Experts warn of a “disaster waiting to happen” as over 80,000 youngsters are still waiting for a decision.
Many parents may also not have applied due to difficulties meeting “rigid” evidential requirements or being unaware they need to.
All EU nationals and their family members in the UK, including children of all ages, must apply to the EU settlement scheme by 30 June or risk automatically becoming undocumented.
Charities have reported a surge in requests for help from parents having difficulty applying for EU settlement for children and newborn babies or those waiting long periods for an outcome for their child’s application.
Campaign group the3million has written to immigration minister Kevin Foster expressing “concern” that many parents with EU settled status have not realised their children are not automatically covered under the scheme, or are finding it difficult to prove their children’s residence.
An analysis of government figures, seen by The Independent, shows that as of March 2021 children made up 26 per cent of the current backlog of applications, despite only accounting for 15 per cent of applicants overall. More than 84,700 children were still waiting for a decision in March.
While the overall backlog reduced between December 2020 and March 2021, the proportion of children crept up from 22 per cent to 26 per cent – indicating that these claims are taking longer than average to process.
This is putting tens of thousands of children at risk. That they run up such a backlog for a group they recognise as vulnerable, and that they made it harder to clear such cases, is a scandal
Dr Kuba Jablonowski
And more recent figures published by the Home Office this week show the overall backlog has risen again since March from 323,730 to 334,500 – suggesting that the number of children waiting will have also increased.
Lawyers say the delays are likely to be due in part to the Home Office’s requirement, introduced on 1 January, that children must show evidence they were in the UK prior to the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
Caseworkers are said to be requesting this evidence after a child’s application has been submitted, creating further delays.
Luke Piper, head of policy at the3million, accused the Home Office of focusing too heavily on “rigid requirements” on proof of residency rather than applying discretion on a case-by-case basis.
“If an applicant is the child of people with settled status the caseworkers should just pick up the phone and talk to the parents. They shouldn’t refuse the child or cause delays,” he said.
Dr Kuba Jablonowski, research fellow at Exeter University, who carried out the analysis, said: “This is putting tens of thousands of children at risk. That they run up such a backlog for a group they recognise as vulnerable, and that they made it harder to clear such cases, is a scandal.”
The Home Office has said that any applicant who has not received a decision by 30 June will continue to have their rights protected until their application is concluded.
However, charities are concerned that agencies required to check immigration status, such as the NHS and employers, will not be aware of this and could deny people access to basic services while they are waiting for a decision.
Marianne Lagrue, of Coram Children’s Legal Centre, said a verbal assurance was “not enough” to ensure that one’s rights would be protected.
“Their access to education, healthcare and services that they need in crisis are dependent on these services understanding those individuals’ rights. There’s so much scope for human error,” she added.
Marieke Widmann, of the Children’s Society said the charity had seen a “huge rise” in enquiries about EU settlement over the past few weeks, with most asking for help with children’s applications.
“We are getting emails and calls from parents confused as to whether their children need to apply to the scheme, some asking how to make an application from the start. Others who have applied, but have not yet had a decision, are worried about the impending deadline,” she said.
The government needs to, urgently, improve the backlog and make sure cast-iron guarantees are in place to guarantee eligible citizen won’t lose their rights
Bambos Charalambous, shadow immigration minister
Ms Lagrue warned that many children were likely to end up not receiving EU settlement either because their parents or guardians were not able to complete the application process or did not apply at all.
“For newborn babies it often it won’t be felt until years later. It will come as a shock. It feels like a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.
“Children will suffer needlessly and there might not be an obvious route for support for them to rectify the situation. They’re totally at the mercy of the adults in their lives taking the responsible action, but they are the ones who will feel the full force of any consequences.”
She called for faster decision-making and “clear and unequivocal” information to be provided to agencies such as the NHS and employers about the rules.
Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous warned that children were being “left behind” due to the Home Office “failing to have control of the scheme”.
“The government needs to, urgently, improve the backlog and make sure cast-iron guarantees are in place to guarantee eligible citizen won’t lose their rights,” he said.
Mr Foster said: “It is completely inaccurate to suggest children who have applied to the EU settlement scheme will be left in limbo.
“Since the scheme launched in March 2019, there have been more than 5.6 million applications and more than 5 million grants of status and I would encourage anyone eligible who hasn’t applied, or has not done so on behalf of their children, to apply now.”