A homeless man in London (Photo by Tom Johnson)
Street homelessness is soaring and there's a natural urge to do something to help, but I bet you never thought that something should be "aiding the deportation of vulnerable migrants". A new report published today by researchers at Corporate Watch shows how homelessness charities in London are collaborating with Home Office immigration patrols.
The report, called "The Round-Up: rough sleeper immigration raids and charity collaboration", details how the biggest homelessness charities find themselves part of the government's send-'em-packing agenda when it comes to migrants, including those from the EU and European Economic Area.
Freedom of Information requests by Corporate Watch show how outreach teams from charities St Mungo's and Thames Reach regularly buddy up with Immigration Enforcement officers on "joint visits". Home Office goons will use these visits to gather intelligence that kick-starts the process of dragooning people out of the country, according to the report.
Even when they're not joined by officers, charity workers can find themselves implicated in extending the government's "hostile environment" agenda against migrants onto the streets. Outreach workers collect information which goes into the London Assembly's "CHAIN" rough-sleeper database. Since May of 2015 this information has been shared with the Home Office, and has helped them track down groups of migrant rough sleepers.
Unsurprisingly, charities don't talk about how they might end up helping deport someone. Instead, they talk euphemistically about "reconnection", as if they're about to help someone take a year out to find themselves. FoI requests show that forced detention is in fact a more common outcome of joint visits than anything voluntary. The voluntary offer that rough sleepers are encouraged to take up is to voluntarily leave the country. If they refuse, they're referred to the Home Office. So totally voluntary, then.
Once in detention, volunteering to leave looks like how you'd voluntarily run out of your house if it was on fire: you don't really have a choice. According to one eyewitness, "They arrested me and put me here. I have agreed to voluntary return to [Eastern Europe] because I wasn't getting out of detention. If you don't agree you can stay here for months."
Voluntary or no, the report sheds light on homeless charities working with local government contracts that don't have much to say about what happens to people when they're gone. For example, St Mungo's manages a contract called "Routes Home". It has a target for numbers of people not returning to sleep rough in London for six months. But there are no targets to do with making sure the people who have been voluntarily connected don't, say, freeze to death in the streets of Bucharest – which happens to about 300 people a year. Just don't freeze to death on our streets, OK?
Charities are also involved in the creation of these policies. In 2015, a GLA body called the "Mayor's Rough Sleeping Group" – which included officials from the London Assembly, the Met and the Home office, plus top managers from charities including St Mungo's and Thames Reach – met to discuss further cooperation. They drew up a policy paper encouraging more integration that became policy in May of 2016, following a pilot scheme. St Mungo's welcomed "a new approach in which immigration officials work with Local Authorities and outreach workers to connect rough sleepers to services that can return them home".
"When charities become part of this system – become border guards, effectively – we're living in a new, and very frightening, society."
Responding to the report, Thames Reach said, "Thames Reach also knows from years of experience that for destitute non-UK rough sleepers, their best option is to come off the streets and be helped to return home voluntarily. Many of the people we encounter sleeping rough in the UK have homes and families in their home country.
"We stay in touch with individuals to ensure that they are successfully getting their lives back on track."
Howard Sinclair, St Mungo's Chief Executive, said: "People not from the UK may not have entitlements to any benefits. This can result in complex situations for them with no access to housing or support services, which in turn results in long-term rough sleeping, which is harmful and dangerous. The stark reality is that without any intervention people would remain destitute and at real risk of harm on the streets. Partnership working is key in helping people to move away from the streets, recover their lives and not return to rough sleeping. We work with migrant charities, domestic abuse organisations, health services, probation services, the police, local authorities and many others. We are reviewing our approach across our outreach teams to ensure that we are operating to good practice in every area."
Fizza Qureshi, director of the Migrants Rights Network, said she is "deeply concerned" by the report. "The government's 'hostile environment' agenda is clearly undermining the duty of care held by service providers across multiple sectors to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including homelessness charities."
North East London Migrant Action is today inundating the charities with emails and angry tweets. They told VICE: "The involvement of local councils and homelessness charities in immigration raids on rough sleepers takes things to a whole new level. Migrants' rights activists have become used to the cynicism and of the UK government's border policies. But when charities become part of this system – become border guards, effectively – we're living in a new, and very frightening, society."
The report points out that your average charity worker didn't take that job to then happily become a border guard, and notes that they are removed by several degrees of separation from the grizzly business of deportation. Responses from the charities emphasise the dreadful cost of leaving people on the streets and their role encouraging voluntary returns over being locked in a detention centre and deported. The picture that emerges, though, is one of complicity in a system whose plan to end homeless is to shoo homeless people away.
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