EU citizens could be deported if they do not apply for settled status after Brexit by the deadline, a Home Office minister has said.
Brandon Lewis said they may be forced to leave the UK if they do not sign up to the EU settlement scheme by the end of 2020, even if they meet all requirements for a residence permit.
A campaign group said this was the first time the “grim reality” of the Government’s position had been confirmed, which the Liberal Democrats branded “totally unacceptable”.
The Home Office was making it clear that those with “reasonable grounds” for missing the date would be granted an extension to apply for the right to live and work in the UK.
The security minister told German newspaper Die Welt: “If EU citizens until this point of time have not registered and have no adequate reason for it, then the valid immigration rules will be applied.”
Pressed on whether that would include those who met the legal requirements for residence but did not apply in the next 14 months, he replied: “Theoretically yes. We will apply the rules.”
Two million people have so far applied to the scheme, according to Home Office figures.
This leaves up to two million more EU citizens needing to apply before the deadline.
As recently as Wednesday, the Home Office said EU citizens had until “at least” December 2020 to apply, but Mr Lewis’s words appear to be a hardening of the deadline.
Maike Bohn, a spokeswoman for campaign group the3million, said the organisation – representing EU citizens – had pressed the Government “for years” to acknowledge what would happen to those who have not acquired the status in 2021.
“Today, after much wait, it is confirmed that hundreds and thousands of people will be punished with the threat of removal from their home. This is no way to treat people, let alone what was promised,” she said.
“Those people who miss the tight deadline will face the full force of the hostile environment.
“That is the grim reality of the UK Government’s position, no matter how many times they repeat the phrase ‘EU citizens and their families are our friends, neighbours and colleagues and we want them to stay’.”
A statement from a Home Office spokesman repeated a similar phrase and added: “We have received two million applications and are looking for reasons to grant status, not refuse, and EU citizens have until at least December 2020 to apply.
“We’ve always been clear that where they have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, they’ll be given a further opportunity to apply.”
But Lib Deb shadow home secretary Christine Jardine warned “thousands” would be left undocumented by the “arbitrary” deadline, which she said could create another Windrush-style scandal.
“I am absolutely appalled. I have just been at a school where a Hungarian-born pupil told me she was scared about Brexit, and now I learn that the Conservative Government is threatening to deport people like her,” she said.
“Brandon Lewis has finally confirmed what we’ve known all along: Boris Johnson has no intention of keeping his promise to automatically guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
“That is totally unacceptable.”