Remove homelessness, not homeless people
Before Brexit negotiations even begin, the status of EU nationals in the UK is already precarious. In an attempt to drive down net migration the Home Office is resorting to ever more brutal deportation strategies. The number of EU nationals in UK detention centres has increased dramatically since the Tories came to power (by over 250% since Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010). A recent Home Office policy defines rough sleeping as an ‘abuse’ or ‘misuse’ of EU citizens’ right to freedom of movement. This rule, usually used against people who commit criminal offences (itself unjust), is now being used to target rough sleepers. Polish and Romanian homeless people in particular are falling victim to immigration enforcement or so-called ‘administrative removals’.
This policy criminalises some of the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom have lived and worked in the UK for many years, and who often find themselves sleeping rough due to the high cost of housing, exploitative and precarious labour conditions, and a harsh and discriminatory welfare system. Rather than being helped to access the social services they need, homeless people are seeing their sleeping sites raided by police officers working in collaboration with the Home Office. Some are detained immediately, while others are issued with removal papers. Local councils collaborate with ICE (Immigration Compliance and Enforcement) teams on the removal of rough sleepers and a number of homeless charities are also working with the Home Office (an issue NELMA has been campaigning against).
NELMA have been talking to people who have been affected by these immigration raids. Below is a testimony by M, a Romanian who was the victim of a raid in North West London earlier this year. M was interviewed as part of a recent BBC Radio 4 feature on this issue, in which a journalist accompanied the raid. The programme claimed that Thames Reach, the charity who participated in the raid, would help M find housing and work, and stated that collaborations between charities and the Home Office serve this seemingly benevolent purpose. A charity worker even defended deportation as a solution to street homelessness, completely disregarding what happens to people after they are deported, which is a bit like claiming that the social cleansing that accompanies gentrification is a solution to poverty. In this testimony M explains what actually happened to him after the raid. His story also provides an insight into the working and housing conditions that lead people to sleep on the streets in the first place, and is also an example of how everyday borders function in practice; how various institutions and organisations participate in creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants in the UK.
I came to the UK from Bucharest around a year ago. I left Romania due to family problems. I’d worked importing and distributing merchandise but was forced to leave because of tensions with my uncle who made my life increasingly difficult.
When I first came to the UK I went to the Home Office explaining my difficult family situation and I asked for help as I had nowhere to sleep. The Home Office sent me to Croydon Council who said they couldn’t help me. I ended up sleeping in a park. I had experience training dogs in Romania and got to know some of the dog-owners through playing with their dogs in the park. One of these people eventually became my girlfriend and I ended up moving into her council flat with her. She was worried about someone finding out I was living there but arranged for me to register as self- employed at her uncle’s address.
I got a job working on a construction site in August 2016 through some Romanian people I knew. Originally I told the boss that my rate was £100 which he agreed to pay me, but after a few weeks he told me he’d found other workers willing to work for £60 and fired me. No notice, no negotiation, nothing – and I was never paid any of the money I was owed.
In January I broke up with my girlfriend and went to live in a hotel in Swiss Cottage. I worked odd jobs that I heard about through friends and other Romanians I’d met in London. It was mostly cash-in-hand. The jobs included removals work and plumbing jobs, whatever I could get. People I worked for tended to pay very low rates and sometimes wouldn’t pay me for the work I’d done. I found it difficult to chase up outstanding payments because people would start ignoring my calls. The work was also really unreliable and piecemeal so it was difficult to get by, to know where the next job was coming from.
Eventually I rang a person from the construction job I’d been fired from – they told me if I came to Weymouth [in Dorset] they could give me work and would also pay the outstanding money they owed me. Now I think this was just a bribe. But I went down to Weymouth and lived on the building site in a caravan. In the end they didn’t pay me at all – either for the work I’d done there or for my previous work. I went to the police but nothing happened. There’s nothing you can do. I was lucky that while I was there I met a man in a café – an elderly British man – who let me stay in his home and in exchange I performed some domestic chores. He offered to pay me but I didn’t feel comfortable taking his money. I was there for a week.
After that I returned to London. I had no money for a hotel room so went to sleep in a park in North West London with a Romanian friend. I’d only been staying there a couple of nights when there was a big raid. A big group of police came through and woke everyone up at around 5am. Later we found out that the people involved were National Rail [who owned the land the park is on], the police, the Home Office and outreach workers from Thames Reach homelessness charity. There was a Romanian speaker with them too – maybe an interpreter or maybe a Romanian speaking police officer. They were also accompanied by a journalist from the BBC who said he’d help us but we didn’t hear from him again. We were taken to the police station and they gave me and my friend a piece of paper in Romanian and English stating we were being charged with vagrancy, drinking in public and loitering for work. But I don’t drink and I hadn’t been getting work that way so I refused to sign it. Only one of the charges applied to me. But they said I had no choice.
My friend was detained, first at The Verne and then in Harmondsworth [immigration removal centres]. We heard most of the other people in the park were deported straightaway. They were all Romani people. I wasn’t taken to The Verne as I had papers on me saying that I am registered as self-employed and other documents about my taxes, but the Home Office kept my passport and national identity card anyway [he was given a ‘Notification of Temporary Admission to a Person who is Liable to be Detained’ following the raid and a Home Office appointment to report to].
From the police station I was sent directly to the charity No Second Night Out [who work with Thames Reach]. After a few days I realised they didn’t want to help me at all but were trying to get me to go back to Romania. They were also in contact with the Home Office. I explained the situation with my family and told them why I needed to leave Romania - the problems with my uncle, fears for my safety etc. Telling these stories led the charity to do a psychiatric assessment in which they claimed I was a paranoid schizophrenic and they tried to give me anti-psychotic medication. They didn’t believe anything I was saying. I said I wouldn’t take anything unless they provided me with an official diagnosis from a doctor. I’m not sure who the people who conducted the assessment were. Instead of providing the diagnosis they sectioned me [under the Mental Health Act, 1983]. I was taken to a nearby hospital. I was kept there for six days. They gave me 200ml of anti-psychotic medication and another medicine to counteract nausea and other side effects. My dose was raised to 400ml and then to 600ml during the time I was there. The medication made me physically sick – I had nosebleeds and severe pancreatic pain. It was like being stuck in a nightmare – being told I was crazy when I was just explaining things that had happened. It was only when a different doctor saw me that they said there was no evidence of psychosis after all and let me out.
[The hospital notes recount his reasons for leaving Romania mentioning, for example, that he was scared about being followed and felt unsafe. They note that he also expressed fears about his life in the UK and state: ‘He was preoccupied with his physical health and the possibility of being deported.’ They note that he had never had contact with mental health services, that his appearance was clean and his responses clear. Why his anti-psychotic drug dose was consistently raised is unclear (although the notes document that it was). Eventually the hospital declared there was ‘no evidence of psychosis’ and discharged him.]
After being discharged I approached Crisis for help who found me a place to sleep where I can stay for three months. I’ve got a job washing dishes but it’s hard to get better work without my passport or ID. I’m still waiting to see the Home Office. I just want to be able to get a job and find a place to live. I had no idea things would be so hard.
Since completing this interview M has succeeded in getting his papers back. He is working and looking for a stable place to live.
The Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre, along with NELMA, are bringing a judicial review against the Home Office policy seeking to remove EEA Nationals for rough sleeping and are seeking financial support to continue this ongoing legal challenge. More details here.