EU citizens worried about their right to remain in Britain have inundated the Home Office with applications to secure their UK residency, leading to an official backlog that has trebled since the summer of 2015.
The figures emerged on a day that Labour demanded Theresa May guaranteed the rights of the more than 3 million EU citizens to remain in the UK before Brexit negotiations begin, with MP Keir Starmer saying there was “a mounting sense of very real injustice” over the issue.
The number of outstanding applications from European citizens to secure their residency status in Britain went from 37,618 in June 2015 to almost 100,000 “currently in progress” in early July 2016, including those seeking permanent residence cards and documents for non-EU family members of European citizens.
Home Office figures to be published on Thursday alongside official immigration data for the three months to September are expected to confirm the surge in applications has continued since the EU referendum on 23 June.
Starmer called for urgent unilateral action by the prime minister to secure the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and warned her to abandon her position of refusing to act without securing equivalent guarantees for the 1.2 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.
© Provided by Guardian News & Media Limited Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary. “It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me from my discussions in Brussels with those that are likely to be involved in the negotiations that they are very concerned about the fact that we are not giving comfort and status to their citizens,” the shadow Brexit secretary told the Guardian.
“They have said to me, pretty well in terms, the UK should sort this out before March and that would ensure that the article 50 negotiations got off to a much better start than they will otherwise do so.”
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, May defended her approach in a question from the Conservative MP Peter Lilley, saying: “I think the reaction that we have seen shows it was absolutely right for us not to do what the Labour party wanted us to do, which was simply to give away the guarantee for rights of EU citizens here in the UK. As we have seen, that would have left UK citizens in Europe high and dry.”
Relations between the UK and the rest of the EU have become increasingly heated.
On Tuesday, the European council president, Donald Tusk, published a strongly worded letter to a group of Tory MPs in which he said the issue would have to wait for formal Brexit negotiations to begin and appeared to blame the British electorate for causing the uncertainty in the first place. In his letter, he added: “The only way to dispel the fears and doubts of all citizens concerned is the quickest possible start of the negotiations based on article 50 of the treaty.”
Starmer described Tusk’s letter as unhelpful, but said it pointed to the need to act unilaterally now and was further evidence of the “unhelpful atmosphere” created in the lead-up to the negotiations.
Starmer suggested the government could “pass a domestic law, dealing with the status of these individuals, and it would get cross-party support, and could be passed very swiftly”. He added: “At the very least there ought to be clarity for those who were already here on 23 June.”
© Provided by Guardian News & Media Limited European council president, Donald Tusk. Quarterly net migration data are expected to show that annual figure remains more than three times above May’s target of 100,000.
The Home Office is expected to deflect some of the political embarrassment by announcing the rollout of two further measures from Thursday designed to create a “hostile environment” that it will say will discourage illegal immigration.
They are tougher penalties, including prison sentences, for landlords who rent to tenants without proper immigration papers and the start of a “deport first, appeal later” policy for those challenging some immigration decisions.
Saira Grant, the chief executive of the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants, said the social fallout from the Brexit vote had led to the government urgently positioning itself as a champion of integration.
But she said ministers’ fixation on the net migration target was leading to toxic immigration policies that were causing critical harm to community relations and to cohesion in Britain.
“It’s not good enough for the government to talk about the tensions caused by immigration and a lack of integration, when their own polices are designed to create suspicion within communities, to encourage profiling of those who appear to be immigrants, and to reduce immigrants’ security within the UK,” she said.
“Integration comes when immigrants and the communities they live in can trust each other and understand that they will be treated fairly within the immigration system. Openly using EU migrants as bargaining chips, asking landlords, doctors, schools, and local authorities to act as border guards, is setting back integration and community cohesion across the UK.”
© Photograph: PA Theresa May defends her position of refusing to act without securing equivalent guarantees for the 1.2 million Britons living elsewhere in the EU. Grant’s warning came as Madelene Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford University, told the House of Lords EU home affairs subcommittee that the number of citizens of other EU countries in Britain could be as high as 3.9 million and the task of registering them after Brexit would be a “formidable logistical, bureaucratic, administrative and legal task”.
Sumption said a work permit system would be the most practical option for controlling EU migration post-Brexit as it would take account of the various needs of the economy. An “emergency brake” approach, reported to be under consideration in Downing Street, would, however, simply limit numbers without taking individual skills into account, she said.
The campaign group Migration Watch UK urged the government on Wednesday to close the door on unskilled labour migration from the EU by extending the current non-EU work permit system to EU migrants. Consideration might be given to a “key workers scheme” for lower skilled workers, including seasonal agricultural workers, deemed essential to particular sectors of the economy.
But Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research told peers that ending the free movement of low-skilled workers from the EU could see businesses close, food prices rise and cuts to social care.
Portes, a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said the consequences for the agricultural industry were particularly grave: “They may range from simply shutting down, going out of business, in which case consumers would either buy different products or products from abroad … Another possible response is higher wages which would probably be passed onto consumers.”
He said the government needed to consider urgently how it was going to register all the EU citizens in Britain, adding that it was unrealistic simply and undesirable to include everyone who was in the UK on the day of the referendum.
“There is no definition of residence, or proof of residence, for people who have been here. What about the Polish shopkeeper who went home on 23 June? We do not know who was in the country.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Government has been clear that, as we conduct our negotiations, it must be a priority to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe. It would not be right for us to give a running commentary on negotiations.”