This blog is a part of a series of expert blogs commenting on how Brexit may affect human rights in a variety of sectors. This contribution is from Colin Yeo, immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder and editor of the Free Movement immigration law website.

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

If or when it happens, the departure of the UK from the EU will necessarily mean one of the biggest intentional bonfires of citizens’ rights in history. The rights of EU citizens freely to live, work, retire and study in the UK will be lost and British citizens will lose the same rights to live, work, retire and study in the 27 other countries comprising the European Union. Auf wiedersehen, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

It seems that even now, after the second supposed deadline for departure has passed by, few politicians or members of the public have really appreciated what loss of these rights means. EU free movement rights have been framed in the UK as a question of immigration rather than as one of human rights. To politicians such as David Cameron, who called the referendum, free movement rights were an inconvenience interfering with the ability of the Government to restrict immigration. Debate focused on preventing EU citizens moving to the UK in future. If anyone linked free movement rights with human rights, it was to taint free movement rights by association. Human rights in the context of immigration are perceived as concerning foreign criminals (and their cats) resisting deportation, not about the rights of ‘ordinary’ citizens to go about their business on the continent of which their country is part, travel, holiday, live, work, study and marry who and where they wish.

British citizens in other EU countries have been all but forgotten in these discussions. Overnight they will lose the automatic right of residence in their host countries and will no longer automatically be able to move between EU countries, for example to live in France but work in Switzerland or to carry out business in multiple EU countries. They will all have to apply for residence under the national laws of the country in which they reside; this is the flip side of the coin on the UK requiring EU citizens to apply under UK national law.

The official Leave campaign during the referendum campaign in 2016 promised that nothing would change for EU citizens in the UK or UK citizens in the EU. They would somehow automatically and magically retain their existing rights. The Vienna Convention was cited by some particularly ignorant or disingenuous commentators. Of course, this proved to be nonsense and here in the UK the Government decided to force EU citizens to apply in order to remain legally in the UK. Most EU countries have reciprocated and done likewise for British citizens, although some have taken the step of legislating to protect rights automatically.

The problem with the UK approach is that many EU citizens will miss the deadline, for all sorts of reasons. If, say, 20% of 4 million residents fail to apply, that will be 800,000 people who become unlawfully resident overnight once the deadline passes. Although the Government has been cautious to admit it, this means that unless something changes between now and then they will be subject to the ‘hostile environment’, working will be illegal, they will need to be evicted from their accommodation and their bank accounts will need to be closed. As the Windrush scandal belatedly showed, the withdrawal of residence rights from a section of the population is fraught with danger, there is no ‘good’ way to achieve it and the consequences can be dire. People regarded by themselves and others as citizens turn out not to be and can be detained and deported by the government of the day.

Even where EU citizens do apply, they will become subject to national UK law. If they get into trouble with the police they will automatically be deported if sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months or more, no matter how long they have lived here or even if they were born here but never acquired British citizenship. The status EU citizens will hold is being labelled as ‘settled status’ but in reality it is in law indefinite leave to remain, the same status that other residents from outside the UK acquire. It is a status that can be lost and revoked and EU citizens will not be able to fall back on the protection of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Meanwhile, British pensioners wishing to retire in Spain will need to look into the requirements for a Spanish retirement visa, if there is such a thing. We used to a visa for ‘retired persons of independent means’ in the UK but it was abolished years ago. Businesspeople will need to apply for a visa if their work in the EU will require a stay longer than three months. And I am not sure how or whether British citizens will be able to study in the EU without being treated as foreign students and having to pay the huge fees associated with that.

It turns out that free movement rights are human rights, and not just for criminals and their cats. Their loss will make us all poorer, both literally and metaphorically.