People from outside Europe living with their EU partners in the UK are being left “in limbo” due to severe delays in the Home Office processing applications, The Independent can reveal.
Lawyers have warned that many non-EU spouses applying under the EU settlement scheme had been waiting months for their cases to be decided on, despite the government saying the process should take one to four days.
Tens of thousands of people in this category have applied for settled status, but the Home Office does not publish figures on how many of these applications have been concluded, raising concerns there could be a “backlog building”.
Some people have been unable to visit dying relatives abroad because their status has expired while they have been waiting for a decision.
The Home Office has so far received more than 1.3 million applications to the scheme, around 86 per cent of which have been concluded, according to government statistics.
The figures show that only one application has so far been refused. But lawyers raised concern that the department may be delaying decisions on some applications, possibly to avoid refusals.
Min MacArthur, a Chinese national married to an Irish citizen, Dan, submitted her settlement application in May and is still waiting for a decision.
As a consequence, she has been unable to visit her seriously ill father in China because, as she had been in the process of obtaining UK status before applying to the scheme, she currently has no documentation.
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The 50-year-old, who has been in the UK since 2012 and was working as a shop assistant until her visa expired, has not been asked to provide any more information or evidence to support her application, nor been contacted by the Home Office to answer any queries.
She told The Independent: “This has really upset me. We haven’t done anything wrong. My father is really ill. I feel so guilty for my mother. I feel so selfish because I can’t go back to see my father. Why does it have to be like this? We feel so helpless.”
The couple’s solicitor, Bryony Rest from David Gray Solicitors, said: “When the EU settlement scheme was announced by the government in June 2018 it was hailed as a ‘simple and straightforward’ and ‘streamlined and user-friendly’ process.
“While the government says that no one has been refused to date, the Home Office appears to be delaying decisions on some applications, possibly to avoid refusals.”
Non-EU spouses are entitled to travel and reside with their EU national husband or wife in another member state under freedom of movement laws, so are eligible to apply for settlement in the same way as their partners.
But as part of the application they are often required to submit their biometric information – fingerprints and a photograph – through the Home Office’s outsourced visa system, run by French firm Sopra Steria, which has been criticised in recent months for providing an “inconsistent” and “substandard” service.
Another Chinese national, who did not want to be named for fears it would put her employment in jeopardy, waited more than two months for a decision on her EU settlement application due to a “technical error” with her biometrics submission.
Less than three hours after The Independent contacted the Home Office regarding her case, she was granted settled status.
Having previously had no issues with the Home Office regarding her status since she moved to Britain in 2011, the woman, who has a French partner, didn’t expect to have any problems when she applied on 2 July.
Due to a lack of biometrics appointments being offered on Sopra Steria’s website, she had paid more than £200 to have one the following day, rather than wait for a free one to become available.
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The delay meant she was unable to visit her sick grandmother, who died last month, because her five-year residence – which she planned to replace with EU settlement – expired on 30 July.
“It was a bit inhumane for me to have to make that choice between not seeing my grandmother and potentially losing the right to live here. My grandma raised me until I was six, so it was a difficult decision,” she said.
“As far as the law’s concerned I’m also an EU citizen, so why can’t I be treated like one? What’s the point in making it easy for EU nationals but making it hard for the people they want to stay with them in the UK?
“Both my partner and I have had a lot of stress over this situation. It’s made me feel less welcome here. Even if my application is now complete, I think this whole process has been incredibly unfair and I am sure there are others.”
Christopher Desira, immigration solicitor at Seraphus law firm, said the company had seen “loads of cases” where the settlement applications of non-EU spouses were being delayed, some for as long as five months and counting, and that many people were subsequently being left in a “state of limbo”.
He added: “Of course the Home Office needs to do the right background checks and make sure they’re granting status to the right people on the right basis, but a delay of five months on an application process that’s meant to be simple and straightforward is too long.”
He raised concerns that, while the EU settlement statistics may currently suggest the scheme is working well, they “don’t tell us anything about the cases that are outstanding, or the length of delays”.
“We don’t know if there are problems building up. It could be the start of a build-up of a backlog of cases, with complex cases taking much longer to decide, and with refusals coming at a particular time when it’s better to issue refusals rather than before Brexit has happened,” Mr Desira said.
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“We can only go on past performance, and when the Home Office has known that it’s got an influx of applicants coming in, they start off well but then backlogs start building.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The EU settlement scheme is a free, straightforward and easy way for EU citizens and their family members to secure the rights they are entitled to, and they have until December 2020 to apply.
“The scheme is performing well. We are currently processing up to 20,000 applications per day and over 1.1 million people have been granted status already. Our settlement resolution centre is there to assist any individuals with concerns about their applications.”