Tackling Homelessness, One Deportation at a Time
Last Thursday morning I called my friend Mateusz to tell him a high court judge had ruled against the Home Office policy of detaining and ‘removing’ EU citizens who sleep rough. Not before time, he laughed. The previous day, he and his friends had scarpered after being approached by charity outreach workers in South London.
Since May 2016, immigration enforcement teams have been raiding the sleeping sites of homeless Europeans across London. The success of the raids has depended on collaboration between the Home Office, the Greater London Authority, local councils and some homelessness charities. Homeless Poles like Mateusz have become wary of professionals who say they’re there to help.
Mateusz’s story is typical of the people I’ve met through the North East London Migrant Action campaign against the policy. He’d been working as a painter and decorator, living week to week and sending money home when he could. The work was well enough paid when he could get it, but his income was never steady enough to afford the deposit for a rented flat. He relied on help from friends and family living in the UK.
When that support ran out after a family dispute, Mateusz ended up on the streets, surviving on odd jobs and Big Issue sales. A few months later, the encampment where he and some friends were sleeping in North London was raided. He was handed a ‘removal notice’ telling him he had 28 days to leave the country. His identity documents were confiscated. Some of his friends were detained and later deported to Poland; he still has no idea why he wasn’t.
We don’t know how many such raids have taken place in the past year and a half (the government has failed to respond to repeated freedom of information requests). What is clear is that there has been a spike in the number of Europeans held in immigration detention in the UK. In one case, the Home Office seems to have tried to cover up the suicide, last September, of a Polish man held in Harmondsworth.
The homelessness charities St Mungo’s and Thames Reach say their involvement is limited to persuading ‘entrenched’ rough sleepers to accept ‘voluntary reconnection’. Evidence collected by Corporate Watch suggests a more extensive culture of information sharing and joint raids. In any event, ‘voluntary’ departure takes on a different hue when the alternative is indefinite detention. ‘We have cases where the Home Office say it’s a voluntary return,’ a Romanian embassy official recently told the Guardian, ‘but when we ask, the individual says: “I don’t want to go.”’ With cuts to legal aid, many people detained under the policy have found it impossible to get advice from a solicitor.
The number of rough sleepers in London has shot up in recent years. Around half of them were born outside the UK, and there is a crude expediency in the decision to put deportation at the centre of the latest multi-agency strategy to ‘end homelessness’.
One consequence of rough sleeper removals is that people like Mateusz, already among the most marginal members of British society, come to fear seeking out the minimal social assistance that is still available to them. The policy reflects the government’s desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, along with passport checks for NHS patients and Department of Education databases of children’s nationalities. There’s a vicious logic at work, emphatically illustrated by the recent story of a woman who reported her kidnapping and rape to police in East London, and was arrested for an immigration offence.
These policies do not alleviate poverty. Deporting homeless migrants or confiscating identity documents and tents from rough sleepers is like cracking down on hunger by taking people’s cutlery away. But it does make migrants more biddable, less likely to draw on social assistance, and disinclined to confront exploitative landlords or bosses.
With the Home Office holding his identity documents, Mateusz has been unable to get formal work, settling instead for poorly paid occasional cash-in-hand jobs. He would be ineligible for a rental contract even if he could afford one. His plight is part of a bigger story in which carceral institutions in Fortress Britain take the place of a welfare state in rapid withdrawal.