The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain has more than doubled since 2010. According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, in the capital, the number has doubled in under five years.
Rough sleepers are the physical manifestation of the stark housing crisis facing many people. Rather than deal with the causes of the crisis, through affordable and social housing, the government is instead seeking to shift the problem physically elsewhere.
This has seen councils in large cities move homeless people away from their communities to other towns. For rough sleepers from European Union states, a far more drastic policy was adopted nationally in the 2016 budget, as part of measures to reduce homelessness, involving immigration detention and deportation.
Rough sleeping, not a criminal offence or a choice many choose to make, is considered a misuse of the exercise of EU treaty rights on residency. That is an excuse to place the blame for the homelessness crisis on foreign nationals and further criminalise both rough sleeping and migrant communities. Home Office guidance, updated in February 2017, on how deportations are to be made was published just weeks before the Brexit referendum in May 2016.
According to the latest government statistics for 2016, around a quarter of rough sleepers are in London, and more than half of these are foreign nationals, mainly from Central and Eastern European states, particularly Poland, Romania and Lithuania. The new rules mean that EU rough sleepers can be deported even if they have been in the country for less than the 3-month grace period under the EU Treaty and are not allowed to return for one year, separating families, and parents from their children.
Like a growing number of rough sleepers, many of these individuals are in work and cannot afford to pay steep rents on their low wages. Rough sleepers and foreign migrants are also more susceptible to modern forms of slavery.
Along with a pilot of the scheme carried out in the London Borough of Westminster over two months in 2015, hundreds of people have been deported in this way. A further scare tactic for migrants, individuals pending deportation for rough sleeping are held in administrative immigration detention for period ranging from days to months. They are a part of the fivefold increase in EU nationals held in immigration detention in recent years.
Although they can appeal the deportation, while in detention many agree to voluntary removal given the arbitrary and precarious nature of their detention and the situation they find themselves in.
Local authorities work with immigration officers, the police and Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) teams to enforce the policy. Freedom of Information requests made by activists prove that homeless outreach charities St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Change, Grow, Live (CGL) are complicit in taking part in raids and providing information to the authorities about the whereabouts of rough sleepers they engage with. Deportation raids on rough sleepers have been carried out in Brighton, Bournemouth, London and Liverpool in recent months.
As part of a clampdown on foreign nationals, some small homeless charities and day centres refuse to help any non-English speakers or foreign nationals, regardless of where they are from. Already vulnerable as rough sleepers, foreign nationals and often with limited English, this makes it more difficult for EU rough sleepers to access support and assistance. This leaves them fearful and isolated. Some are detained upon contact whereas others are invited to a meeting to explain their situation. Passports and ID documents are sometimes seized making it impossible for the individual affected to look for work or accommodation.
As a means of deterring and reducing rough sleeping, the policy has little value, especially when the government plans to increase rough sleeping by cutting housing benefits for young adults. Deportations are supposed to be monitored and support given to those who are likely to find themselves homeless elsewhere. Nonetheless, the government has operated in considerable secrecy over this policy and refuses to substantiate how exactly it is a success.
With rough sleeper numbers increasing since the introduction of the policy one year ago, and similar smaller schemes having cost hundreds of millions of pounds in the past, the benefit of deporting EU rough sleepers, and to whom, is questionable. If the government is serious about tackling rough sleeping and homelessness, the financial and human resources invested could be better employed elsewhere.
For more background information, see Aisha’s blog: