An Italian environmental technology investor who has lived in the UK for 14 years has discovered she could be removed despite getting a “permanent residency” card after Brexit.
She is one of potentially tens of thousands of EU citizens who were unaware the Home Office changed the rules in 2019 requiring them to apply for a different scheme, called EU settlement.
Silvana, whose name has been changed, discovered her permanent residency card was not valid only when her application to renew her daughter’s European health insurance card (Ehic) before a holiday this summer was rejected.
She says she was then wrongly told by the authorities to apply for a replacement biometric residency identification and paid £200 for an emergency appointment as the family was about to travel. That was also rejected and she was finally given the correct instruction: to apply for the EU settlement scheme, which had officially closed in June 2021 but was still open for late applications on “reasonable grounds”.
On 9 August, the government changed the definition of “reasonable grounds”, removing “lack of awareness” of the EU settlement scheme as an acceptable justification for a late application.
Silvana has a degree in environment technology from Imperial College London, is finishing her PhD at University College London and is an investor in environment startups, contributing of the UK’s core mission of delivery on clean technology.
With a British husband and a baby girl with dual nationality, she had applied for permanent residency in 2016, primarily as a step on the path to apply for British citizenship, an idea she later discarded owing to the cost.
“The permanent residency card doesn’t have an expiry date. I’m aware of what’s going on in the world, I am not stupid. I read the guidelines at the time. There was nothing to suggest my card was invalid,” she said.
Campaigners have warned repeatedly that thousands of EU citizens could fall through the cracks given how many were living in the UK before Brexit, some for decades with children and grandchildren.
Even after the Ehic application was rejected, Silvana thought she was safe as she had Home Office evidence of being in the country before Brexit. “To be honest, I didn’t understand the gravity of my situation for a whole month,” she said.
She blames the government for her situation, as it allegedly allowed Home Office staff to give false and inaccurate information multiple times.
To compound matters, she said, many lawyers who do not know the facts are exploiting EU citizens’ vulnerability. Nor is the Home Office pointing people such as her to charities or advice centres such as Inca for Italians in Britain, funded by the Italian government to help its nationals in the UK.
“For a month I sought legal advice. I was being quoted anything from £500 to £12,000 to make an application. They all told me completely different things,” said Silvana. “The first one told me I was a ‘desperate case’ and I would never win it even though the wrong advice was given by UK visa officers.”
“I’ve been treated like a criminal,” she said, furious that at several junctures in the past year when Home Office staff failed to tell her the permanent residency status was not just invalid but had been replaced by the EU settlement scheme.
“It would have been so easy for them to say: ‘You have to apply for settled status.’ The way they have been behaving over the withdrawal agreement is unlawful in my opinion,” she said.
Andreea Dumitrache, the acting head of the3million campaign group, said the Home Office’s new guidelines on reasonable grounds for late applications removed “safeguards put in place for EU citizens to access their rights”.
She said it was “another example of an authoritarian policy which punishes people, removing their rights unfairly, due to a fixation with a comparatively small number of ‘speculative’ applications, which the Home Office has the capacity to manage”.
A Home Office spokesperson said it had “long been clear” that permanent residency documents ceased to be valid at the end of the grace period on 30 June 2021.
“More than two years have passed since the deadline for applying to the scheme, which was widely publicised. In line with our citizens’ rights agreements commitments, we continue to accept and consider late applications from those with reasonable grounds for their delay in applying,” the spokesperson said.