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Brexit could leave thousands without basic rights in U.K. this week

London — Thousands of vulnerable EU citizens in the U.K. could lose their basic rights to live and work here if they fail to apply for a special residency status by Thursday morning. The elderly and children under state care are among the people advocates fear may have difficulty applying for the program, which was necessitated by Britain's "Brexit" from the European Union. 

With the U.K. now firmly out of the EU, European citizens must apply for the special status to continue legally living and working in Britain, regardless of how long they've been in the country.

While the application process, which can be done online or through a cellphone app, has been straightforward for some, it's been nightmarish for others.

"The stress levels in our household are unbelievable. All this on top of the pandemic and related issues is making both of us ill," Liz, a 68-year-old German who's lived in the U.K. for 44 years, told Sky News. 

She recently discovered that her passport had expired, but she was unable to renew it due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That meant she was unable to apply for "settled status" online.

Liz said she was unable to get through to anyone on the government's dedicated help line. She eventually got advice from a nonprofit group, which told her she could request a 39-page paper application, and was able to apply before the Wednesday night deadline. She said the process made her feel "threatened and distressed."

"I left Germany when I was 24 years old. I have made England my home… I could understand if I had a criminal record, but I've not put a foot wrong, I'm a decent person," she told Sky News.

Humanitarian groups have worked for months to help vulnerable people sign up for the program, but it is estimated that tens if not hundreds of thousands of Europeans living in the U.K. have yet to do so. From Thursday, they will no longer have the right under British law to work, rent a home, or access health care in the U.K.

The government has said it will be pragmatic and flexible when it comes to people who apply late. But until those individuals receive decisions on their cases, which could take months or even years, they'll be in limbo, living without any rights in the country many of them have called home for years.

"That's it. They're stuck. That's a gateway to destitution. It's that serious," Luke Piper, head of policy and advocacy for "The 3Million," a group that advocates for EU citizens living in the U.K., told CBS News. "The government is favoring its border control policies over the welfare of people who are eligible to stay in this country, as I see it. And as they're being 'flexible and pragmatic' on certain things, they're not being flexible and pragmatic on the serious stuff."

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