North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) are activists campaigning on issues faced by migrants in vulnerable positions in our communities. They believe that no one is illegal, in a world without borders and they stand in solidarity with all migrants regardless of status.
The group’s current focuses include challenging injustices towards families with no recourse to public funds and coordinating a campaign against the Home Office’s policy of detaining and deporting EEA-national rough sleepers. A judicial review against the government’s policy of deporting rough sleepers from the European Economic Area will conclude today.
On November 21st the High Court will begin a judicial review of the Home Office’s policy of ‘administratively removing’ EU rough sleepers from the UK. For NELMA and the Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre, the legal challenge represents the culmination of twelve months of campaigning against a policy that not only criminalizes some of the most vulnerable people in the UK, but also has worrying implications for the rest of us.
In May 2016, the Home Office decided—without the nicety of a debate in Parliament—that rough sleeping was an ‘abuse’ of EU citizens’ right of freedom of movement. Over the past eighteen months—and working in partnership with police, local authorities, and some homelessness charities—immigration enforcement officers have been conducting dawn raids on the sleeping site of homeless Europeans. Hundreds have had their ID documents confiscated and been given 28 days to leave the country, for no other reason than that they have nowhere to live. Others have been locked up, indefinitely, in detention centres.
Cuts to legal aid provision mean those detained are frequently unable to find a solicitor to challenge the decision. Immigration enforcement officers routinely neglect to use interpreters to explain grounds for removal or to outline appeal rights. The result: people are being deported from the UK without being given the opportunity to ask why.
Asking why feels important. On the one hand, ‘removing’ rough sleepers is a sop to nativist fantasy—or rather, to the binary patterning of economic and emotional logic projected by Westminster onto both inward migrants and “the British people’’. ”Highly skilled” migrants, the script reads, make a “net contribution” to the UK economy. “The British people” approve of such migrants. Other—“economic”—migrants wish to “take advantage of our generosity”. The “British people” want these migrants to “go home”.
Migration as lived practice dismantles this logic. Most of the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians who seek our advice after being served with removal notices for rough sleeping are in work. Many are skilled workers: electricians, plumbers, painters and decorators. They sleep rough because, like millions of others in the UK in 2017, their wages are too low, and the work available too precarious, for them to be able to afford to rent in the private sector. Unlike British citizens, they are barred from accessing the benefits that—in theory at least—would bridge the gap between their income and the cost of housing.
Nor, after seven decades of European integration, is “home” a simple idea for many EU nationals living in the UK. Many of the rough sleepers the Home Office is seeking to deport have been here for years—working, paying tax and raising families. Some have British children. Others have nobody left in their country of origin. A significant number will have acquired permanent residence in the UK. But unless they can prove their status—a tall bureaucratic order even for well-off Europeans—the Home Office views them as (at best) dispensible Gastarbeiter or (at worst) parasitic ‘illegals’.
Having helped create the conditions in which low-paid workers are likely to be unable to put a roof over their heads, the government has now effectively criminalized homelessness for Europeans living in the UK, with scant regard to the individual circumstances of those affected.
The right-populist shibboleth invoked above offers part of the explanation for the Home Office’s policy on EU rough sleepers. ‘‘Ordinary people” are “concerned” about “mass immigration”. Such “public opinion”, even where founded in myth and misapprehension, must be catered to. The logic on which it rests must on no account be questioned. Homeless labourers, moreover, are the abject face of Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’. (Refugees get off more lightly because they are easily interpolated into a simplistic humanitarian narrative.) They are the obvious targets for a politicized backlash against the idea of free movement.
But the implications of locking up homeless people in detention centres resonate beyond Theresa May’s wish to create a ‘really hostile environment’ for the foreigners she wishes would leave the country. The Home Office’s policy reflects the moral brutalization of a political class that consistently looks to carceral solutions to the social problems caused by rampant inequality and neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
Aside from being the only country to deport people for being homeless, Britain is the only nation in the EU that retains a system of indefinite immigration detention. As a result EU nationals are sometimes detained for months while they fight to establish their right to remain in the UK. Britain is also the only country in the world that deliberately makes asylum seekers who are unable to prove their claim destitute in an attempt to make them leave. (Since many refused asylum seekers are ‘unreturnable’—meaning they cannot be removed because their country of origin will not accept them—their life in Britain literally resembles that of prisoners on punishment detail.)
The carceral strategies range beyond immigration policy. Britain imprisons more people than any other Western European country. We ‘section’ thousands under the Mental Health Act each year, with release increasingly subject to compliance with a compulsory drug regime. Hospitals and care homes use Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) to forcibly institutionalise people suffering from brain injury or dementia.
The Foucauldian undertones are obvious, as is the flight from complexity. The large number of migrants sleeping rough in the UK’s cities represents an authentic, overdetermined social problem. A joined-up policy response would encompass radical housing reform, a rollback of savage cuts to welfare entitlements and the funding of specialized, language-appropriate support for migrant workers who find themselves on the streets. The thousands of British citizens who sleep rough every year would also benefit from most of these changes. Instead the response of policymakers resembles that of the neurotic to his nervous tic: a mad rush to banish the symptom, allied with frantic avoidance of the horror it both betrays and conceals.
The Home Office’s policy of deporting EU rough sleepers is discriminatory and unlawful. The European Commission, whose legal judgement will cease to matter in Britain from 2019, recently reminded Theresa May that European law ‘precludes a Member State from making the right of residence of an EU citizen in another Member State subject to a condition of having a permanent or temporary address’.
But the incarceration of homeless people also tells us something about where Britain is as a polity in 2017. The dovetailing forces of infrastructural degradation and intensified social control that have characterized the decade since 2008 find tidy expression in a policy that has effectively manufactured a new underclass in order to punish it. The political ‘hot potato’ of migrants’ rights might feel a lot cooler were there a greater recognition that the ‘hostile environment’ draws from a bag of tricks that are being played on us all.
David Jones is an activist with North East London Migrant Action (NELMA).
Read NELMA’s manifesto on their website.