The English town of Luton around 50 kilometres north of London can only be described as a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities.
One of only three towns where white Britons are in the minority, nearly a third of Luton’s population were born outside of the UK, according to 2011 census data.
While the majority of the town’s foreign-born population come from outside of Europe, the accession of several eastern European nations into the EU over the past two decades led to a significant number of Polish, Bulgarians and Romanians making Luton their home. The town’s airport has seen an exponential rise in the number of budget flights to destinations in eastern Europe. For many EU citizens coming from eastern Europe hoping to start a better life in the UK, Luton is their arrival point.
Luton voted for Brexit but the country’s impending departure from the EU has worried many of the town’s European residents. The British government has said the rights of EU citizens living in the UK will be protected if they register under the settled status scheme. The registration system, which opened nationwide in January, requires applicants to answer three “simple” questions online if they wanted to remain in the UK.
Earlier in January, the prime minister announced she was scrapping a £65 charge that accompanied the application, following months of lobbying by campaign groups including the3million, a grassroots organisation which aims to protect the rights of EU citizens after Brexit.
But already the process has thrown up a number of complications.
Kiran Sandhu is Head of Immigration at Solomon Solicitors in Luton. She has been inundated with queries from EU nationals in the town.
"We have people coming in every day," she told The National.
“Even though there’s no application fee now, there’s still a lot of documentation that needs to be gathered.”
To gain settled status, an applicant must have been continuously resident in the UK for five years. Applicants who have lived in the UK for less than five years can apply for pre-settled status and then settled status after five years of continued residence. The applicant must show evidence of continuous residence in the UK, prove their identity and nationality and declare any criminal history.
Toni Petkova is a Bulgarian national who has lived in the UK since 2008. She joined the3million two years ago and has helped to organise a series of outreach events across south of England aiming to spread awareness about the need to register.
In theory, Ms Petkova should have no problem with the registration process. She has attended a number of outreach meetings led by an immigration lawyer to answer questions people might have about the scheme. But at an outreach meeting in Luton she revealed that she was experiencing problems proving her continued residence.
"I haven't finished it yet, they couldn't find data for me from HMRC or Department for Work and Pensions for the last year, which I'm guessing is because I'm self-employed and I've got to do my tax return for this year after April 5. But I really have no idea," she told The National.
Ms Petkova contacted the Home Office after she was unable to submit additional documents proving her continued residence using the online portal. She was told someone would contact her within two working days.
“I am still waiting, my application is on hold,” she laughed.
The Home Office said it has hired 1,500 new caseworkers and invested £175 million in the scheme in order to ensure the registration process goes smoothly.
However, campaign groups are concerned that vulnerable sections of the EU community in the UK will fail to register by the deadline and risk becoming illegal immigrants. One of those groups is the Roma, an ethnic group originating from eastern Europe.
While no official figures exist, it is thought there are 300,000 Roma living in the UK and around 3,000 are believed to be resident in Luton.
With a long history of persecution, the Roma are one of the most disadvantaged ethnic groups living in the UK. Many arriving from eastern Europe will have experienced discrimination in their home countries and have moved in search of better opportunities.
Retired vicar Martin Burrell has been working with the Roma for almost two decades and serves as Chair of Trustees of Luton Roma Trust. He told The National at the outreach event targeted at the Roma in Luton that he had concerns that many would struggle to register for settled status.
“My concern is that they will be required to produce evidence of identity and residency in the country and they won’t have enough evidence,” he said.
Mr Burrell is worried the Roma will become the victims of a Windrush-style scandal, which saw elderly Commonwealth citizens wrongly denied their rights and threatened with deportation.
“When you look at the way the Windrush generation were treated, I can imagine that this community will have much graver difficulties than they had,” he said.
One of the main challenges facing the Roma becomes immediately apparent during the outreach meeting- very few of them speak English.
During the meeting Crina Morteanu, a Romanian Roma who works for the Luton Roma Trust, interpreted the immigration lawyer’s advice into Romanian and questions from the audience into English. Assen Slavchev, who also works for Luton Roma Trust, provided interpretation for Bulgarian nationals.
But this is as much as they can do. In the UK, it is illegal to give immigration advice unless you are a legal practitioner.
“As a representative of a charity, I’m quite concerned that people will not be able to apply on their own and they will come and ask for our help,” Ms Morteanu said. “Unfortunately, we do not have the legal expertise in the charity and we would not be able to help them with their applications.”
Ms Morteanu, who is pregnant with her first child, will have to go through the application process herself.
She said everyone in the Roma community was keen to stay in the UK having experienced discrimination in their home countries.
“Back home in Romania, they had nothing, nobody cared for them. They had no access to employment or free medical care. Their children studied in segregated schools or didn’t go to school at all. In the UK they are entitled to free medical care, employment opportunities and for the first time, their children can go to school,” she said.
“They don’t want to leave, they definitely want to stay and do their best to integrate and support the society in any way they can.”
The Home Office has said it will grant funding of up to £9 million to community and voluntary organisations to support vulnerable EU citizens who need help with their applications.
“We are also working in partnership with vulnerable group representatives, local authorities and other experts to make sure we reach everyone,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
One of the organisations the Home Office has reached out to is the Catholic Church.
The church has asked its bishops to communicate the message as widely as possible throughout its parishes and schools because a high number of EU citizens in the UK come from Catholic-majority countries.
Paul McAleenan, the lead bishop for migration and asylum, told The National he believed close to 2 million EU citizens in the UK could be Catholic.
“It is said if you know one Catholic, you know every other Catholic in the country. Our networks reach into all kinds of places and all strata of society because of our churches, parishes and schools in particular,” he said.
“We want them to be aware of the scheme otherwise in a couple of years’ time it might transpire that they are illegally here.”
However, he added that the church did not agree with that EU citizens should have to register to remain in the UK.
“It is our duty to do what we are doing,” he said, adding that the church would not be applying for any governmental funding for its actions.
“We are doing this because we want to remind everyone that we believe that the EU citizens have contributed so much economically and culturally to UK society.”