Charities and legal experts have raised serious concerns as it emerges that the Home Office is threatening to arrest and deport homeless people sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh.
The Ferret understands that Home Office enforcement teams have been involved in a series of street patrols in recent weeks, informing EU migrants who are sleeping rough that they are “misusing” their freedom of movement rights and should return to their countries of origin.
If homeless people do not do so, or fail to take up the offer of voluntary assisted return (which the Home Office will pay for), officials have informed those sleeping rough that they will be arrested and deported.
Police Scotland officers will also join patrols with the Home Office’s Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) teams in coming weeks and will be referring EU citizens found on the streets to immigration officials.
All citizens of the EU are assumed to have free movement across the European Economic Area (EEA) and have the right to reside for three months. After that they must be able to prove they are self-sufficient, either through being in or actively looking for work or by other means.
However in May 2016 the UK Government amended the policy becoming the only EU country to interpret rough sleeping as an “abuse” of the right to freedom of movement. Other abuses include sham marriage and documents forgery. The policy was updated in February this year to define rough sleeping as a “misuse” of freedom of movement rights.
Last year there were dozens of joint local authority/Home Office operations across London, with eight of them resulting in 133 rough sleepers being detained. In another pilot project carried out in Westminster 127 street homeless people from both EU and non-EU countries, including Romania, Poland, Italy and Bangladesh, were detained.
Research by Corporate Watch, released in March this year, revealed that this was done with the assistance of homeless charities, who passed information on vulnerable rough sleepers to the Home Office teams. The charities insist they have migrants best interests at heart.
Patrols have also taken place in other English cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. But campaigners have reacted with alarm to news that operations will now be rolled out in Scotland.
Jan Williams, head of operations at Streetwork, which has a contract with Edinburgh City Council to deliver outreach work to homeless people sleeping rough in the city, said: “The Home Office’s Immigration Enforcement department has made us aware that they are working in the Edinburgh area.
“They have advised that if a European national is found bedded down in a location which is not designed for habitation then this will be deemed as an abuse of their right of free movement.”
The Scottish charity has been told that homeless people may be arrested and removed from the UK if they cannot prove that they are observing treaty rights by studying, working or actively seeking work.
Migrants should be told where they can go to seek support. Fizza Qureshi, Migrants Rights Network
Williams is worried that removing people, even under “voluntary” schemes, will leave people vulnerable. “We are concerned that the service does not include support beyond the person’s departure from the UK, which could result in people returning to a situation where they continue to be homeless and their vulnerability and risk of harm are further increased,” she said.
“People who are sleeping rough in Edinburgh are vulnerable and often have multiple, complex needs including mental ill health.
“To help them make a successful transition to their country of origin support should be offered at least with immediate arrangements upon their return and to ensure they know how to access the services they need.”
Fizza Qureshi, director of the Migrant Rights Network, said that the development was “incredibly concerning”.
“It is being enforced without any sort of real insight into the background or situation of people on found on the streets,” she added. “Often there is very little information on whether – or indeed how – they may be abusing their treaty rights or otherwise.
“What is positive here is that this charity [Streetwork] supporting rough sleepers is informing them of their rights. This needs to be happening right across the UK and migrants should be told where they can go to seek support. ”
According to Jean Demars, a visiting researcher at Goldsmiths University and former head of housing at London-based migrant charity Praxis, homeless migrants have been deported for around seven years in London, though this has stepped up considerably since last May.
He claimed that often the decision to arrest and deport people just for sleeping rough is legally challengeable and is currently working with lawyers and other migrant rights groups to bring forward a number of test cases.
In forthcoming research, which also documents the role of London-based charities in deportation operations, Demars found that migrant rough sleepers regularly had ID documents removed making it difficult for those not already working to find employment, or for any to secure accommodation.
All 12 people he interviewed as part of the research who had received notices of removal told him that they had not been given appeal forms (or papers), something which is specified in the guidance.
Unaware of their right to appeal, people are often deported without objection because they believe they lack legal standing with which to fight the Home Office decision, he added.
Inspector David Robertson from Edinburgh’s city centre policing team said officers would be launching an operation with the ICE team later this month “Any European Union nationals found sleeping rough during this time will be referred to the Home Office for the appropriate action to be taken,” he said.
A Home Office spokesperson confirmed it would take action against EEA nationals sleeping rough in Edinburgh who “refused” to find “alternative accommodation”.
“It is unacceptable for anyone to come to the UK with the intention of sleeping rough or to beg on the streets to support themselves,” he added. “Those who are encountered rough sleeping may be misusing their free movement rights.”