EU citizens and their family members living in the UK under EU law are at risk of ‘falling through the cracks’, with their rights of future residence in question after Brexit, researchers say.

The study, led by the University of Birmingham, found the nature and quality of rights of many EU citizens and their future residence in the UK would be thrown into question, particularly for children, whose status is dependent on their parents.

The study, EU families and “Eurochildren” in Brexiting Britain, considered two legal scenarios after Brexit:

  • ‘No deal’ scenario, with the UK leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without a withdrawal agreement and no new laws being passed. In this case the default legal position would be that all the people living in the UK under EU law would suddenly become unlawfully resident. This scenario would expose affected individuals to the full force of the UK government’s “hostile environment”, meaning it would immediately become a criminal offence to work in the UK and access to services including healthcare, bank accounts, rented accommodation and more would be restricted.
  • ‘Settled status’ scenario, based on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. Leaving aside that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ and assuming that the December agreement is ratified by both parties, a sizeable number of EU families and their children are likely to fall into the cracks of the legal system. The researchers found that while ‘settled status’ would improve the situation for children born after Brexit and reduce the administrative barriers to naturalisation for adult EU citizens, this status would not have a retrospective effect, leaving many in legal limbo.

Dr Nando Sigona, Director of the Eurochildren study, University of Birmingham said:

‘The consequences for children are severe and to date largely overlooked. Children will be wholly dependent on their parents to apply for the new types of status.

‘Where parents fail to do so, or for some reason do not qualify, children will lose their lawful status under EU law and drift unknowingly into illegality’.

The researchers highlighted that Brexit posed a number of questions on rights to residence and nationality for EU families in the UK.

Barrister, Colin Yeo, author of two legal briefings in the Eurochildren study explained:

‘There are a number of serious problems facing EU families in the UK after Brexit. Prior to Brexit these problems already existed but were largely hidden.

‘They could be fudged or overlooked because these cracks were smoothed over by ongoing rights of free movement.

‘After Brexit, the cracks will be exposed, some EU citizens and family members will fall through those cracks and others will be forced to make uncomfortable binary choices.’

The study highlights that although the majority of EU citizens and their family members currently resident in the UK will probably be able to retain ongoing lawful residence in the ‘settled status’ scenario, this will not be the case for all those affected by Brexit.

Several additional questions remain unresolved by the EU-UK December (Phase 1) and March (Transition) agreements. In particular, historic problems with the interaction of British nationality law and the UK interpretation of EU law would likely deprive many EU citizens of their entitlement to the acquisition of citizenship.

Colin Yeo added:

‘It is likely that substantial numbers of EU citizens do not acquire the new temporary and settled statuses. Still more will face obstacles acquiring British citizenship’.

‘Where EU citizens do not acquire the new temporary and settled statuses, they and potentially their families will become unlawfully resident, and will then face hostile environment measures, exploitation in the labour and housing markets and ultimately, removal from the UK.

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  • The University of Birmingham is ranked among the world's top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Eurochildren, full title EU families and “Eurochildren” in Brexiting Britain, is a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of The UK in a Changing Europe initiative.
  • The study is led by Dr Nando Sigona at the University of Birmingham and carried out by a team at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham in partnership with two civil society organisations, The 3 Million and Migrant Voice and barrister Colin Yeo, Garden Court Chambers. The study aims to: map the population of UK- and EU-born children of EU nationals in the UK from 1980s to date; investigate how families with at least one EU27 member experience and respond to the process of exiting from the European Union and identify factors that shape such responses; and examine the impact of the EU referendum and its aftermath on different age cohorts of UK-born Eurochildren, examining in particular how they articulate their sense of belonging and attitudes vis-à-vis the UK and the EU.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.