By Prof Tanja Bueltmann
EU citizens who made their home in the UK have been living in limbo for over 760 days. I know because I am one of them. 3.7 million people. 3.7 million lives. And 3.7 million futures on hold, with families and friends also affected. As are 1.3 million Britons who live in an EU country, this is their story too.
The human cost of Brexit has been too high from the day the UK government made EU citizens in the UK into bargaining chips. Since then it has all gone downhill. The question of our rights is toxic and the number of politicians prepared to engage without pandering to rhetoric about freedom of movement and immigration is small. We EU citizens have now been moved on from bargaining chips to collateral of Brexit, with comforting words constantly matched only by discomfiting actions.
That is why I have been campaigning for the protection of citizens’ rights for over two years now. The rights of EU citizens have been at the forefront of my campaigning, not so much because I am one, but because EU citizens are faced with immediate specific threats to do with staying in their own home. Many people do not like to hear this: they continue to tell us that we will be fine. We are already not fine.
The draft Withdrawal Agreement prepared in December 2017 did not provide the security it should have. Settled status, as set out in the Agreement, will force all of 3.7 million EU citizens to apply to stay in the UK; we will lose rights in the process and be charged for the privilege. The critical thing to recognise here is that settled status is an application process — applications can be rejected. Many concerns remain over the evidence to be provided, or how vulnerable groups, such as elderly or disabled EU citizens, can engage with the process. Many practical issues are also unresolved, including the very basic question of how the Home Office will actually manage to cope with millions of applications in a short period of time when these are unlikely to be spread evenly.
In light of these ongoing concerns it is critical that EU nationals know about their rights and obligations, and that the Home Office is monitored; just think of the Windrush scandal to understand why. But it is also important to continue to raise awareness of the situation because so many do not understand how directly millions of lives — the lives of their neighbours, their colleagues, their builders and their doctors — have already been caught up in Brexit.
Reasoned arguments and facts, as we know from everything to do with Brexit, are of limited value these days, especially when presented in a traditional format. With that in mind I was looking for other ways in which to raise awareness of the problems EU citizens in the UK face. Originally, I was planning some small-scale activities for a brief period in the summer when I was on leave, but with the amazing support of actor, writer and director David Schneider and his team I was able to turn it into something much bigger: the #EUcitizensChampion campaign. David's tragically brilliant satirical take on settled status represents the situation so well that when I first read the script he had written for it, it made me cry. That is not a point I am making for theatrics: the script is simply just so spot on. It is two years of limbo and anxiety in a nutshell: you’re safe here … until you’re not.
Most importantly, the campaign clip opens new paths to engagement with the issues in question — an approach I followed on the streets of London with a series of activities that were designed to trigger interaction as part of the campaign launch. From #OneOfThe3Million at Speakers’ Corner and #StickAround post-it messages on Trafalgar Square, to solidarity ribbons around the trees of The Mall: never before have I had so many public discussions about the impact of Brexit on EU citizens. It was hundreds of them. They were beautiful and heartening, and there was a lot of solidarity.
In the end, the campaign can of course only be a success if it encourages enough people to become an #EUcitizensChampion so that we can make sure that no EU citizen is left behind because of Brexit. I, like all of us 3.7 million EU citizens, am at home in the UK. I am not giving up on my home and I hope that, finally, our home will recognise that.
Prof Tanja Bueltmann is a citizens’ rights campaigner. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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