When the Westminster government committed themselves to tackling rough sleeping in the UK, an appropriate assumption might have been that yet another urgently required public spending plan in this awful time of coronavirus was to be introduced, giving rise to a type of social democracy not normally associated with the Tories; getting people off the streets and back into beds, not getting people off the streets and ‘back to their own country.’
The timing of these draconian rules, introduced on 1 of December, with the pandemic set to worsen throughout winter, provides the public with Westminster’s latest moral paradox.
Amendments to the immigration rules, published on 22 October, made rough sleeping – for as little as one night – legitimate grounds for the refusal or cancelation of someone’s right to remain in the UK. Since that date over 140 charities, councils and lawyers – with Crisis UK at their front – have signed and sent an appeal to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Secretary of State Robert Jenrick, urging those in Westminster to rethink and reverse policy which endangers the growing population of rough sleepers and makes the uphill battle against homelessness a great deal steeper.
The timing of these draconian rules, introduced on 1 of December, with the pandemic set to worsen throughout winter, provides the public with Westminster’s latest moral paradox. As the employed public are left idle and receiving a fraction of their pay, businesses approach the brink of bust and the unemployed struggle further to find work, Rishi Sunak has been very willing and eager to keep the ‘money taps’ running – the £68 billion Coronavirus emergency loan is to be extended through to March. In short, the government’s willingness to help has seemed positive if not effective. Now, however, the message seems to be; we’ll spend a lot and try to help, but if somehow you can’t access that help, if somehow during this time of struggle you find yourself homeless, we’d like the ability to get rid of you. The potential consequence of not receiving adequate financial support no longer stops at the threat of hunger or even homelessness.
Looking only as far as Oxford, the political disgruntlement with the new laws can be seen clearly and is proudly voiced by the City Council who have promised not to act in accordance with the Home Office.
It’s no secret that the recent waves of government spending are much more to do with lessening economic decline – especially when there was a looming potential of a no-deal Brexit – and not so much to do with keeping the vulnerable safe and happy, although the former is a condition for the latter. However, the safety needs of the vulnerable cannot be met or protected if their furtherment is only a chance by-product of other economic aims. These needs must be met on other grounds and by alternative and tailored means, by law and non-fiscal policy. The bottom line is that there’s more to it than just spend, spend, spend – although that does help – and the change in deportation rules does nothing to uphold the other side of the deal for social democracy.
Looking only as far as Oxford, the political disgruntlement with the new laws can be seen clearly and is proudly voiced by the City Council who have promised not to act in accordance with the Home Office. Their answer to the question posed by Jane Crasnton, the chair of Oxfordshire Homeless Movement and co-signatory of the charities letter of appeal – “Should we be running the risk that fear of being deported will lead those who are already vulnerable, being exploited and even becoming victims of modern slavery?” – is no, we shouldn’t be. And that’s the fear; with large numbers of homeless people being victims of modern slavery, trafficking, illegal eviction, domestic abuse, to name only a few, any proposal which may prevent those people from getting in touch with public services and seeking help will leave them increasingly vulnerable. These are the issues that charities and councils are concerned with and, unsettlingly, it seems that they are right to be.
On the 9th of December, The Guardian reported the case of a Vietnamese man trafficked to the UK in a refrigerated lorry as a child, 15, before being subject to modern slavery in a marijuana farm – locked away and limited to one meal a day. The person referred to as KQT, escaped in January 2018 before walking into his nearest police situation where instead of being treated as a victim of child trafficking or slavery, was arrested for immigration offences and held in Gatwick’s immigration removal centre for 22 days before lawyers secured the release of the man who is now suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
It’s no rarity for former victims of trafficking and specifically slavery to become homeless upon liberation from their previous situation and there are also trends of criminals targeting the homeless population.
With case studies that already make a certain degree of fear understandable when seeking help, laws that legalise the deportation of rough sleeping foreign nationals – who make up over a quarter of the homeless population, 48 percent in London – may damage the necessary and sometimes lifesaving will to appeal amongst those in need.
It’s no rarity for former victims of trafficking and specifically slavery to become homeless upon liberation from their previous situation and there are also trends of criminals targeting the homeless population as subjects who may be more easily enrolled and trapped in these illegal operations, whether it be at shelters, foodbanks, soup kitchens, the list may and probably does go on. The point of contention and worry for over 140 charities, councils and lawyers who have appealed, is this; those who were victims – many of whom will now be sleeping rough – need to be able to come forward to seek help and give information that may aid the fight against this brand of organised crime, and those who are homeless with no connection to slavery or trafficking as of yet, need to be given the resources and support that will prevent them from having to put themselves at risk of future exploitation. The charities who have spent decades tackling the crisis of homelessness seem sure that previous and potential victims of various types of exploitation will be less inclined to access the protective resources available as a consequence of the new laws that have been introduced.
The Home Office’s explanation of the rule change and an attempt at moral justification was given by a spokesperson, “The new rule provides a discretionary basis to cancel or refuse a person’s leave where they are found to be rough sleeping. The new provision will be used sparingly and only where individuals refuse to engage with the range of support available and engage in persistent anti-social behaviour.” But nowhere does this appear in the law. Vulnerable people who feel they have been let down by the system or have read cases such as that of KQT need legal assurance, not the word of a politician, or of a spokesperson.
Earlier this year, the Johnson government committed to funding projects that tackle rough sleeping and spent £10million introducing the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre (MSPEC) to learn more about the issue, hopefully allowing for informed policy decisions. Following the outbreak of coronavirus, the MSPEC launched a plea for research proposals that focus on the impact of coronavirus on modern slavery. Since then, The Home Office have published their annual report on modern slavery, outlining concerns in agreement with UK charities and councils, most notably that as a result of coronavirus “it is highly likely that continued restrictions on international travel will have led to an increased reliance on the existing victim pool in the UK.” They also include the admission that immigrants and rough sleepers are at a greater risk of falling victim. The report then outlines various, rather vague steps that have been taken to mitigate exploitation during the pandemic; including, a requirement that businesses publish modern day slavery statements and working with The Salvation Army to alter card payments to ensure previous victims get their support payments securely.
These attempts and measures in coordination with charities, alongside the government’s desire to gather information on a largely unknown area of criminal activity, make the extent to which the new policy puts government and charities at odds, and discourages the provision of information from potential or previous victims surprising. Following what seemed to be positive steps, the rule change – introduced as part of the wider immigration policy changes signalling the end of the Brexit transition period – is a step back.
On the back of recent Windrush Scandal developments, regarding the hundreds of wrongly detained and deported commonwealth citizens, many of whom came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation, the government promised a more “compassionate and humane,” Home Office. Such developments, alongside one of the steepest economic downturns in recent history, make for a strange and bitterly unfortunate time to be legalising the deportation of people who happen to fall on hard times.