By Michael Holden
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England (Reuters) – Amid the insecurity of what will happen after Brexit, tens of thousands of European nationals are struggling – and often failing – to negotiate the bureaucracy that decides whether they can stay in Britain after it leaves the European Union.
From completing the 85-page application form to producing an average of 7 kilos (15 lbs) of supporting documents from tax returns to details of their movements over the last five years, as well as handing over their passports to the authorities for months, it’s proving a difficult and expensive task.
Government figures show applications for permanent residency have soared since last year’s EU referendum, with the numbers six times higher in the last quarter of 2016 than a year earlier.
But 12,800, or more than 28 percent, of those submitted in the last three months of 2016 were rejected or declared invalid.
One was Dieter Wolke, 59, a German who is professor of psychology at the University of Warwick in central England.
“I had to prove I am residing here. I have to show I earn enough money, I needed statements from my employer etc etc. It took me three days to get this information,” he told Reuters from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare.
“I had to give every date I had left the UK, when I had come back, and because I have to travel for business a lot, there were a lot of trips where I had to go through diaries and find out exactly the actual date,” he explained.
The real problem was that he had to hand in his passport, something he said was impossible as he was involved in EU projects and studies in the United States.
So he submitted his form last October with a lawyer-certified copy of his passport. In January, he was rejected because he had not submitted his passport.
He hoped he could re-apply online using a German national identity card, which he obtained within three weeks, but another change in the rules meant he has to send in a new paper form and compile all the supporting evidence again.
The Home Office said there was clear guidance on what evidence was required and the “onus is on the individual to submit it”.
Campaigners and politicians, including ardent Brexit supporters, say Britain should unilaterally guarantee that those who have been living and working in the UK can stay when the formal departure from the bloc is completed, probably in 2019.
But Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out giving the three million EU nationals living here any guarantees until a reciprocal deal is agreed for Britons living in the EU.
It’s a stance that has upset many.
“I’m very disappointed that we are being used as bargaining chips,” said teacher Monica Obiols, a Spanish national who has lived in Britain since 1989.
“The form is a complete nightmare, it is very complicated,” said Obiols, 49, who lives with her Dutch partner and children in London. “Unfortunately I didn’t give enough information about the children so their indefinite leave to remain has been rejected so I have to do it again.”
Her application was successful in the end, but the name on her residency card was spelled wrong so she had to return it.
“It is intimidating but the truth is the form … is not the problem, the evidence is,” said Barbara Drozdowicz, chief executive of the East European Resource Centre in London, which provides EU nationals with assistance.
She said people on average needed to send 7 kilos (15 lbs) of documents to the Home Office to prove they had been living and working in Britain lawfully.
“Who keeps everything forever?” she told Reuters. “Every paper counts, every letter, everything.”
Applications can take six months to be completed. Hilary Benn, chairman of parliament’s Brexit committee, said the system was not fit for purpose.
“We were told that at pre-referendum rates of processing, giving residence documents to all potentially eligible applicants using the current system would take the equivalent of 140 years,” he said.
It’s not just the bureaucracy. Lawyers were charging as much 2,000 pounds for help and criminals were exploiting some vulnerable people, Drozdowicz said.
“It’s becoming an interesting opportunity for all sorts of crooks,” she said.
Wolke and Obiols say the process has made them feel like second-class citizens and made them consider leaving the country they love.
Wolke, who has lived here for 28 years, said two German universities had made him offers in the last six months, an indication of a potential “brain drain” from Britain where he said about 25 percent of staff in top universities were from EU countries.
Wolke is so anglicized that he supports England’s soccer team, while his son Max, 28, a British citizen, represented Britain in the World Triathlon championships last year.
In the impending Brexit divorce, EU citizens were like helpless children, he said, and it was not their fault.
(Additional reporting by Alex Fraser; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood)