EU citizens after Brexit: understanding the risks

by Madeleine Sumption

Despite major disagreements about how Brexit should be done, politicians across political parties and across the ‘Leave-Remain divide’ agree on one thing: EU citizens already living in the UK will keep their rights to do so after Brexit.

But just because there is some level of political consensus about the issue, it doesn’t mean it will be easy in practice.

Migration Observatory analysis of ‘at risk’ EU citizen groups

There are currently an estimated 3.6 million EU citizens and their family members in the UK who will – at least under the current official policy timeline – need to receive documents confirming their status before July 2021.

In a series of analyses looking at the status of EU citizens in the UK, the Migration Observatory has been examining how and why some EU citizens could struggle to secure the ‘settled status’ to which they are entitled. This includes factors such as a lack of awareness of the process or the need to apply, vulnerabilities or chaotic lifestyles that make an application difficult, and lack of evidence that they have actually been living in the UK.

Our analysis is the first attempt to map out which groups may be at risk and estimate their numbers, and it is designed to help answer the questions that have frequently arisen among policymakers and stakeholders, such as civil society organisations and service providers working with migrants.passport-and-map DT 600

First, a potentially significant number of people may not be aware that they can and need to apply. A key group that immigration lawyers have frequently identified is long-term residents, who may assume that because they have lived in the UK for a long time (or because they are married to a British citizen or have British children), the government knows about their existence and their status is secure. There are an estimated 146,000 EU citizens who have been in the UK for at least 30 years. Others may believe they are ineligible or fear being rejected, for example because of a minor criminal conviction or caution.

We know from research on other kinds of government programmes, such as tax and benefits, that people often do not understand eligibility rules and thus fail to take up benefits to which they are entitled.

Even where people understand the need to apply, applications may be more difficult where people are already vulnerable or have reduced autonomy for some reason. For example, our estimate based on official data is that there were 50,000 EU citizen women experiencing some form of domestic abuse (either once or repeatedly) in the year ending March 2017.

Some EU citizens may need help completing an application, for example due to age and disability (EU citizens are a relatively young population but an estimated 56,000 were age 75 or above in 2017); or digital exclusion (in early 2017 an estimated 2% or 64,000 non-Irish EU citizens said that they had never used the internet).

Finally, some may have difficulty demonstrating that they have been living in the UK. Most EU citizens won’t need to, as there will be tax or benefits records that the government already holds. The government has also said that for people without those records, it will expand the types of documents that can be provided. But a small core of people will have left very little paper trail. An estimated 3.4% of people age 18 and over in the UK do not have bank accounts, for example, suggesting that their lives are lived primarily in cash; if the share is the same for all citizenships, this would be equivalent to just over 90,000 non-Irish EU citizen adults.

Informing the migration debate

This is just one example of research that the Migration Observatory has been undertaking to inform public and policy debates about migration. In the past year we have also examined policies towards skilled non-EU migrants and the impacts of the cap on work visas that was hit late last year, as well as the future of migration policy after Brexit in the different regions and nations of the UK.

MO website

We were honoured to receive the 2017 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Impact in Society, and have been delighted to be able to use the funds to support our communications and media activities – including a programme of meetings and data gathering to better understand the interests of our users, and improvements to our much-visited website.


sumption 150Madeleine Sumption is the Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, which provides impartial analysis of migration in the UK. Her research focuses on the design and impacts of immigration policies, particularly in the UK. Before joining the University of Oxford, Madeleine was Director of Research for the International Program at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC. In 2017, she received an MBE for services to social science.

In 2017 Madeleine and her team won the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Impact in Society.

Winners of this year’s Celebrating Impact Prize will be announced on 20 June. Read the 2018 shortlist and follow #impactprize on Twitter to find out more.

Read the Migration Observatory’s analysis on Brexit.

You can follow @M_Sumption and @MigObs on Twitter.

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