The dark side of Brexit: European citizens being detained in migrant holding centers in UK

Dozens of EU travelers have been held and deported under Britain’s new immigration laws, which are very tough and highly restrictive

A baggage check-in point at Gatwick Airport in the UK.
A baggage check-in point at Gatwick Airport in the UK.

María will finally be leaving the United Kingdom today, Monday, bound for Valencia, after a nightmare that has lasted two weeks. She still doesn’t know when she’ll be getting her passport back, but she is taking it for granted that the document will now permanently reflect that she was deported from a European country.

María is not her real name. She is aged 25, and would rather remain anonymous. Like dozens of other youngsters, she thought that an adventure in the United Kingdom was still possible. But she came crashing down to Earth after falling foul of the reality of Brexit and the country’s new immigration laws, which are very tough and highly restrictive.

I felt very confused, because there was absolutely no information about the situation
María, Spaniard detained in Yarl’s Wood migrant holding center

On May 3, María was detained on arrival in Gatwick Airport, and was taken to the Yarl’s Wood migrant holding center in Bedfordshire. For four days, she received no information about her situation, could not access her personal belongings, and had to live with the suspicion and fear that a Covid-19 outbreak could see her stuck there indefinitely. “I can’t say that I was badly treated,” she told EL PAÍS. “Fortunately I had my own room, given the need to isolate us. But I felt very confused, because there was absolutely no information about the situation. As far as I remember, in the canteen, there was a girl from the Czech Republic, an Italian, an American and two South Americans.”

The British government and the European Union countries have spent more than two years releasing information about the rights and situation of European citizens who travel to or work in the United Kingdom, and vice versa. All of those who can prove that they were living in the country six months before Brexit finally became a reality, on December 31, 2020, have the right to apply for EU Pre-Settled Status or EU Settled Status, the temporary or definitive right to remain in the UK and which grants bearers the same rights they enjoyed before the country left the EU.

The deadline for applying for these statuses expires on June 30. According to the British government, more than five million people have already taken them up. Around a million more people are in an administrative limbo, according to an association called The3Million, which has been giving a voice to EU residents of the United Kingdom since Brexit passed from being a threat to an ever-closer reality.

“I had worked in a bar in Manchester in 2019 for six months,” explained María. “I thought that I could use that to apply for residency.” Her sister and her best friend stayed put when she returned to Spain to study. She unsuccessfully applied for Pre-Settled Status, but thought that she would not have any problems returning given that she has family members on British soil. She made the mistake of saying to UK border officials that she was coming back to the country to work.

The EU authorities admit that there have now been several dozen such cases of EU citizens being detained in migrant holding centers

The main driver of the Brexit process was the issue of immigration. And one of the first laws approved by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was legislation that introduced a much stricter points system to access the country and left EU citizens subject to the same rules as everyone else.

“EU Citizens are our friends and neighbors and we want them to remain, which is why they have until June 30 to apply for the EUSS [EU Settlement Scheme] if they were resident in the UK before December 31,” the UK Home Office told EL PAÍS when asked about María’s case. “For those who were not resident before this date, as the public expects, we require evidence of an individual’s right to live and work in the UK.”

This newspaper has learned that the British government urgently reviewed María’s case. The consulate services in Spain had requested information about it and spoke to her by phone on a number of occasions while she was in the migrant holding center. After four days, she was allowed to finish the mandatory coronavirus quarantine period in her sister’s house. “They didn’t give me my passport,” she said. “In theory, I’ll get it back when I reach Valencia, after an interview with the Civil Guard.”

“We took an interest in her status, and we ensured that all her rights were being respected,” the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry explained. “But we can’t act as legal intermediaries. These are British laws, which the country itself is applying.” The ministry admitted that there have been at least nine similar cases it has had to deal with. “From the news that we are hearing, the outlook is very worrying,” explained Maike Bohn, from The3Million. “EU citizens are being detained for days at a time with a loss of freedoms. We are very unclear that these are proportional measures, when what they could do is send them straight home instead of transferring them to a migrant holding centers.”

Given the flood of complaints in recent days, with cases that have particularly affected Bulgarian, Italian and Spanish citizens, the Johnson government has given clearer rules to the border police. In the cases where it seems more appropriate, the authorities will have to allow conditional entry to the UK, under certain supervision, until it is possible to arrange a return flight to the point of origin.

From the news that we are hearing, the outlook is very worrying. EU citizens are being detained for days at a time with a loss of freedom
Maike Bohn, from The3Million

“I don’t understand anything,” Marta Lo Martire, 24, told Italian daily La Repubblica after she had a similar experience. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I thought that all of my documents were in order. I found myself surrounded by walls and wire fences, windows with bars and security gates.” She was detained at Heathrow Airport when she tried to enter the United Kingdom. “I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me.” Fortunately for her, she was deported the next day on a flight to Milan.

Marta’s cousin, Giuseppe Pichierri, a doctor with 15 years of experience in the British National Health System and a resident of London, had sent a letter to Marta in which he committed to taking responsibility for her and explaining that he wanted her services as an au pair. But it served for nothing in the end, and the authorities refused to let Giuseppe pay any kind of bail to free his cousin from the immigration center where she spent the night.

The EU authorities and the embassies of some of the countries worst affected by this issue admit that there have now been several dozen such cases. In the midst of the powder keg that Brexit represents between London and Brussels, both have opted for now to keep a low profile. “It doesn’t seem to be a generalized trend, because it has affected a low number of citizens,” a spokesperson from the European Commission explained. “Even so, the EU delegation in London is closely monitoring the issue, in particular with reference to the conditions of detention.”

In the majority of the incidents so far, the pattern is the same. Young people without the right information, who are following in the footsteps of many generations before them: crossing the Channel to work as waiters or au pairs and experience life in the UK. In spite of Brexit, the culture and economy of the country continue to be very attractive. The unpleasant experiences of some EU citizens over recent months cannot be compared to the ordeal of many irregular immigrants from the Middle East or Asia. But it is still very difficult to digest that the government of Boris Johnson would treat all of these arrivals in the same way.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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