Migrants' Rights Network

The ‘hostile environment’ and the Great Rough Sleepers Round-up

A new policy that sees rough sleepers from the EU rounded up and removed from the UK may well be unlawful. Often having their documents confiscated and with no access to independent legal advice, the victims of this ‘hostile environment’ push are often powerless to resist.


In May 2016 the Home Office introduced new guidance stating that rough sleeping was an ‘abuse’ (later qualified as ‘misuse’) of EU citizens’ right of freedom of movement. The guidance means rough sleepers can now be ‘administratively removed’ (effectively, deported) from the UK just for sleeping rough. This applies even if they are otherwise exercising treaty rights.

Those deported will be subject to re-entry restrictions for 12 months following their removal. The policy may well be unlawful, but until it is proven so, Theresa May’s government effectively holds a licence to expel homeless foreigners from the UK.


Over the past year immigration enforcement teams have conducted raids on the sleeping sites of homeless EU nationals. Rough sleepers from Central and Eastern Europe have been particularly affected, but Italian and Portuguese nationals have also been detained and removed. Many of those affected have lived in the UK for years, working and paying tax.

Immigration officers routinely confiscate the documents of those they target, leaving people unable to secure employment or find accommodation. They also regularly fail to inform rough sleepers of their appeal rights.

‘Substantial damages have been awarded to some of the EU nationals detained under this policy’, notes Frances Webber in the London Review of Books, ‘but since few of them are in a position to take legal action, the practice continues.’

Bedding down outdoors

The Home Office says it reserves the right to ‘take action, including removal from the UK where appropriate, against [rough sleepers] who refuse to find alternative accommodation.’ This ignores the lack of affordable housing, savage cuts to welfare entitlements and labour exploitation which often leave those who come to the UK to work in construction or agriculture with little alternative to bedding down outdoors.

The ‘hostile environment’ is working: it has made the UK a very difficult place for migrants to live.

No compassion

Rough sleeping is a social justice issue. Few would do it given any better choice. Yet the language used by the government in outlining the problem of migrant homelessness betrays a striking lack of compassion. The Department for Communities and Local Government’s new Controlling Migration Fund seeks, among other goals, to ‘tackle […] illegal migrants that are rough sleeping’.  More money is promised for local councils who ‘work well’ with immigration enforcement to clear them from the streets.

‘Many of these individuals are looking for, or are in, casual employment’, the Fund’s prospectus says—as if jobs for life were the norm in deregulated Britain. In a final irony, the department’s pledges to take on both ‘rogue landlords and rough sleepers’, as if the two were morally equivalent.

Death on the streets

Criminalising homelessness is not about getting people off the streets: it’s about shifting ‘undesirables’ onto other streets. In countries like Poland and Romania, winter temperatures are harsher and welfare provision even scantier than in the UK.

Some of those removed will doubtless die on the streets in their countries of origin. Indeed, we heard recently of a 53 year old Polish man, well known to homelessness services in central London, who was picked up and detained in Harmondsworth before being deported to Poland. With no support in place, he was one of the 75 homeless people who died on the streets when the temperatures dropped to -34 last month.

Free movement for the rich, not the poor

The government’s stance is clear: freedom of movement is for the rich but not for the poor. We believe this is deeply unfair and urgently needs to be challenged, especially after Brexit.
NELMA has launched a campaign to help make EU rough sleepers aware of their rights. We have printed rights information in six languages and are supporting people to access legal advice. Please contact us if you know anyone who has been served with notice of removal and wants advice: [email protected]


Eve Dickson is a member of North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and one of the coordinators of Akwaaba, a social centre for migrants in North London.


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