At the end of June, the government deadline for EU nationals to apply for settled status in the UK expires. For many in one of Oxford’s biggest overseas communities, the East Timorese, this could leave them in a dangerous limbo, at risk from deportation.
Eve Webster, from Somerville College, who has written about the subject for Cherwell, Oxford’s independent student newspaper, explains the danger and explains why the government should extend the June 30th deadline.
Rasina and her partner Joel are having a cup of hot chocolate in a cafe in Blackbird Leys, a former council estate on the outskirts of Oxford and one of England’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Their ten-month-old son is sitting on Rasina’s lap playing with some sugar-sachets and trying to join in our conversation with chortles and babbles.
Joel has the day off from work, a warehouse where he earns a fair wage and gets along well with his largely British colleagues. He’s taking some photos of his Rasina and the baby to send to his mother.
It’s a picture of domestic contentment familiar to millions of young couples across Britain, with one difference. In just three weeks’ time they fear it may all be shattered.
Rasina and Joel are two of the three to four million EU citizens living the UK who must apply for settled or pre-settled status. Those who do not are deemed to be here illegally and face deportation.
Joel has navigated the process and has successfully obtained the right to remain in the UK, but Rasina is still working on her application and is worried that she may not have enough documentation to prove she lives here.
‘Joel came to the UK with a Portuguese passport from East Timor almost five years ago,’ says Rasina (who asks me not to give their surnames). ‘We met at a friend’s wedding and I followed him here in 2019. But we haven’t married and I’ve not worked here because I became pregnant soon after arriving and wanted to go to English classes and prepare for Steven’s birth.
‘Yes, we gave him an English name — because he was born in England. He understands some English already.’ Rasina tells Steven to ‘Clap your hands!’ and he duly complies, with a big smile.
Steven is a British citizen, born here to a father with EU citizenship and now settled status. However, due to Brexit and Rasina’s uncertain right to be here, a few weeks from now his parents may face uprooting him from the only country he has ever known or having him grow up in it without his mother.
Rasina and Joel say they know next-to-nothing about Brexit and only found out that their right to live in the UK was under threat in December 2019, via a Facebook page for Tetum-speaking East Timorese.
They are being guided through Rasina’s application process by Rosalia Costa, chair of the East Timorese community in Oxford. The process has proved very difficult due to the UK government’s insistence on documentation proving work, or residence, married status, payment of utility bills, and so on – none of which Steven’s mother has.
‘If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I can do to keep my partner and child here,’ says Joel. ‘ I feel so frustrated. We want to stay and carry on raising our family in the UK. I work and pay my taxes here but I feel like I haven’t got any rights now, not even the right to live with my partner and child.’
‘Rasina and Joel’s situation is by no means an isolated case, and with secure accommodation and a steady job for Joel they’re better off than many, perhaps most,’ says Graham Jones, chair of the Oxford Region branch of the European Movement UK.
‘For the rest, a toxic mix of obstacles, often including little or no English, limited education, dependence on exploitative employers offering insecure, low-paid work, often cash-in-hand, unscrupulous landlords, and a reluctance to engage with authority, not to mention the pandemic, makes the East Timorese one of the most vulnerable groups of EU citizens post-Brexit.
‘Many find they lack proof of employment, even if they have been working here for years. They work largely in hospitality, washing up in restaurants across Oxford.
‘No-one is sure how many East Timorese people are living in the UK but estimates range between five and twenty thousand, with the largest community, around four thousand, living in Oxford and surrounding towns.’
The vast majority are EU citizens. Until 1975 East Timor was an overseas colony of Portugal and when East Timor obtained independence from Indonesia in 2002, anyone born before this date became entitled to a Portuguese passport and the right of free movement within the EU, including, until January of this year, the UK.
When I speak to Rosalia, known as Sali, during her lunch break from work in a pharmacy, she points out that while they might be thought to have an education, culture, and bank balance comparable to other EU citizens, this is largely not the case.
As a result, any government information, services and communication aimed at EU citizens rarely reach the community, and where they do can be seriously misunderstood.
There was also a widespread reluctance to ask for help. ‘Many Timorese people disadvantage themselves by not seeking help when they need it, because of a fear of shame and judgement. You know you need help, but you don’t want to ask,’ Sali explained.
For many, the sole source of information on Brexit is ‘Tetum Solutions’, a Facebook page with almost nine thousand followers, run by Bocagio dos Santos, an Oxford-based East Timorese translator and interpreter. The page translates government announcements and information on the EU Settlement Scheme into Tetum, the main indigenous language spoken in East Timor.
‘People have been approaching me with only the slightest understanding of what Brexit is and what it means for their future,’ he tells me.
‘It’s very likely that there are Timorese people in the UK who are totally unaware that Brexit has happened. They could end up being in the country illegally next month and they won’t even know why.’
He thinks hundreds, perhaps a third of the community, are yet to begin applying to stay, and that many of the rest have fallen foul of Home Office bureaucracy.
Sali is shocked that even last autumn there were Timorese people arriving in the UK on Portuguese passports only to find that these passports would be useless in less than a year’s time.
One of them is Onorio (who also asked for his surname not to be used).
Back at in East Timor, Onorio was a professional football player in the national league. I asked him if he was famous.
‘A bit,’ he laughed.
He told me how, after arriving in Oxford, he quickly got a job in a pizza restaurant but soon the country went into lockdown. He didn’t receive any furlough pay and had to rely on handouts from his uncle, who has been living in the UK since the early 2000s. This isolation also made it even more difficult to apply for pre-settled status.
‘I was totally shocked. I had never heard of Brexit while I was in East Timor. When I arrived here I found out that things had changed and now I don’t know what to do.’
His uncle filled in his pre-settled status application, but when the Home Office emailed asking for evidence, he missed the email, and did not pass on the information to Onorio in time. Onorio’s application was rejected and he’s now in the process of applying again with three weeks to spare.
‘I know so many Timorese people who are facing the same issues but they’re afraid to speak out. They think keeping quiet is the best option.
‘I’d be devasted to go back. There are no jobs and I won’t be able to provide for my family back home. I’m the eldest, so I’m responsible for looking after them.’
Sali Costa lays much of the blame for this ignorance of Brexit and its impacts on local government.
‘There’s not much effort to communicate with us in our own language,’ she complains. ‘If something is published by our city council then either I or one of our committee has to translate it.’
A spokesperson for Oxford’s Labour-run City Council insisted to me later that there had been ‘specific communications’ in Tetum. The council was also supporting the charity, Asylum Welcome, which had hired an advisor to run ‘Europa Welcome’, a service ‘helping EU citizens who are struggling to make their application’ and ‘doing their own community outreach’.
The council’s logo and a picture of East Oxford Community Centre, which it has made available for Europa Welcome advice sessions, appears on an English-language YouTube video with Tetum sub-titles, ‘EU Settlement Scheme Tetum,’ posted on February 1.
In it, the advisor, Nazan Ozgur, is seen helping a young man, Flamino. ‘I got half-way through the form and hit a problem,’ he says. ‘So I got in touch with Europa Welcome and my application was successful.’
‘We are concerned that a large number of EU citizens in Oxford who have been contributing a lot to our economy and society are not yet aware that they have to apply or how to apply,’ Nazan says in the video.
As of June 9 it had had only 64 views, and no comments. A general English-language Settlement Scheme video posted by a law practice two years ago has had 175,000 views and more than 80 comments.
As for the government, ‘It has said that it learned from the Windrush Scandal,’ says Ian Collard, European Movement’s campaign manager in its Oxford Region branch, ‘and immigration minister Kevin Foster has said it is committed to ensuring the most vulnerable can apply.
‘But unless it takes immediate action to extend the deadline or engage these communities direct, it could subject the UK’s East Timorese to a similar fate.’
In the meantime, Sali says it’s hard not to be pessimistic. ‘I’m just expecting the worst.’
*To contact Europa Welcome, e-mail email@example.com or phone 0771 912 8054 (mobile), 01865 722082 (landline), Monday to Thursday, 9.30am to 4.30pm.
The pictures in this article show members of the East Timorese community taken during the Cowley Road Carnival. They are reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holder, Martin Stott, and form part of his Divinity Road Photo Project. More details of the project – and more photos – can be found at https://www.martin-stott.com/divinity-rd-photo-project/.