Last week, the high court was the scene of a small but significant victory. North East London Migrant Action (Nelma) and the Public Interest Law Unit were granted permission to seek a judicial review of the Home Office policy of deporting rough sleepers from the European Economic Area, and are now crowdfunding to finance the bid.
The policy gained attention earlier in the year when a report by Corporate Watchrevealed how several agencies – including homelessness charities – were sharing information with the Home Office to facilitate deportations.
The deportations hinge on the fact that homeless people are presumed not to be working, so in breach of treaties that allow free movement. Homelessness has more than doubled since 2010, so it stands to reason that a fair proportion of those sleeping rough will be migrants. The treatment shows a complete lack of empathy, and a rigidity that refuses to consider the complexities of human life.
In January Teofil and Marineta, two Romanian nationals, were arrested for sleeping in a tent in Sheffield. The couple, like many in Britain, were struggling to find regular work that paid a living wage. For a while they worked in a bread factory on zero-hours contracts, before Marineta found work as a carer. But the work dries up: zero-hours contracts treat people as disposable labour, and when the woman Marineta cared for died, it became impossible to keep up with the rent. Instead, the couple were forced to sleep rough, still doing occasional shifts and selling the Big Issue when work was scarce.
Teofil and Marineta’s story is similar to that of so many across the country. Countless people have told me they are endlessly close to being unable to pay the rent, or have worked zero-hours contracts while sofa-surfing and sleeping rough, desperately trying to make ends meet and instead finding modern Britain is unwilling to pay people a decent wage for work.
But most won’t go through what Teofil and Marineta did: removed from their tent one afternoon by the police and immigration enforcement before being locked in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for 26 days.
The experience scarred them both. “One person tried to cut themselves with a glass in front of me. I saw women fainting and falling down because they’ve been detained for months and don’t know what’s going on. I felt like killing myself,” Teofil says. “They treat you like shit in there. You only see the Home Office if you threaten to kill yourself. They treat people like animals.” Eventually, they were released but were not allowed to work for four months until a Nelma lawyer succeeded in getting their identity papers returned, in a particularly impenetrable bureaucratic twist. Before their arrest, Teofil had been close to securing a stable job – instead their arrest barred them from working and supporting themselves.
The couple plan to return to Spain where they lived for 12 years, but want to stop others experiencing the same horrific ordeal. “The Home Office don’t care whether you’re working or not,” Teofil says. “They don’t care whether people live or die, whether they have food to eat. All they care about is their power.” It’s impossible to see what is to be gained from such a policy.
Homelessness is a symbol of a dysfunctional society: if someone is sleeping rough, they need help, not deportation. Locking up and shipping out rough sleepers is an unspeakably callous way of removing a perceived problem and casting it away, prolonging and compounding human suffering in the meantime. People will struggle to work as long as they have no home: deporting rough sleepers shows no care for social issues and utter contempt for fellow human beings.
This is not something charities should collude in, and a policy that should be halted altogether. Homeless people are already ignored and abused in society: now some are being packed up and thrown out of the country like detritus.
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