How charities helped to deport homeless migrants
The Home Office has exploited sensitive information about rough sleepers to deport non-UK nationals. And there’s worse to come.
When Theresa May told migrants that there would be no easy ride in Britain, it wasn’t so much a statement as a threat. In the three years since, she has kept her word. The streets aren’t paved with gold – they’re made of quicksand.
The removal of European nationals accused of sleeping rough has been government policy since May 2016, when the Home Office said: “No one should come to the UK with the intention of sleeping rough, and those who are encountered doing this may be misusing their free movement rights.” Apparently falling victim to low wages, precarious contracts and high accommodation costs is now an abuse of one of the EU’s fundamental rights.
Many of these people have lived and worked in the UK for several years. Many are still working. Many have a permanent right of residence. Some aren’t even rough sleepers, just migrants swept up in enforcement visits – in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And now few dare ask for help.
As May’s “hostile environment” marches on, many migrants find that accessing public services is now fraught with danger – with the Home Office poised to hoover up data from any agency that might come into contact with them. And homeless services are no exception.
In the wake of revelations that homeless charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’shave been working with the Home Office to deport rough sleepers, another dirty deal has emerged.
On Sunday Liberty revealed the Home Office had a secret data-sharing arrangement with the Greater London Authority, allowing it access to a map monitoring and locating rough sleepers based on nationality.
The map contains information added to a separate database by homelessness outreach groups and commissioned by the GLA. It’s not clear how much the GLA’s partners knew about the deal, but the stark reality is groups that should be supporting homeless people have become part of a machine built to detain and deport them.
The Home Office only had full access to the map for six months, but that is a long time. Long enough for figures to show an increase in detention of EU nationals of 41% – and a rise of 8% in removals.
Any one of us struggling to keep up rent payments from month to month could slip into the shoes of the people targeted by this policy. Figures show that 236,000 were homeless and 9,100 slept rough on these shores last year. Crisis expects the number of homeless to increase to 575,000 by 2041. This isn’t because people are abusing their rights, it’s because they’re falling on hard times, many because migrants’ access to welfare support has been cut.
The Home Office’s access to the map may have been revoked, but it took complaints from other (as yet unnamed) partner organisations to force its hand.
And the public only knows about this gross abuse of power because of the Freedom of Information Act – an indispensable public tool the government is less than keen on. Its dislike makes sense – this isn’t the first time its systematic targeting of vulnerable foreigners has come to light thanks only to an FoI request or a fortuitous leak.
Home Office discussions with the GLA relating to the map began in May 2015 – just one month before it struck a secret deal with the Department for Education to share details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren each month with the express purpose of creating a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants.
A similar arrangement exists with NHS Digital too, which has agreed to pass personal patient details, gathered from trusted services such as GPs and hospitals, to the Home Office to track down suspected immigration offenders.
And local authorities routinely hand out information to the Home Office on families with no recourse to public funds when they are applying for support.
These are just the deals we know about. There is no telling exactly how far the Home Office’s poisonous reach extends.
May’s hostile environment policies are designed to make life as unbearable as possible for migrants, but they create much deeper rifts in our society. People are isolated, made destitute and denied essential services, leaving many open to exploitation and abuse. Settled migrant communities and BAME people also suffer under this state-sanctioned discrimination.
Liberty is fighting these sinister data-sharing arrangements wherever they arise, and is in the process of filing a legal challenge to the European Commission about the government’s policy on homeless EU nationals. North East London Migrant Action has done tremendous work in bringing the issue to light, and is challenging it in court alongside Lambeth Law Centre.
Parents and teachers are gearing up to join Against Borders for Children in boycotting the school census this September. And Doctors of the World, Docs not Cops, and health workers across the country are fighting to keep border controls out of our hospitals and doctors’ surgeries.
These policies are callous and cruel. They are a damning indictment of our government. But in the face of resistance, they can and will fall.
• Gracie Mae Bradley is advocacy officer for Liberty
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