EU citizens who miss the deadline to apply for residency after Brexit will only be granted leniency from deportation in exceptional circumstances, according to people briefed on the plans.
A narrow list of exemptions from deportation, such as people with physical or mental incapacity, or children whose parents fail to apply on their behalf, are included in government guidelines as reported by the Reuters news agency,
“We are looking at a fairly high threshold, saying ‘I forgot’ won’t be good enough,” an immigration lawyer briefed on the plans told Reuters.
“If someone fails to apply before the deadline they will have no lawful residence. Then the process to deport them will kick in.”
The Home Office has previously been vague about the situation, and said people would "be given a further opportunity to apply" if they had "reasonable grounds" for missing the deadline.
There are fears that many EU citizens will fall through the net and not register in time, creating the potential for another Windrush scandal.
Campaigners say vulnerable people such as the elderly, those not in regular employment, and domestic violence victims are particularly at risk.
“We are massively concerned about this. It’s our biggest worry,” said Maike Bohn of the 3million group, which represents EU citizens.
“I meet people on almost daily basis who are aware of the scheme, but think they don’t need to apply.”
The sheer number of EU citizens in the UK means that even if 95 per cent sign up to the scheme successfully, around 175,000 people would be missed. This level of uptake would be relatively unprecedented for a population registration scheme.
In October Brandon Lewis, the Conservative security minister, confirmed that EU nationals lacking special status could be deported.
Asked at the time whether those who did not apply for settled status in the next year would be deported, he said: “Theoretically yes. We will apply the rules.”
The announcement provoked a backlash on the continent. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, said the legislature would never approve the Brexit deal if the UK started deporting citizens.
"MEPs, who ultimately will have to ratify any deal, have made it crystal clear that the UK Government must reverse their policy and commit to non-deportation of law-abiding Europeans living in the UK," Luisa Porritt MEP, Deputy Leader of the Lib Dem MEPs told The Independent.
"The Tory Government's disgraceful approach to citizens from the EU27, who contribute so much to our country and enrich our society, is one that only Donald Trump would be proud of. It is an insult to the millions of Europeans who call Britain home."
The Government says EU citizens have until at least December 2020 to apply.