The number of EU migrants who have applied for the right to stay in the UK after Brexit exceeds official estimates of the Europeans who are eligible to remain, raising further questions over the effectiveness of the government’s controversial settled status scheme.
Figures released last month revealed that at the end of May there had been 3.6m applications to the EU settled status scheme, more than the 3.4m official estimate of how many EU citizens are living in the UK produced by the Office for National Statistics.
The mismatch is echoed by a Financial Times survey of EU embassies, whose estimates of their citizens in the UK indicate that the British government has underestimated its EU-born population by more than 500,000.
The confusion over the real number of EU citizens living in the UK makes it almost impossible to assess how many eligible people will have failed to secure settled status in Britain by the time the process closes on June 30 2021, experts and campaigners warn.
And with no clarity on the numbers, they said there is a real risk that people with a rightful claim to British residence could lose their legal status overnight leaving them vulnerable to wrongful deportation when the deadline passes next year.
“Once the number of applications is above the estimated number the government can say the scheme has been a success — and wash its hands of any future responsibility — despite the fact that many people will have slipped through the net,” said Maike Bohn, co-founder of the3million, a group campaigning for EU citizens.
The prospect of eligible EU citizens falling through the cracks has only been increased by the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, which has closed the embassies and document scanning centres needed to apply.
Oxford university’s Migration Observatory in April warned that unless the government improved its data, any discussion of extending the scheme would take place without accurate information on the number of people who had not applied.
“For a host of reasons, it’s possible that the number of EU citizens granted status through the scheme could greatly exceed the current official estimate of 3.4m but that wouldn’t necessarily mean the task is finished,” the Observatory’s director Madeleine Sumption wrote.
Based on a rolling poll of households, the ONS estimates that there are 3.4m citizens from the EU and European Economic Area in the UK, excluding Ireland.
The figure is considered the most accurate picture available but it leaves out some groups, such as students, people who are living in temporary accommodation or bedsits, and the family members of EU and EEA citizens who are also eligible to apply for EUSS.
The ONS has admitted that its own figures had “statistical uncertainty”. It has also noted that the EUSS numbers included Europeans who had left the UK but could apply to the scheme to preserve their right to return.
The Home Office acknowledged that settled status scheme figures cannot be directly compared with ONS estimates, in part because EUSS numbers include non-EU family members of European citizens and people who are eligible but not presently in the UK.
Foreign ministries contacted by the FT estimated there were about 4m EU nationals in the UK — more than 500,000 over the ONS estimate — with the vast majority of ministries giving different numbers to the UK’s statistical body.
For example, while the most recent ONS estimate said there were 88,000 Dutch nationals in the UK, the Dutch embassy estimated the number at about 150,000 for the same period. Meanwhile, the ONS estimate of 37,000 Czechs and 109,000 Hungarians in the UK is far outstripped by the embassy estimates of 100,000, and of 150,000-200,000, respectively.
The numbers deviate so wildly because of differences in methodologies, between the ONS and different embassies. The Dutch estimate, for example, is extrapolated from census data and passport registrations, while the Czechs track the numbers using their consular services.
Some embassies require citizens to register when they move to a new country, but not all are required to deregister when they return.
To further complicate matters, the number of settled status applications is artificially inflated, although the Home Office insists only to a small degree, because applicants who reapply to update their status from the temporary pre-settled to permanent settled are counted twice.
The Migration Observatory urged the government to consider different ways of measuring data for how many EU citizens are in the UK, including through linking different data sets, a possibility also being explored by the ONS.
By drawing on other government data, including from the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC, the ONS said it is working on building a “richer” picture of who is living in the UK.
The Home Office added that it would take a “flexible and pragmatic” approach and that anyone with “reasonable grounds” for missing next year’s deadline would be given a further opportunity in which to apply.
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