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OPINION: UK crackdown on homelessness fuels modern slavery fears

by Letícia Ishibashi | Focus on Labour Exploitation
Tuesday, 1 December 2020 10:42 GMT

Homeless man Kel sleeps in the spot where he lives in the subway next to Hyde Park Station in London, Britain, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Foreign rough sleepers in Britain face detention and deportation under new policy

Letícia Ishibashi is the Networks Officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and Anna Sereni is the Coordinator for The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group.

A coalition of over 140 charities, trade unions, lawyers and local authorities have written to ministers urging them to revoke a new policy that will make rough sleeping grounds for removal from the UK. Our letter warned that these new rules will have severe consequences for victims of modern slavery – and will put the wider homeless population at significant risk of exploitation.

Under the new rules, which came into effect today, the Home Office (interior ministry) may refuse and even cancel someone’s permission to stay in the UK if they are found sleeping rough. This is both unfair to rough sleepers, and counter-productive to the UK's commitment to tackle modern slavery: it puts people who are already in vulnerable situations at risk of further harm, and will make it harder for people who experience exploitation to come forward and seek support.

It is not uncommon for victims of modern slavery to experience homelessness after fleeing exploitation, with some spending long periods on the streets before they are identified. While some victims go on to be confirmed as victims by the government, the lack of long-term support, including access to safe housing, means many end up homeless even after identification.

We are also concerned the new rules will result in an increased number of victims being detained and removed from the UK without accessing the assistance they are legally entitled to, which significantly increases the risk of their being re-trafficked. Understandably, many people who have experienced exploitation need time and support to process what they have gone through but this is not adequately available in the detention setting. And even those who open up about their experiences face barriers to support, such as a prioritisation of removal over safeguarding and a culture of disbelief by the authorities.

The Government’s new rules also increase the risk that migrants in low-paid and insecure employment will face exploitation, because if they lose their jobs and become destitute, they may also lose their permission to stay in the UK. This is likely to be exacerbated as the pandemic's related economic crisis continues. In our experience, many migrants already face significant barriers seeking help because they fear that authorities will prioritise their immigration status over the abuse and exploitation they have endured.

By making the escape route to the streets unlawful and risky, the Home Office is playing right into the hands of exploiters who can now use the threat of destitution to keep migrants in unsafe and unfair working conditions.

The wider homeless population, regularly targeted by exploiters, will also suffer since they may feel pressured to accept exploitative work and living conditions to avoid sleeping rough.

Sadly, this is not the first time the Home Office has targeted this group. In 2017, after a number of European rough sleepers were detained and removed, a successful legal challenge overturned this practice. The High Court found that ‘rough sleeping’ was not an abuse of rights under the EU’s Free Movement Directive. However, as Brexit brings the end of free movement, the current government is preparing to resurrect its old policies, by using the threat of detention and deportation to double down on migrants experiencing homelessness.

Earlier this year, Priti Patel promised to make the Home Office a fair, humane and compassionate body, after an independent review concluded the Home Office “lacked empathy for individuals” and was characterised by a “culture of disbelief”. She also committed to a full evaluation of the ‘hostile environment’, a Home Office policy that was deemed discriminatory towards the British minority ethnic population by the High Court and caused irreparable harm to migrants living in the UK.

And yet, despite these promises, we find ourselves having to challenge a deeply troubling policy in the midst of a global pandemic, under which homeless people, who are some of the most vulnerable to infection, are now also being put at further risk of exploitation. This is made even worse by the fact that many migrants face restrictions accessing social protections, leaving them with little to no safety net during these difficult times.

There’s a serious tension between the government’s claim that it wants to tackle modern slavery, and its actions. Its immigration policies will make life harder for people who need support, leaving many of them vulnerable to the very forms of exploitation the government says it hopes to end.

It is not too late for the government to do the right thing and stop targeting rough sleepers and migrants. It is the decent thing to do and will make it easier for us to believe ministers when they promise they are working to put an end to modern slavery.

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