Having done a PhD on EU citizenship and its relationship with fundamental rights, Dr Yong later refocused her area of research interest in the wake of Brexit.
“When Brexit happened, a lot of EU citizens lost their rights and a lot of people were disadvantaged in many ways,” she says. “I particularly wanted to look at women who have been disadvantaged by Brexit. Vulnerable women seemed to be forgotten about, so my research has tried to bring these vulnerable women to the fore and to consider how Brexit specifically has affected them in the context of the EUSS regime.”
The EUSS operated as a fully digital system to make the application process as smooth as possible for those who fulfilled the three main criteria – proof of identity (ID and biometrics), eligibility (residency in the UK) and suitability (proof of good character).
In certain exceptional circumstances, paper-based applications were required – for example, if the applicant did not have digital access, did not have an ID document or whose rights were based on a dependency on an EU citizen (as in NEFMs). Dr Yong argues that this discriminated against vulnerable women from the VAWG and NEFM groups because they were more likely to have to apply on paper.
One of the key challenges in analysing the outcomes of female applications was the absence of any gender breakdown in the quarterly EUSS statistics, while paper applications were not included in the data until more than a year after the EUSS launch, without detailing the success of paper versus online applications.
It took a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Professor Catherine Barnard and Fiona Costello to reveal that paper applications were significantly less likely to be successful than the online route, reinforcing Dr Yong’s central thesis that vulnerable female immigrants were disadvantaged by the EUSS process.
The impact was particularly stark for those applying for UK immigration status under the NEFM route. NEFMs fell into five different groups based on case law precedents. Three of these applied to carers of EU children and dependents, who are most likely to be women.
Of the three categories, the most problematic was the NEFM group that used Ruiz Zambrano case law in their applications, which grants rights to non-EU carers of EU children irrespective of whether they are able to support themselves economically.
According to the Home Office’s data, 89 per cent of the NEFM applications that were rejected under the EUSS were ‘Zambrano’ applications – mainly women and among the most precarious and vulnerable individuals applying to the scheme. The implication was that their rights under case law were protected only in principle, not in practice.
The specific issues facing victims of VAWG under the EUSS related largely to the criteria of proof of ID and eligibility, the absence of which required them to resort to paper applications. During the period of operation of the EUSS, there was well-documented evidence that women under the control of or estranged from an abusive partner often had difficulty accessing their ID. The requirement to scan an ID document on a mobile app also raised issues of potential digital isolation and exclusion – a problem that extended beyond the VAWG group.
In terms of proving eligibility, the vulnerability of VAWG victims was actually formally recognised a year and a half after the EUSS opened when eligibility was extended to include women whose relationships had broken down due to domestic violence. This targeted women who might otherwise have remained in an abusive relationship to avoid losing a link to an EU citizen and therefore face deportation.
However, Dr Yong argues that simply extending the criteria did not necessarily achieve the desired take-up because many women would not have understood or even known about the rule change. In reality, many victims chose to stay in their abusive relationship for fear of losing their rights and the perceived difficulty of applying through the EUSS by virtue of their own status.
The closure of the EUSS in June 2021 effectively drew a line under the specific challenges that many immigrant women faced under the scheme, but Dr Yong believes vulnerable women will continue to face disadvantages when it comes to navigating the UK’s post-Brexit general immigration system. It is an area she plans to explore in her future research.