or complaints about call centers.
De Groot is also frustrated. The company that usually hires him to captain a ship in the summer has started looking for someone else.
Diplomats say another problem looms: what will the UK do with EU citizens who do not have the correct documents by July?
The government has said that those who fail to meet the deadline will lose their right to services such as free non-urgent health care and could be deported. Guidelines suggest that leniency should only be granted in specific cases, for example for people with a physical or mental disability.
Even those with sedentary status fear that if websites go down, they could still end up in immigration limbo without a physical document to prove it.
When Rafael Almeida, a neuroscience research fellow 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 sedentary status.
Almeida said the website was not working and he was greeted with a message, “At the moment there is a problem with this service. Please try again later.”
After a month of failed attempts to generate the code, Almeida’s mortgage broker persuaded the lender to only accept his passport as proof of identity. The website still doesn’t work.
The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Almeida is concerned that starting next month he will not be able to access health care, apply for a job or return to Portugal to visit family or friends.
“I’m incredibly scared, I’m incredibly frustrated with the people who should have taken care of it,” he said. “I’m just really worried about the future.”