I didn’t know I could be illegal”: the policies that target rough sleepers

Recent history shows that we must remain vigilant in preventing attempts to unlawfully target and deport EU rough sleepers from the UK.

The Home Office, local authorities and some homelessness charities, including St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach, targeted Europeans sleeping rough for deportation.

They came for Jiří in the middle of the night. “They pulled my blanket off me,’’ he remembers. “I was very scared and my first thought was that I was about to be killed. That was the only thought that was going through my head.”

The men told Jiří to stand up. They searched him and found his passport. Then they told him he was under arrest.

“When I asked them why, they told me it was for being in the UK illegally. I told them I didn’t know I could be illegal. I’m a European citizen.’’

He was put into a van and driven from his sleeping site near Tate Modern to Becket House, the headquarters of the Central London Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) team. They took his fingerprints and locked him in a cell.

Jiří (not his real name) is a skilled carpenter. He was born in Czechoslovakia a year before the Prague Spring and came to the UK in 2013 after spells working in the United States and Belgium. What he experienced that night in June 2017 has affected him mentally and physically.

‘’I couldn’t sleep for a long time. It shattered my perceptions. I’ve lived in many countries and I grew up behind the Iron Curtain. This sort of thing has never happened to me anywhere else.’’

Jiří was the victim of a draconian approach, adopted by the UK government between 2010 and 2017, to getting homeless EU nationals off the streets.

The Home Office, local authorities and some homelessness charities, including St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach, targeted Europeans sleeping rough for deportation. The culmination of this approach was a 2016 policy declaring rough sleeping an ‘abuse’ or ‘misuse’ of freedom-of-movement rights. This was the policy under which Jiří was detained.

The idea of solving rough sleeping by systematically deporting rough sleepers was pioneered by Westminster council. Westminster saw working with the Home Office as a way to tackle begging and other perceived ‘antisocial behaviour’ in commercial hotspots like Trafalgar Square and Park Lane.

In public, immigration raids were framed as ‘incentivising’ rough sleepers to find accommodation or accept what homelessness charities call ‘reconnection’ (typically a one-way ticket back to their country of origin). This logic was taken up by commissioned outreach services run by St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach, who shared the personal information of rough sleepers with immigration enforcement teams and handed over the locations of sleeping sites.

Jiří became homeless in 2016. He had worked and paid tax throughout his time in the UK, but restrictions on EU jobseekers’ entitlement to housing benefit made it impossible to keep up with rent when he lost his job. He was evicted within a few weeks.

When he could get the funds together, he would book himself into a hostel for a week or two. But often he was forced to sleep rough.

That night at Becket House, the Home Office offered him a deal. They told him that if he forfeited his right to a lawyer and agreed to return ‘home’, they would release him. “I didn’t want to go to jail so I agreed. I didn’t think I had a choice.”

At the time, the charities involved denied sharing information about rough sleepers without consent and claimed they only played a ‘safeguarding’ role in raids. However, in November 2019 St. Mungo’s published a review admitting the charity had worked with the Home Office and misled campaigners about doing so.

The 2016 policy under which Jiří was detained was ruled unlawful by the High Court in December 2017 after a judicial review brought by the organisation I work for, the Public Interest Law Centre and North East London Migrant Action.

At least two thousand homeless people are thought to have been deported under the unlawful policy

The court found that rough sleeping was not an ‘abuse’ of EU free-movement rights and that the Home Office had unlawfully discriminated against EU rough sleepers. The Home Office has had to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds in civil damages to people like Jiří.

At least two thousand homeless people are thought to have been deported under the policy. The fate of many rough sleepers removed to their countries of origin remains unknown.

The High Court’s decision forced the government and its allies to change tack on EU rough sleepers. FOIA data obtained from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government shows council officials at Newham lamenting the need to switch ‘’from enforcement to support’’. A second council complained that “lack of engagement” from the Home Office might stop them meeting their targets under the Controlling Migration Fund.

‘Support-based’ approaches have centred on helping homeless Europeans find temporary employment outside of urban areas. Camden is currently operating a pilot scheme in partnership with the Association of Labour Providers (ALP), a body representing organisations that supply seasonal labour for agriculture.

But tackling rough sleeping through the kind of casualized employment that (in the ALP’s words) “very few British workers are willing to [do]” has proved ineffective. Camden recently admitted that no EU nationals had accepted a job offer through their pilot.

In August 2018 the Home Office announced a new Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) under the auspices of MHCLG’s Rough Sleeping Strategy. The government has worked hard to sell the scheme to local councils, the Greater London Authority and homelessness charities, claiming it will “help individuals to access support or assist them in leaving the UK if this is appropriate”.

But internal documents obtained through a FOIA request to the GLAsuggest that the RSSS involves the outsourcing of immigration enforcement to local authorities and charities:

The information sharing proposal […] would involve local authorities, and their commissioned services, carrying out a specific task in the public interest which is laid down by law. The task in question would be delivering immigration controls (and carrying out safeguarding responsibilities)

The government has refused to clarify exactly how rough sleepers’ personal data is being shared through the scheme. They have also refused to say which other agencies are participating. When PILC asked for policy documents relating to the RSSS, the Home Office responded that the scheme is relying on “existing arrangements”—without saying what they were.

The Home Office claims that the Rough Sleeping Support Service is “not enforcement-focussed”—but has admitted that rough sleepers referred to the scheme could be deported.

The UK’s departure from the EU and the escalation of policies aimed at homeless migrants makes defending the rights of rough sleepers an urgent task. It is up to civil society to monitor and resist unlawful practices and protect the data of vulnerable people. But strategic litigation and data firewalling will only go so far. Legal action must go hand-in-hand with the campaign for a homelessness policy that targets the systemic factors keeping people on the streets—rather than homeless people themselves.

Benjamin Morgan
17 February 2020