Cecilia Mellana is New Europeans UK’s EUSS Caseworker & Development Officer. She has experience in working with migrant groups, asylum seekers and refugees in Italy and the UK.

She holds a Master’s degree in International and Commercial Dispute Resolution law from the University of Westminster. European human rights law and refugee law have been the main focus of her studies.

Cecilia is a young European with a strong interest in migration studies, citizenship rights and democracy, combined with a long-lasting commitment in working with migrant communities to access their rights and fair opportunities. 

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This post is part of the “EUSS Countdown” weekly series running up to the application deadline of the EU Settlement  Scheme on June 30 2021.

If you are yet to apply, please do so here. For more help in a number of community languages, visit our Resource Hub.

I started to work on the EU Settlement Scheme (‘EUSS’) project in late 2019, supporting vulnerable European Union citizens, and their family members, across the United Kingdom to secure their digital-only immigration status, the first of its kind in the world.

Back then, we looked at the Scheme from a different perspective, as the pandemic could not be foreseen and the deadline to apply seemed far away. However, the problems related to the application process and the digital-only status were already evident, and more complex problems were being discovered. 

During the course of the project, New Europeans UK has supported communities such as the Roma, Italian, Somali and Albanian-speaking communities. The challenges linked to the application process were common to all these communities, especially for those individuals who do not own a smartphone or an email address, or have limited digital access.

The deadline to apply for Settled or Pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme is now less than a week away, and serious issues are yet to be solved.

Notwithstanding one year and a half of lockdown, we were able to keep in contact with community groups living in the UK. The necessity of moving every activity online has made us discover new ways of communication, and we were able to reach a wider number of people in different places of the UK and, in some cases, abroad. This was thanks to the tireless work of our partners – Shpresa Programme, Com.It.Es and Patronato ACLI, to whom I am grateful.

By contrast, the pandemic had put many of our activities on hold, as a large number of receivers of our service are IT illiterate and are digitally excluded. The severe limits of online communications and digital applications were exposed, insofar they cannot reach vulnerable individuals, such as older citizens.

The application process includes some of the latest technologies, such as Near-Field Communication (NFC) and facial recognition. The Home Office has always introduced it as straightforward, user-friendly, and accessible on any smartphone, tablet or computer. However, this “smart” technology cannot reach as many people as it should, therefore failing the purpose of simplicity.

In a report we published in November 2020 (“Digital status. Handle with Care”) we explored the experience of at-risk groups by focusing on older Italians and members of the Roma community. Based on research carried out on 263 individuals, we found that the entirely digital nature of the Scheme is challenging for many. These challenges include the lack of necessary skills and technology for digital engagement and usage. Regardless of their age and socio-economic background, 80% of the applicants required support from an organisation or family member to apply.

The Home Office assumes, incorrectly, that existing EU citizens possess the right tools to make use of this new application process. Our research showed, on the contrary, that 68% of the people interviewed would not know how to manage and prove their immigration status if needed. 

The limits of the application process raise serious concerns as many people will not be able to meet the deadline, and many status holders will not be able to prove their status, because they do not know how to access a digital-only status. This is concerning as many of the older individuals we work with are long-term residents, yet they risk not having an immigration status under the new system, or not being able to prove it to someone. 

The choice made by the Home Office not to issue a physical card goes in the direction of the so-called Hostile Environment policy.  

The abovementioned policy was introduced in 2012, and has already shown practices of invasive, or unlawful, immigration detention and control, lately with examples of European Union citizens being detained at airports overnight and taken to immigration removal centres. 

However, issues related to the digital-only status do not only concern entry, as in the case of the settled status holder refused boarding on a plane to the UK, but also the continuation of life in the UK. Using a digital status to prove immigration status is challenging. Therefore, those who cannot prove their status, or those who will not be able to submit an application by the deadline, are at risk of further marginalisation, as they may be prevented from accessing support and services, from renting a house, accepting a job offer, opening a bank account, or receiving medical treatment, and they may be considered as “irregular” migrants, which is extremely worrying.

In conclusion, based on our experience and research, we believe that a policy change is necessary, towards a more humane and human-rights based approach. In regards to the EUSS, it means that the deadline to apply must be lifted and the procedure of proving the status must be simplified by introducing a physical card.