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IN MARCH 2016 the Home Office introduced a new policy characterising rough sleeping as an “abuse” (later qualified as “misuse”) of EU citizens’ right to the freedom of movement.
The policy essentially means that rough sleepers can be detained by the Home Office and “removed” from Britain for no other reason than that they are homeless.
Over the last eight months, North East London Migrant Action (Nelma), a campaigning and solidarity group, has been fighting rough sleeper removals.
Together with the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU) at Lambeth Law Centre, we have launched a judicial review of the Home Office policy. Permission was recently granted for a full hearing, which will take place from November 21 to 23 in the High Court.
As well as fighting the policy, Nelma is supporting the people affected by it. With PILU, we have set up a legal clinic and phone line for European rough sleepers who have been served removal notices.
We have also been calling on two of Britain’s largest homelessness charities, St Mungo’s and Thames Reach, to end their complicity in this inhumane and xenophobic policy.
In March, a report by Corporate Watch revealed how St Mungo’s and Thames Reach are helping the Home Office target rough sleepers through “joint patrols,” data sharing and “local co-operation agreements.”
Most shockingly, both charities appear to have actively lobbied for the policy through their membership of a Greater London Authority body called the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Group.
Nelma has been talking to rough sleepers affected by immigration raids. The picture that emerges is of arbitrary and authoritarian conduct on the part of Britain’s border police.
Mihal and Teodora, a Bulgarian couple, were locked up after they were discovered sleeping rough at Victoria station. They spent three months in Yarl’s Wood before being released on appeal. When they asked a Home Office official for an interpreter, he refused, telling them: “Shut up! Fuck you! Go back to Bulgaria.”
Teofil, a Romanian rough sleeper who spent 26 days in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, described how he showed immigration officers his employment contract to prove he was exercising his treaty rights. Their response? Teofil says: “They said: ‘I don’t care. You’re being arrested for sleeping rough’.”
Teofil told Nelma he had been visited by charity outreach workers in the days before he was detained. “I think it was them who told immigration about me.”
When challenged on its complicity in immigration raids, St Mungo’s said: “[In] areas where local authorities have decided to engage the Home Office to take action against individuals or groups of rough sleepers, St Mungo’s outreach teams work alongside [enforcement] teams to provide support and advocate on behalf of vulnerable individuals.”
Thames Reach issued a statement saying that “where the Home Office conclude that administrative removal is necessary, [we] will work with Home Office staff to encourage a voluntary reconnection.”
Neither of the charities — which receive millions of pounds’ worth of local authority commissions to operate homelessness outreach services — has responded to the substance of the charges that, by sharing information about the location and identity of homeless Europeans without consent, they are facilitating Theresa May’s radical deportation agenda.
In their defence, Thames Reach and St Mungo’s boast of voluntary reconnection schemes such as Routes Home, which offers free temporary accommodation and substance misuse services to homeless migrants who agree to leave Britain.
But the cold reality for many of those whose details are passed to the Home Office by charities is weeks in an immigration removal centre followed by a deportation flight.
Little research has been conducted into the outcomes of EU rough sleepers “removed” to their countries of origin in this way, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some die on the streets upon returning “home.”
The deportation of rough sleepers also amounts to a chilling attack on freedom of movement rights in a Brexit context. Europeans living in Britain are justifiably anxious about the implications of Britain’s planned departure from the EU.
Guardian columnists wring their hands over the possible fates of French restaurateurs and Danish software engineers. But for the homeless people Nelma is supporting — most of whom come from the EU’s southern and eastern edges — Brexit is not a phantasm, a grim premonition of the world in 2019; it’s happening now.
In June, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa), a European umbrella body of organisations focusing on homeless, came out against the Home Office’s policy of “removing” rough sleepers, as did Crisis, another of the Britain’s largest homelessness charities.
In Feantsa’s judgement, the logic behind the policy — that EU citizens currently move to Britain to sleep on the streets so that they can take advantage of our welfare system — is “bizarre and cruel.”
St Mungo’s and Thames Reach justify their remunerative partnership with the Home Office with the the paternalistic argument that, since rough sleeping is “harmful,” returning to their country of origin is “in the best interests” of homeless people.
But the EU rough sleepers Nelma has met, many of whom have lived in Britain long enough to acquire permanent residence, are far from hopeless cases.
Many of those affected have lived in Britain for years, working and paying tax. Some have children who were born in this country. They end up on the streets due to the obscene cost of housing in the private rental sector and harsh restrictions to their entitlements to in-work benefits.
Given the political will — for example, a programme of affordable workers’ housing — most would be able to live decent, productive lives here in Britain.
To draw attention to the issue of charity collaboration in Home Office raids, activists have been engaging in a London-wide “subvertising” campaign.
Bus stops, underground trains and the pavements on which rough sleepers bed down have been decorated with warnings to commuters not to give to charities complicit in the racist cleansing of European homeless people.
In a take-off of a Thames Reach advertising campaign designed to stop people giving to beggars, one such “subvert” warns that “the money you give to Thames Reach may actually be spent on collaboration with the Home Office.”
Behind the humour lies a serious message. The success of May’s “hostile environment” for migrants depends on the complicity of civil society actors — schools and emergency services, hospitals and charities — in buttressing a morally indefensible border regime.
With luck, the Home Office’s policy of “removing” rough sleepers will be overturned by the High Court in the autumn. But until the institutions which are supposed to protect the vulnerable stop serving the interests of an increasingly oppressive state, our fight for migrants’ rights will continue.
- David Jones is an activist and campaigner with Nelma.
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