The Home Office’s policy of rounding up and deporting hundreds of EEA rough sleepers – another feature of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ – has been in the spotlight in recent days. Last week marked both the start of a Judicial Review of the policy, brought about by North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) and Public Interest Law Unit of Lambeth Law Centre and a conference exploring Homelessness among mobile EU citizens hosted by FEANTSA in Brussels, where the UK’s unprecedented approach to interpreting what constitutes an ‘abuse’ of freedom of movement under EU law was given centre stage.
By JILNA SHAH
EEA rough sleepers facing austerity and indefinite detention
The UK government has been concerned about the increase in numbers of EEA rough sleepers, particularly those from Central and Eastern Europe since 2001. The narrative propagated has been one of opportunistic migrants coming here to access benefits and entitlements: the familiar tactic of scapegoating. The destitution of EU migrants must, however, be seen in the broader context of austerity and cuts. Access to Housing Benefit for EEA nationals was axed by the Department of Work and Pensions in April 2014. Their risk of homelessness is acute, increased by denial of welfare support and access to essential services. Even when in work, it is well-known that migrants who are rough sleeping often face rampant exploitation by employers and traffickers.
It is against this backdrop that the UK government claims that rough sleeping is an ‘abuse’ or treaty rights under Article 35 of the Citizens’ Rights Directive which safeguards freedom of movement for EU nationals. Under this pretext, the Home Office approach is one of close collaboration and cooperation with other agencies, notably the GLA, Local Authorities and major homelessness charities (St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Change, Grow, Live) with whom joint Immigration Compliance and Enforcement operations are carried out. This approach, although around for some time, was exposed in a recent report by Corporate Watch. These operations result in the deportation and/or detention of EEA rough sleepers, and it is illustrative that the UK is the only EU member state that has no limits on the duration of detention in such instances. The impact, for those affected, is human suffering of a colossal scale.
Judicial Review against the UK government
The Judicial Review which ended on 23rd November is a direct challenge of the government’s policy towards EEA rough sleepers and how it is applied in practice. The hearing started with a public demonstration outside the Royal Court of Justice, organised by NELMA, SOAS Detainee Support and Public Interest Law Unit. Inside the court, the main arguments presented by the claimants’ counsel were:
- The policy discriminates on the basis of the status of people – that is on account of sleeping rough.
- The implementation of the policy rests on a general principle that labels a category of people ‘undesirable’ when the EU Directive prescribes a case-by-case approach.
- The ‘abuse of rights’ principle cannot be construed so broadly by the Home Office that it can circumvent fundamental safeguards and provisions.
To claim that EU rough sleepers are ‘abusing’ their treaty rights constitutes an abuse of the spirit of the treaty itself. The seriousness of UK’s approach was emphasised by Justice Lang who presided over the hearing when she confirmed that a Judicial Review was an appropriate forum to take the matter to, given how the policy impacts so many people. Whilst a judgement in this case is not expected until early in the New Year, MRN supports NELMA’s contention that “Rough sleeping cannot be equated with ‘abuse’ of free movement rights”, where other listed ‘abuses’ are ‘sham marriages’ and obtaining false documents.
UK is the most flagrant case of removing rough sleepers
At the conference on homelessness among EU mobile citizens, organised by FEANTSA, it seemed as if the UK’s unparalleled approach to rough sleepers was beginning to reach a level of justifiable notoriety. Mauro Striano, Policy Officer at FEANTSA, referenced a complaint submitted by Migrants’ Rights Network, Praxis and FEANTSA in June 2017 to the EU Commission against the UK. Jean Demars from the Public Interest Law Unit highlighted the brutal reality that ‘Reconnection’ back to their country of origin or forced removal were the only choices on offer to EEA rough sleepers; no homeless charities aside from Crisis are implementing initiatives to actually help rough sleepers out of homelessness by following an employment and housing model. Helen Syrop, Manager and a frontline worker of Hope Housing in Bradford shared her experience that most European migrants are excluded from hostels (which are funded by the government) due to housing benefits being inaccessible for them. Furthermore, she outlined a number of cases where detention centres had withheld people’s documents even when they were released, denying the opportunity to go to job interviews and prove that they are exercising treaty rights. She concluded with the assertion that “homeless European citizens need to have the same access to housing, services and support as their British counterparts”.
Sweden’s ‘Crossroads’ model provides a good blueprint, combining housing support, access to work, language training, health access and essentials such as laundry, showers and breakfast to root out homelessness.
Removing homelessness does not happen by removing homeless people
Helen and Matthew Downie from Crisis presented sobering case studies where many rough sleepers nationwide had died as a result of government policy and practice; from a lack of access to services, in detention and deaths abroad following removals. In this context of discrimination against EEA rough sleepers, Matthew poignantly said that “once a human being is homeless, that’s what you’re dealing with – not where they’re from”.
The UK government’s professed aim is to remove homelessness. Instead of providing help and support to remove rough sleeping, its response is to remove these destitute migrants themselves. This policy and the way that it is implemented are discriminatory, inhumane and does not work, even according to the government’s own stated agenda. The Judicial Review and the Brussels conference last week show that the UK’s approach is increasingly indefensible and makes Britain look ever more isolated and paranoid at an EU level. Most profoundly, this brutal approach has and is costing lives. The policy needs to be revoked. Instead, homelessness needs to be tackled at the root, by understanding the particular needs of EEA migrants and by offering support that includes safe and decent work, affordable housing and access to public services.