A growing number of councils, charities and other organisations have pledged to boycott new Home Office rules to criminalise and deport migrant rough sleepers.
The Home Office changed the UK immigration rules on 1 December, although it has not yet published guidance about how to apply them, reports The Guardian. Local authorities, MPs, anti-trafficking organisations and homeless organisations including Crisis and St Mungo’s are warning that the rules, which could withhold leave to remain from migrants found to be rough sleeping or revoke it from those who have it, will punish and criminalise some of the most vulnerable. The majority of the UK’s migrant rough sleepers are in London, with about half of those rough sleeping in the capital thought to be migrants.
The Greater London Authority is refusing to cooperate with the Home Office and has stated: “The GLA and its commissioned services will not collaborate with such draconian measures.” Haringey council has said it will not collaborate with the Home Office on the new policy, and Islington council has said the same, warning that this kind of cooperation with the Home Office will compromise relationships of trust with vulnerable rough sleepers. Southwark council has also voiced concerns.
Public Interest Law Centre is bringing a legal challenge against the rules. It warns that the policy will create a “chilling effect” on migrant rough sleepers’ willingness to approach services for support and so could increase rough sleeping. It says the new rules are so general that migrants who are office workers found sleeping at their desk late at night or travellers sleeping at an airport before catching an early morning flight could find themselves caught up in them. The centre previously brought a successful legal challenge against a government policy to deport EU rough sleepers in December 2017.
The Labour MP Apsana Begum described the policy change as “despicable” and called for it to be scrapped. She said: “It effectively criminalises rough sleepers who were not born in the UK and adds to the draconian rules already facing those who are seeking asylum or permission to remain.” The chief executive of St Mungo’s, Steve Douglas, said: “It is disappointing that this proposed change in approach has not been discussed with the homelessness sector, where there is real concern that it will increase distrust of the Home Office’s intentions and could drive people with a legitimate right to remain away from essential services.”
One 38-year-old migrant rough sleeper from east Africa, who has been street homeless for three years, said he feared being rounded up and detained as a result of the new rules. “I’m not allowed to travel, to work or to claim benefits. What are we expected to do? The government is making decisions for us. My life is no longer my own.”
A government spokesperson said: “For the small minority of migrant rough sleepers who continue to refuse government and local authority support and repeatedly engage in persistent antisocial behaviour, the new immigration reforms mean they could lose their right to be in the UK. This would be a last-resort measure, and initially individuals would be asked to leave voluntarily with government support. In the event that they refuse, we may take the step to remove them.”