Homelessness charities and local councils are helping immigration enforcement teams to find and deport European rough sleepers, according to a recent report by Corporate Watch.
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to all London councils and the Greater London Authority (GLA) revealed ‘joint visits’ by councils and immigration officers to rough sleepers. As a result of these visits, 133 people were detained in immigration removal centres.
Minutes obtained from a Mayor’s meeting show that charities such as St Mungos and Thames Reach have also collaborated with immigration teams by sharing information on foreign national rough sleepers with the Home Office.
Here’s all you need to know about the Corporate Watch report and the fight back against this new racist attack on rough sleepers.
In recent years, local authorities have increasingly clamped down on rough sleeping in an effort to hide growing street homelessness and to keep the flow of gentrification undisturbed.
Councils started lobbying for tougher immigration enforcement to deport —‘voluntarily’ or by force — European rough sleepers because their traditional tool of choice, anti-social behaviour orders, took time and energy to enforce; London councils in particular wanted a quicker way to displace rough sleepers permanently.
Almost half of rough sleepers in London are European, so councils pushed for tougher immigration enforcement to quickly deport homeless foreign nationals. These new powers arrived in May 2016 with updated Home Office guidelines that classified rough sleeping as an ‘abuse’ of treaty rights, which has in the last month been slightly lowered to a ‘misuse’. The new law has resulted in high profile incidents of European rough sleepers being detained and deported both in Brighton and Liverpool.
‘Joint visits’ – the use of immigration enforcement in homeless outreach.
Corporate Watch sent FOIs to all London councils and the Greater London Authority (GLA). Responses revealed the number of visits councils and homeless outreach teams are conducting with the Home Office’s immigration enforcement teams. The Home Office itself is currently refusing to answer any questions the organisation put to them.
12 boroughs admitted to having records of conducting ‘joint visits’ with immigration enforcement teams, as did the GLA, which conducts visits in outer London. The visits formed part of the authorities’ homelessness outreach activities.
Westminster Council, which is anecdotally the worst — they tested the new law, and are said to be proud of their role in lobbying for it — claimed not to hold any information on visits conducted together with immigration enforcement.
The 12 London boroughs that did admit to approaching rough sleepers with immigration enforcement officers conducted a total of 133 such visits in the last year, working out at one a month in each borough.
Seven London councils and the GLA recorded the number of people ‘voluntarily returned’ and detained through these visits. As a result of the 83 visits these authorities carried out, 55 people agreed to ‘voluntary return’, and 133 people were detained. This shows that immigration action is a regular feature of these joint visits and that detention is more common than the fluffier sounding ‘voluntary returns’ that councils and homeless organisations like to focus on.
The nationalities of those detained included Romanian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Latvian, Hungarian and Italian.
How involved are homelessness charities in immigration enforcement?
It is unclear whether or not homelessness charities, such as St Mungos and Thames Reach, regularly have workers on visits where rough sleepers are detained. However the Corporate Watch report found that homelessness charities play an important role by gathering information which is then passed on to immigration enforcement.
Minutes from a May 2015 meeting of the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Group, which were also obtained by FOI request, discussed an agreement for passing information gathered from homelessness charities’ outreach teams to the Home Office. It was revealed that charities’ outreach workers regularly enter information about rough sleepers into a database, known as the CHAIN database, which is accessible to the Home Office, which then uses the information to identify “locations of non-UK rough sleepers”.
FOI requests also revealed guidance for outreach workers written by St Mungos and Thames Reach. The guidance, some issued before and some after the May 2016 rules change, shows it to be procedure to refer people who are not ‘engaging’ with ‘voluntary return’ to the Home Office.
There is also no guarantee that the information homelessness charities put into the CHAIN database is only used by the Home Office when those individuals have repeatedly refused voluntary return. Former rough sleepers who Corporate Watch interviewed were detained before any ‘reconnection process’ had started.
Furthermore the change to the rules on EEA rough sleepers was modified this February to mean that people should only be deported if they are ‘persistently rough sleeping’. Corporate Watch highlight that when the Home Office is deciding if someone is ‘persistently rough sleeping’ they will likely have to use the information gathered by homelessness charities’ outreach teams.
It is clear from the report that without the complicity of St Mungos and Thames Reach the Home Office would struggle to detain and deport rough sleepers as it would not know where they are and how long they have been rough sleeping for.
We need to start calling out supposedly helpful organisations for their involvement in the brutal system of border enforcement.
Voluntary reconnection – not ‘voluntary’ and not ‘reconnected’.
The Corporate Watch report also looks critically at the reality of ‘voluntary reconnection’, which is often mentioned by homelessness charities as a solution for street homeless Europeans.
One person the authors spoke to whilst he was in detention said “I have agreed to voluntary return to [Eastern Europe] because I want to get out of detention, if you don’t agree you can stay here for months”. Clearly in this instance the return to Eastern Europe is anything but voluntary as the other option is months in detention with no guarantee of staying in the UK afterwards. However forcing voluntary return in such a manner looks better for all the organisations involved and it is also a lot cheaper for the Home Office, saving the costs of the 3 security guards required for ‘forced’ deportation.
The organisations involved show little interest in what happens at the other end of ‘reconnection’. St Mungos currently hold the contract for ‘reconnections’ from London. This contract has a target for how many ‘reconnected’ people do not return to the streets of London within 6 months but it has no obligation for St Mungos to monitor what actually happens in the country people are returned to. With hundreds of homeless people dying on the streets of Eastern Europe each winter, returning people with little other support and nowhere to stay could be fatal.
How to help stop these raids.
North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) has launched a campaign with a coalition of other housing and migrant groups to resist this new racist attack on rough sleepers.
A fortnight ago, when Corporate Watch launched their report, NELMA co-ordinated a Twitter and email storm to draw attention to the complicity of homelessness charities and councils in immigration raids.
NELMA Activists are currently handing out bust cards in different languages in areas where people are sleeping rough to let people know their legal rights.
The next open meeting of the campaign will be on Tuesday 21st March at 7pm at the London Action Resource Centre.
You can also join your local housing group, migrant group or anti-raids group in your area to organise against this and similar attacks on migrants and homeless people.