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Record numbers of EU citizens are applying to become British

Record numbers of EU citizens are applying to become British

The June 2016 vote to leave the European Union has already had a major impact on Europeans living in the UK. Even though Brexit has not actually happened yet, there are now far fewer EU citizens coming to live in the UK than before the vote, and those already here have rushed to acquire residence documents and take up British citizenship.

Take net migration. This is an official estimate of the number of immigrants coming to live in the UK, minus the number of emigrants. While well-known problems with the estimates mean that the figures are not exact, the latest estimate is that overall net migration to the UK was 283,000 over the last 12 months.

But within that, there has been a considerable drop in net migration from the EU since the Brexit referendum, with more European migrants leaving and fewer arriving. At its peak just before the vote in mid-2016, EU migration was adding around 190,000 people a year to the UK population. That has fallen to 57,000 in the past 12 months. The Office for National Statistics says that more “E8” citizens from central and eastern Europe left the UK than arrived in 2018.

EU citizens who plan to stay are increasingly applying for British citizenship, rightly perceived as offering the most security in terms of the right to live in the UK.

At the end of 2018, UK citizenship applications from EU nationals were at record levels. EU nationals accounted for 34% of all applications for British nationality in the final quarter of 2018, up from 17% two years ago. The quarterly total was 15,000 — by far the highest on record.

The number of EU nationals granted British citizenship increased by 50% last year, from 32,000 in 2017 to 48,000 in 2018.

Under EU law, having a right to reside or the right to permanent residence does not require a visa application: the right exists independent of any documentary proof. Brexit has caused many more people to apply for documents for peace of mind.

The number of residence and permanent residence applications has fallen since the government announced a new Settlement Scheme that promises a much easier way of establishing the right to stay in the UK after Brexit, but is still far above the level seen before the vote. In 2018, the government processed around 245,000 residence document applications, compared to 90,000-100,000 in the few years before the referendum.

EU citizens who do not have the right to be in the UK face the hostile environment, immigration detention centres and removal from the country. Last year, almost 4,200 people from EU countries were held in detention centres, and 3,800 removed from the country altogether. With immigration rules for EU citizens set to get tougher after Brexit, those figures may well increase.

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Conor James McKinney

CJ is Free Movement's deputy editor.

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