LONDON — EU citizens living in the U.K. have until June 30 to apply to remain in the country beyond Brexit. However, that’s unlikely to help vulnerable groups such as rough sleepers, children in care, victims of trafficking and others who lack sufficient documentation.
New U.K. immigration rules, in place as of December 1, 2020, make rough sleeping grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the U.K. The Home Office has not yet published official guidance on how the rules will be enforced.
EU citizens granted the right to remain by the British government’s Settlement Scheme are exempt from the new regulations, but those who fail to apply by the end of the grace period in June will slip through the net. Advocates say the government is using its new post-Brexit immigration system to deport rough sleepers.
Data from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), gathered by homeless outreach services, shows that in the first half of 2020, a quarter of all rough sleepers in London were European Economic Area nationals, with the majority from Poland and Romania.
Barbara Drozdowicz of the East European Resource Centre (EERC) said the barriers to settled status for Eastern European rough sleepers in particular are overwhelming. The key issues are a lack of regulated employment history and ID required to apply, and limited financial means to access support services. She added that some of her clients cannot afford the bus fare to get to advisory appointments.
The mayor of London, city councils and homeless services have criticized the rule changes, and last November signed open letters to the Home Office calling for their reversal.
“Not only do we believe these changes to the immigration rules are unlawful, we also think they’re morally repugnant,” said Benjamin Morgan, who runs a rights project for homeless EU migrants at the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), which is mounting a legal challenge against the Home Office on the new regulations. “They are also extremely likely to be counterproductive in terms of the government’s stated intent of reducing rough sleeping.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “For the small minority of migrant rough sleepers who continue to refuse government and local authority support and repeatedly engage in persistent anti-social behaviour, the new immigration reforms mean they could lose their right to be in the U.K.”
“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.”
The U.K. has also expanded its voluntary returns scheme — which offers migrants financial support to return to their country of origin — from January 1 to include EEA citizens, now that Europeans in the U.K. are classified as third-country nationals.
Advocates believe the government is being unduly harsh. According to the CHAIN data, 40 percent of surveyed rough sleepers had mental health support needs. Chaotic lifestyles linked to substance abuse, and poor mental health and learning difficulties are disruptive to advice processes.
“People sleeping rough who are struggling with mental health might not be the best advocates of their own interests,” said Drozdowicz, adding it took the EERC four separate appointments to convince one traumatized client their application would not put them at risk of repercussions from the Home Office.
Those fears are not unfounded. Between 2010 and 2016, the Home Office developed a policy that culminated in the declaration of rough sleeping as an “abuse” or “misuse” of EU freedom of movement rights, and deported an estimated 2,000 EEA nationals on that basis. PILC successfully challenged the policy in 2017, and it was ruled unlawful by the High Court.
“We feared the government would capitalize on Brexit to bring some of these policies back, and they’ve done that,” said PILC’s Morgan.
He added that there is now a huge trust deficit when it comes to rough sleepers and their relationship with homeless services; The charities St. Mungo’s and Thames Reach shared the personal information of rough sleepers and locations of sleeping sites with immigration enforcement teams.
On top of this, homeless services that are overstretched due to the pandemic are now facing discontinuation of government funding to help vulnerable people apply for the right to remain in the U.K. Anna Yassin, project manager at charity Glassdoor, said the second round of Home Office grant funding for organizations ends in March, two months before the June application deadline for the settlement scheme. The Home Office has given no indication about further funding.
“Access to public funds following a grant of settled status has for some of the most entrenched rough sleepers we work with offered a route out of homelessness,” said Yassin. She added that while groups such as asylum seekers and refugees are protected from the Home Office’s December rule change, it sets a precedent, and echoes previous attempts to remove rough sleepers.
“We are concerned that these multipronged attacks by the government will … perpetuate a culture of fear against the statutory services that are there to provide protection,” she said.
Are you a professional following the impact of Brexit on your industry? Brexit Transition Pro, our premium service for professionals, helps you navigate the policy, and regulatory changes to come. Email [email protected] to request a trial.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)