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UK border police arresting young Europeans is not a great look

Immigration Enforcement by sarflondondunc is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

First published in Parliament Magazine

It seems that the UK government has a message for the world, namely: “Look at us! See how proud we are that we are putting an end to free movement”. Be that as it may, the sight of UK border police arresting young Europeans on arrival in the UK, is not a great look internationally.

Detaining young Europeans

By allowing EU citizens to be sent to detention centres without access to lawyers, Home Secretary Priti Patel picked a fight with human rights defenders. When it emerged that some EU citizens had been wrongfully held, due to ignorance on the part of officials, the British government also began to look incompetent.

EU citizens can enter the UK legally, for example to attend job interviews. They should not be locked up on arrival for doing this or, worse still, deported.

New guidance has now been issued to border staff to clarify such issues and also to allow EU nationals deemed to be entering the UK illegally to claim bail. But this concession barely conceals the home secretary’s contempt for human rights law in general and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in particular.

Some lawyers may be nervous about triggering a campaign to leave the ECHR, a development that would fulfil a long-held ambition by many in the Conservative Party.

Treatments of EU citizens throughout Brexit

The UK government has form when it comes to EU citizens. During the Brexit negotiations, millions were left in limbo before it finally agreed rights unilaterally. Many EU citizens left the UK as a result of this experience, while others sought solace where they could or joined campaign groups such as New Europeans.

The status of EU citizens in the UK became a bargaining chip, turning the lives of millions into collateral in negotiations. When the figure for the Brexit divorce was finally agreed, the government announced the EU Settled Status scheme.

It was as if one party in a divorce case had decided to hold the children hostage until a financial settlement had been agreed. In a family court that would probably be seen as a form of abuse.

There followed a period when the government changed its tune. EU citizens were briefly told they were “our friends, colleagues and neighbours” – before having their votes denied at the 2019 European Parliamentary elections.

Sweet or sour, neither of these faces showed much respect to EU citizens. They are still treated as pawns in a game with the EU, not people with rights to protect.

Deadline for Settled Status draws near

Three years on, as we approach the 30 June deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status, the government is instrumentalising EU citizens once again.

Over 40 percent of EU citizens have pre-settled status only, which means they will have to apply again in the future. Many from vulnerable groups may not apply before the deadline, putting their right to stay in the UK in jeopardy.

Often there is a good reason why EU citizens have not yet applied – they may lack up-to-date documents and/or a computer and need help with their application.

The numbers are small in relative terms, as a percentage of all EU citizens in the UK, but potentially quite large in terms of the absolute number of those affected. It would clearly be impractical to deport tens of thousands of EU citizens who miss the deadline. But this doesn’t matter to a government that rules by propaganda.

Conservative propaganda and hard-line rhetoric

Taking a hard-line simply reinforces the government’s message: ‘We mean it when we say EU citizens without status after 30 June risk deportation’.

Such a message resonates of course with racist voters, as well as those who say they simply don’t like migration. This includes some traditional Labour supporters. It is propaganda of the worse kind, designed to further the government’s migration agenda, not to protect EU citizens.

Daily life in the UK under covid has been as tough as anywhere. The added strain for EU citizens of having to cope with uncertainty about their future has led many to question whether they can rely on the UK authorities to protect their rights.

The Independent Monitoring Authority, set up to oversee the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, has issued a report that says that EU citizens neither trust the UK government nor feel comfortable in the UK. Meanwhile the lack of a physical document has resulted in many EU citizens being refused employment or tenancies because they were unable to prove their status.

Building consensus around migration

The home secretary may have other provocations in store. At times such as this, it is important to remember the distinction between a reaction and a response. The UK government’s strategy is to polarise the debate because it believes it has the numbers to win. To counter this, a more measured approach is needed, one that builds a new consensus from the centre, recognising the value of migration.

One leader who understands this is Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland. After the police called off a Home Office raid on two asylum seekers in Glasgow, (on safety grounds in light of the community protests), she said, “I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees. The day when immigration policy is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament can’t come soon enough”.

Human rights defenders, migrants, EU citizens, and people of good faith around the UK may feel she has a point. Like the first minister, they may want to reject such an unfair and divisive approach.

The UK government’s treatment of EU citizens is not only un-Scottish – it is also profoundly un-British.


Roger Casale is the founder and secretary general of New Europeans, a pan-European civil rights movement based in Brussels, and chief executive of New Europeans UK, a registered charity supporting EU citizens in Britain.

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