The UK government has recently, and quietly, reintroduced a scheme that works with councils and homelessness charities to obtain personal data on migrant rough sleepers that may result in their deportation.
This scheme follows the introduction of a rough sleeping rule in the beginning of December 2020, which would allow rough sleeping to be grounds for the refusal or cancellation of a migrant's permission to remain within the UK.
In recent weeks, Priti Patel's 'new plan for immigration' has furthered these changes by very quietly reviving a programme that was exposed in 2018 by 'The Observer' that aimed to obtain data on migrant rough sleepers. This programme uses councils and homelessness charities to obtain personal data about migrant rough sleepers that risks their right to remain in the UK.
It is thought that two charities and six councils have already signed up to this scheme in the past few months. However, when approached about their involvement, Single Homeless Project immediately withdrew from the scheme stating that 'it wanted to avoid putting rough sleepers at risk'.
Through the scheme, rough sleepers are presented with a 19-page form by services they approach, which informs them that deportation is a potential outcome of their situation. Experts and charities have questioned the ethics of this process, indicating that the vulnerability of migrant rough sleepers means personal information could be extracted from them by caseworkers with ease. Julianne Morrison, a barrister specialising in data protection stated, "The person giving them this form is not someone who has Home Office or Border Force written on their tabard. It is somebody who they've turned to for help."
The Home Office are acutely aware of the risks that this policy of deporting migrant rough sleepers holds. An internal Home Office report that analysed the policy found that the rule could indirectly affect and discriminate against minority groups. The document acknowledges that the policy could have disproportionate impacts on the basis of race, due to some factors that contribute to homelessness being experienced more frequently by certain ethnicities. This is certainly reflected in data, as according to latest statistics, 26% of rough sleepers are non-UK nationals and over half of all rough sleepers in London are from outside the UK.
It is expected that such laws could also have large impacts on those fleeing from domestic abuse. The Home Office internal report states that a particularly vulnerable group are Asian women, who's main reason given for homelessness is domestic abuse. Director of campaign group Southall Black Sisters, Pragna Patel, importantly states that such new laws "lay bare the cruelty at the heart of the Home Office" and "demonstrates the ways in which the Government's hostile anti-immigration agenda continues to trump the protection of women and girls from violence every time".
This acknowledgement of disproportionate risk also exposes the hypocrisy of the government in their recent commitment of safety to women. After amendments were added to the Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure migrant women have more access to support regarding this issue, it is contradictory to introduce a rough sleeping law that will negatively impact these groups they are otherwise promising to protect.
The message that the Home Office is potentially portraying through the use of this rough sleeping rule could be a large contributor to the stigma attached to migrants, domestic abuse and homelessness. Labour MP, Claudia Webbe, has addressed the rule, stating it tries to "deport people for the 'crime' of homelessness" and that it is "especially callous for the government to introduce these changes during a global pandemic". She also stressed that government needs to "repeal this appalling, outdated legislation along with the government's latest discriminatory immigration rules. We must stop punishing our must vulnerable people and instead focus on addressing the causes behind their misfortune."
Luckily, this new scheme introduced by the Home Office is not yet in use, and immigration staff have been informed not to use it until official guidance is made available. However, despite the internal Home Office report identifying disproportionate impacts, it also found that due to any discrimination occurring being 'not direct', it is therefore 'not automatically unlawful'.
Charities and organisations have spoken out against this rule, and urged the Home Office to refrain from moving forward with the new scheme of data collection. Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, argued "The Home Office has talked of becoming a more 'fair, humane and compassionate' department - immediately scrapping this cruel rule on rough sleeping would be a good place to start."
This new rule must be repealed to ensure that migrant rough sleepers are given the protection and safety they deserve. The government instead of deporting those that are experiencing rough sleeping, needs to fund services and support that aims to eradicate it in the first place.