EU nationals in the UK are fearful their citizenship applications will be rejected by the Home Office because they lacked private health insurance in the past, The London Economic can reveal.
The law in question has been brought back in May last year, but can see applicants being refused if they lacked the private plan at any point over the last decade.
Campaigners said EU citizens were never informed of the need for comprehensive sickness insurance (CSI) by British officials, and believe they are being punished unnecessarily. The UK has one of the costliest citizenship application processes in Europe – around £2,000.
The controversy has prompted In Limbo – an organisation fighting for the rights of EU citizens in post-Brexit Britain – to issue an urgent call for assistance, imploring Brits: “We need your support, we need you to raise awareness that things are not fine.”
‘Nobody was told about this, so nobody knows about this‘
Campaigner Cosi Doerfel Hill, 49, from Bavaria, Germany, told TLE: “As part of the citizenship application, they check for the lawful residence as part of the ‘good character’ requirement and that means you must have had CSI over the past 10 years. Because I was a stay-at-home mum until 2019, I won’t be able to naturalise until 2029.
“If you are working, you will be paying taxes and your health insurance is covered through income tax; but if you are a stay-at-home mum, although dependent on your spouse, who is paying income tax and contributing to the NHS, it doesn’t matter. This hits women disproportionately, because more women are stay-at-home parents.”
She added: “There’s no place where you get told about CSI in your journey as an EU citizen living in the UK, so nobody knows about this.
“It is absolutely not fair, it’s completely ridiculous that any kind of rule is applied retroactively. In fact, in most countries in the world, laws that act retroactively are illegal. But with the UK not having a written constitution, these are ‘frowned upon’ in the UK law.”
Although EU citizens have been allowed to use the NHS, according to the Home Office they should have held this private insurance whilst not working enough to be considered “self-sufficient”.
A Home Office spokesperson insisted that there is “absolutely no requirement” to obtain CSI before applying for settled status – but admitted those applying for citizenship “may need it to show that they were lawfully resident in the UK”.
They added that caseworkers “can and do use their discretion in many cases”, and said any suggestion that EU citizens will be deported or refused entry to the UK due to not having CSI is “scaremongering”.
‘Brexit turned my life upside down’
Hill said that, despite living in the UK for 27 years, her rights were ripped away after the EU referendum in 2016. She claims to have come close to deportation – and was considered unlawful because she did not have private health insurance.
It’s not just stay-at-home parents feeling victimised by the stringent requirements. EU citizens who studied in the UK, or came over looking for work, may not have realised that they did not have the same rights to free healthcare as Brits, potentially imperilling their citizenship hopes.
Another campaigner, Elena Remigi, 53, from Milan, Italy, compared their predicament to the Windrush generation – who only discovered that the Home Office had decided their documentation was invalid retrospectively.
“Our rights have been taken away from us, the UK has violated human rights and nobody bats an eyelid,” Hill said. “Brexit has completely turned my life upside down.”
In the space of five weeks, campaigners said they were aware of four EU citizens harbouring suicidal thoughts. People have reportedly been “that desperate”, unable to see a path forward.
Around 1,500 people had been asked by the In Limbo campaigners to choose a word to describe how they feel about Brexit. A large number said “betrayed” – whilst others said they are fearful and uncertain.
‘We need you to help us share our stories’
Speaking directly to the British public, Remigi said: “We need you to help us share EU citizens’ stories and support us.
“Please do not forget that we brought so much to this country, we love this country. Most of us came here for love, it’s not only work. We still would like very much to play our parts and use our talents. It’s not just money, not just jobs.”
Remigi said people in the UK have not been hearing enough about the human cost of Brexit on individuals, and pleaded for people to read and share EU citizens’ stories.
She said the nail in the coffin was when Boris Johnson said EU citizens ‘have overstayed their welcome’, and that they ‘had considered the UK their home for too long‘.
She said Johnson, together with Home Secretary Priti Patel and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had promised nothing would change for European citizens after Brexit. Instead, EU citizens have been left in a “deep limbo, wondering what to do”.
“We became bargaining chips, pawns for this government to obtain a better deal,” she added. “We felt integrated, we were paying taxes, we were their neigbours and felt we were part of the country we considered home.
“And all of a sudden this campaign started depicting us as the other, as the enemy. That was painful.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “EEA citizens who were resident here by the end of the transition period can secure their status in the UK for free through the EU Settlement Scheme until 30 June 2021. Thousands of people are granted status every day and we’ve already received more than 5.4 million applications.
“There is absolutely no requirement to obtain Comprehensive Sickness Insurance before applying to the Scheme. Those applying for citizenship may need it to show that they were lawfully resident in the UK, but caseworkers can and do use their discretion in many cases.
“EU citizens will not be removed from the UK or refused entry solely because they do not have Comprehensive Sickness Insurance and to report otherwise is scaremongering.”