The United Kingdom has denied entry to European Union citizens at a much higher rate this year, despite fewer journeys being made overall as the coronavirus pandemic took effect.
Government data from the Home Office on Thursday showed UK border officials blocked 3,294 EU citizens from entering the country from the beginning of January until the end of March – a figure nearly 570 percent higher than the 493 refused entry in the same period last year.
The sharp uptick comes as the UK and EU settle in to a post-Brexit relationship, and in spite of a huge shift in travel and tourism due to the COVID crisis, which has seen the UK plunge into nationwide lockdowns and implement strict quarantine regimes for arrivals.
Passenger traffic from EU to UK airports was down 94 percent over the first three months of 2021 compared with a year ago, according to figures compiled by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority.
UK border officials turned back the majority of EU citizens at European ferry ports or the Eurostar rail terminal in Paris, the data showed.
Still, nearly 750 were expelled after having arrived at UK airports or ports.
More than two-thirds of all those turned away – 2,118 individuals – were of Romanian nationality, according to the Home Office data.
The rate at which Romanians were denied entry rose 867 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2020.
Bulgarian nationals also appeared to have been disproportionately affected by the rise in denials. Three-hundred were refused in the first quarter of 2021, compared with 19 a year earlier.
The Home Office had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication.
‘Figures will go up’
Following Brexit, EU citizens seeking entry to the UK to work or study are now subject to new visa requirements.
Freedom of movement between the pair has ended, although UK and EU citizens still enjoy reciprocal visa-free travel for recreational purposes.
There have been several media reports this month about EU citizens being detained, some for several days, at immigration centres in the UK after being denied entry.
The Home Office said earlier this month that it would aim to grant immigration bail to those who have been refused entry into the country, rather than detain them.
“We have updated our guidance to clarify that overseas nationals, including EU citizens, who have been refused entry to the UK and are awaiting removal should be granted immigration bail, where appropriate,” a Home Office spokeswoman told Reuters.
But experts suggested the number of expulsions and detentions would likely rise in the months to come as international travel resumes, at least in a limited capacity, in line with the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
“It is pretty likely that these figures will go up,” Marley Morris, an associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) focused on migration and trade policy, told the Guardian newspaper. “There are going to be a lot more people turned away.”
New immigration stats out today reveal first signs of impact of end of free movement.
Most striking thing I’ve seen so far – number of EU passengers initially refused entry to UK at port has skyrocketed pic.twitter.com/zwBCqj1ghM
— Marley Morris (@MarleyAMorris) May 27, 2021
Hong Kong visa applications surge
Thursday’s figures came as a new report showed the UK has received far more applications for visas from Hong Kong than from the EU, after a new system opened up for residents in the former British colony and post-Brexit rules kicked in.
There were 34,000 applications from Hong Kong residents to live in the UK in the first three months of the year compared with 5,354 for any type of visa from those in the EU, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said.
The Migration Observatory said there were fewer applications from the EU because of COVID lockdowns and as a result of a more expensive and restrictive post-Brexit system.
“In normal times, we might have expected to see employers scrambling to work out what they need to do to recruit EU nationals after the end of free movement,” said Madeleine Sumption, the Observatory’s director.
“But the pandemic has meant that many employers don’t need to use the new immigration system yet. So it could be some time before we get a good sense of how many EU citizens are moving to the UK under the new rules and what their impacts appear to be.”
EU citizens who had been living in Britain before 2021 are able to apply for settled status under a separate scheme.
Meanwhile, the influx of Hong Kong applications was linked to a recent initiative announced by the UK allowing the territory’s residents to apply for a visa and the chance to become British citizens.
The move followed Beijing’s controversial national security law last year, part of its move to clamp down on the financial hub’s independence.
Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 with the promise that continued freedoms would be upheld there, including freedom of expression and an independent legal system.
But Beijing has steadily moved to tighten its grip on the territory.
The UK government has forecast its scheme – open to those with a British National Overseas (BNO) passport, a special status created before 1997 and held by almost three million Hong Kong residents – could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependants.