UK changes COVID-19 border guidance for EU citizens after legal challenges
Updated 01:49, 03-Jan-2021
Andrew D'Ercole
Some EU citizens travelling to the UK to take advantage of their Withdrawal Agreement rights were turned around at the border /Getty / Nicolas Economou

Some EU citizens travelling to the UK to take advantage of their Withdrawal Agreement rights were turned around at the border /Getty / Nicolas Economou

The UK has changed its COVID-19 border rules after CGTN Europe reported that some European Union citizens were being denied entry in contravention of the Brexit agreement.

The situation concerns those travelling from South Africa who needed to enter the UK before the end of the year in order to secure their right to live there permanently once the country completed its exit from the EU.

CGTN spoke to people who had been turned away at the border under COVID-19 rules which banned travel from South Africa, despite lawyers alerting the authorities that the restrictions were illegal.

The UK head of immigration at Santa Fe Relocation Services, Koshi Blavo Barna, who is also an immigration lawyer, said denying EU nationals entry to the UK before the end of the year was "unjustifiable."

When CGTN Europe notified the Home Office of the issue on December 29, a spokesman declined to respond to questions, instead forwarding guidance that stated that of anyone who had been in South Africa in the previous 10 days, only UK and Irish passport holders and those who were already living in the UK, or had a visa, would be allowed into the country.

Families who had traveled to ensure they were in the UK before December 31, securing them the right to apply for permanent residency under the Brexit deal, were in some cases forcibly sent back after arriving at British airports and in other cases refused permission to board their inbound flights.

On December 30, the Home Office changed its guidance, explicitly acknowledging these travelers' rights, but the decision came too late for any who had been turned away or delayed to meet the end of year deadline. The Home Office has not responded to repeated requests for a comment by email and telephone over the past three days.

Mia Henry and her niece Georgia Neves were detained for several hours at Manchester Airport before being deported. /CGTN

Mia Henry and her niece Georgia Neves were detained for several hours at Manchester Airport before being deported. /CGTN

The rules

Once the UK left the EU framework on Dec 31 2020, European citizens lost their automatic right to live in the country. However, as part of the departure deal the government in London agreed that those who were already there before that date could have a route to stay permanently. As a result, many rushed to enter the country ahead of the deadline.

But the UK banned travel from South Africa from Christmas Eve, following an outbreak of what British authorities described as a "more transmissible" variant of COVID-19.

EU nationals hoping to make it from South Africa therefore had to fly via a third country. Some who did so, however, found themselves refused boarding on the final leg of the trip, or even turned back by police and border agents when they arrived.

Delays and rejection

A group of passengers with EU passports was not allowed to board an Emirates flight from Cape Town to the UK via Dubai. Among them, Aida Schutte, who said the airline would not allow her to board without proof she had the right to stay in the UK after Brexit. Schutte says a letter of employment, her National Insurance number and the fact that she previously lived in the UK for nine years and her children were born there, were not enough to get her on the plane.

"I am devastated by what has transpired over the past few days. My understanding was always that as an EU passport holder, we have the right to reside and work in the UK. We were denied that right once the travel restrictions were put in place."

Others got further on their journey, but not always to their goal.

Portuguese national Julia Hollander, traveling with her British partner, was originally meant to leave South Africa on Dec 23, the day before the travel ban took effect, but her flight was postponed to the next day due to technical issues.

"Because of this, we had missed our opportunity to enter the UK without restrictions. This would come back to bite us later. We phoned the UK government three times and no one could give us an answer."

Hollander was allowed to board her connecting flight to the UK the next day, only to be told on arrival in Dubai that she would have to return to Cape Town.

She was eventually allowed on a flight to Birmingham after a 15 hour-wait, using her UK social security number to help argue her case.

"Fifteen hours had already passed with every single minute focused on sorting out a solution. We were mentally and physically drained."

Hollander says on arrival in Birmingham, she was asked very few questions and allowed in.

Mia Henry, 60, traveling on a Portuguese passport, was less fortunate. She says that she and her 20-year-old niece were detained for several hours after landing in Manchester "and treated like criminals." She says their passports were taken from them and after nine hours they were driven in a police van to a plane and sent back to Dubai. Others reported similar stories on Facebook.

Nevertheless, the UK authorities seem to have responded only after legal challenges were launched. CGTN Europe has spoken to lawyers who managed to overturn the initial decision to refuse entry to at least one person, a Portuguese national, in the past few days.

It is not clear what will happen to those who missed out on the chance to secure permanent residency because of the actions of the UK authorities, although some are considering more legal action.

Search Trends