on the world: a view on human rights
Homelessness and adequate housing are global crises of the twenty first century. The obvious manifestation of this is rough sleeping. According to the latest UK government statistics*, 3569 rough sleepers were counted in England in the autumn of 2015 alone, an increase of 30% on the same quarter in the previous year. This is more than double the number of rough sleepers estimated in the same period in 2010.
In London, over half of rough sleepers are foreign nationals, mainly from other European states, particularly Central and Eastern European states. In 2010, European Economic Area nationals (EEA: European Union + Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland) made up 28% of rough sleepers.
All EEA nationals have the right to enter the UK (and other EEA states) and may reside for an initial period of 90 days, after which they may remain if they are exercising their EU Treaty rights as a self-employed person, employee, jobseeker, student or are self-sufficient and do not become a financial burden on the state. Exclusions only apply in the interest of public health, public policy, national security or in the case of a sham marriage (fraud). The refusal must be reasoned and there is a right of appeal.
Since 2010, the British government has looked at various administrative schemes to remove EEA rough sleepers. In an initial pilot by the Home Office’s Borders Agency (UKBA, now UKVI), within one month, “more than 200 people had been considered under the pilot, roughly 100 had been served with removal notices and 13 people deported.” The basis of removals then, as now, is that as rough sleepers are not exercising the EU treaty rights above. Such schemes cost millions of pounds.
Although people could be removed, there was nothing to prevent them returning and enforcement was not simple. In 2015, the government piloted Operation Adoze in Westminster, London, which has the largest number of rough sleepers in the country. It was then piloted in a further 5 boroughs and the success of the scheme, which excludes return for one year, and expedites the detention and removal of individuals, saw it rolled out nationally in the 2016 budget which plans to prevent homelessness by deporting EEA rough sleepers. Under Operation Adoze and up until September 2016 under the current national policy, 127 EEA rough sleepers were removed from the UK.
Under the new Home Office policy since May 2016**, rough sleeping is “an abuse of rights under the EEA regulations”; however the circumstances must be considered and there is a 14-day right of appeal which suspends removal if exercised. After that period, an appeal can still be made but reasons for the late appeal must be given. For the purpose of the policy, rough sleeping is “sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down on the street, or in other open spaces or locations not designed for habitation, such as doorways, stairwells, parks or derelict buildings.
This does not include people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travelers.”
Local authorities and homeless charities such as St Mungo’s No Second Night Out and Thames Reach help immigration officers, the police and Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) teams – rough sleepers report being approached by officials who look like but are not police – to enforce the policy. A rough sleeper may be given a “Minded to Remove” (ICD 4621) letter and asked to attend an interview with immigration officers.
More often they are served an IS 151A EEA (liability to remove) in which case their passport is confiscated or an IS 151B EEA (decision to remove) which can be appealed but is a notice to leave the country. In the latter case, the individual can be arrested and removed within 72 hours, even if an appeal has been lodged. In other cases still, rough sleepers have been given IS.96 EEA letter (notification of temporary admission to a person who is liable to be detained). Previously, such letters were issued mainly to asylum seekers and visa overstayers.
The appeal is free but there is no legal aid entitlement to hire a lawyer for representation. Support from NGOs is an alternative. Day centres for the homeless can also sometimes provide advice. An English support phone number is available: 07459 642 152.
The purpose of an administrative as opposed to a legal procedure is that it is more difficult to challenge. Where appeals are made, they are often granted and the removal order is removed. Two cases are likely to lead to court cases that may challenge the legality of the policy.
The impact on rough sleepers is considerable. The experience is unnerving and isolating. Information through the multi-agency homelessness database CHAIN, although anonymised, helps to supply information to the Home Office and agencies on the whereabouts of EEA rough sleepers. This has led to raids: 15 people were detained in Tottenham in October 2016, 10 people were arrested and deported from Brighton in November 2016 and 19 in Stratford, East London, in December 2016.
Eastern and Central European rough sleepers live in fear of such visits by immigration officials and outreach workers, and deportation. Many are in work and sleep rough due to the low wages they are paid. Others work for exploitative agencies and without regular work sleep rough in between assignments. If passports and ID documents are confiscated, they are no longer able to look for work or accommodation. With mistrust of complicit charities and agencies, accessing help and support becomes even harder for destitute rough sleepers.
The homeless are a vulnerable community; EEA rough sleepers are a more vulnerable sub-community. Rough sleeping is perceived to be a form of anti-social behaviour, yet the fact remains that the homeless are more often the victims of the anti-social behaviour of the broader public. Marginalised and harassed by the authorities, rough sleepers are less likely to report crimes of which they are the victims.
With open hostility to the homeless and increasing racism against all migrants in the post-Brexit environment, the outlook is grim. In early January, Hackney Council announced that it planned to eradicate homelessness in the borough by 2020 partly by removing EEA rough sleepers who “helped drive the rise in rough sleepers”.
This policy is not as benign as it may appear and falls within a broader government policy of criminalising both the homeless and migrant communities. Rough sleeping and holding a foreign passport are not crimes. While the government claims that rough sleepers are a drain on public resources, surely such short-sighted policies are far more costly than tackling the causes of rough sleeping and homelessness. Blaming foreign nationals for the steep increase in homelessness is a cheap shot.
Migrant support and homelessness campaigners have decided to fight back. Information cards are available in English and Polish (so far) to help apprehended rough sleepers. A factsheet is available here. NELMA (North East London Migrant Action) has also produced an information sheet with advice for rough sleepers and pro forma letters people can write to their MPs and local councillors to protest and inform them of the policy. A broader campaign incorporating different organisations is currently underway and you can learn more by contacting NELMA.
* Postscript: Autumn 2016 statistics published on 25 January 2017.
** Postscript: this link no longer works as new guidelines are now in force since 1 February 2017 here.