Court victory against St Mungos and Thames Reach rough sleeper raids: what next?

Migrants and campaigners scored a major legal victory against the government’s anti-migrant Hostile Environment regime this week, as the High Court ruled against the mass round-up and deportation of East European rough sleepers.

In March, Corporate Watch published our report “The Round Up”, which revealed systematic collaboration between the Home Office, the Greater London Authority, local councils, and homelessness charities St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and CGL to arrest, detain and deport Europeans nationals found sleeping rough in London.

Charity outreach workers, under contract from the councils, regularly carry out “joint shift” patrols with Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) officers to identify non-UK national rough sleepers. The report also showed how data collected by the charity workers and inputed into the London-wide “CHAIN” roughsleeper database was passed on to the Home Office.

The report further showed how managers from St Mungo’s and Thames Reach were active partners in this collaboration from early on. It drew attention to documents in which St Mungo’s clearly advocated working with ICE, applauding a “new approach in which immigration officials work with Local Authorities and outreach workers”.

In the last nine months, North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) has spearheaded an active campaign against the round-up, supporting migrants under attack, whilst gathering further evidence and publicising the charities’ collaboration. In November, working with the Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre, NELMA helped three men bring a judicial review of their treatment and the policy in the High Court.

On 14 December, Judge Lang found in their favour, ruling against the systematic and discriminatory profiling of rough sleepers. Crucially, she ruled against the Home Office’s main justification for the policy: guidance issued since May 2016 which decided that someone is “abusing their treaty rights” as a European Economic Area (EEA) citizen if they are found sleeping on the street. The judgment specifically quashes this official guidance, sending the Home Office back to the policy drawing board. It may also open the way to substantial compensation claims from possibly thousands of people who have been detained and/or deported under that guidance (read the full judgment here).

Brexit targeting

This is a particularly important victory because the Home Office has used its “abuse” guidance to substantially increase raids against European migrants – a step coinciding with the move towards Brexit. The latest Home Office statistics show that 5,321 EU citizens were deported in the twelve months to September 2017. This is 47% higher than two years before; it is also a much bigger proportion of the total, as in fact deportations of non-EU nationals have been dropping. EU nationals made up 42% of the 12,560 people “forcibly removed” in the latest figures, as opposed to 26% (of 13,799) two years before. The same move is also clear in detention figures.**

It’s also there to see, more starkly, when we remember those who have died in detention. As the Institute of Race Relations reports, six people have died in Britain’s immigration detention centres so far in 2017, the deadliest year yet recorded. Three were East Europeans. The names of two were Lukasz Debowski, died 11/01/17, and Branko Zdravkovic, died 09/4/17. Another as yet unnamed Polish man died in Harmondsworth in September. It is not yet known how these men came to be in detention. There is a high chance that they were picked up in rough sleeper raids, as these have become one of the Home Office’s main weapons for targeting European migrants.

In short, it a real possibility that the court victory this week will save lives. The Home Office has said it will not appeal the ruling. But of course, it remains to be seen just how they will respond to the judgement. It could well be that right now Home Office lawyers are busy looking for ways to get around it and continue the round-up.

The scale of collaboration

Whatever the legal framework, the round-up relies on extensive collaboration from the charities doing rough sleeper outreach. Our report earlier this year detailed how this works on the ground through two main routes:

  • joint patrols, where charity workers and ICE teams go out together on the street;
  • data sharing, where charity workers pass on data later used by ICE teams.

Since the report came out, St Mungo’s and other charities involved have tried to wriggle out from responsibility, making evasive statements to downplay their role. They have been helped in this by some inexact reporting. In August, The Guardian reported, based on information from Liberty, that ICE had access to a “map” of London rough sleeping compiled from data from CHAIN, the London rough sleeper database run by St Mungo’s. This article claimed that charity outreach workers were “inadvertently helping the Home Office to remove people who were from the EU or central eastern Europe”, as “the Home Office was given full access to the map for six months from September 2016, and that this was stopped only when homeless organisations found out and aired their concerns.”

Such reports let St Mungo’s and Thames Reach off the hook, even seeming to imply that they helped stop the round-up policy. The truth is quite different. To spell this out:

First, while frontline workers may indeed have been unaware of the role they were playing, charity managers have always known what was going on. This is amply proved by the documents cited in our March report. For example, minutes of the “Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Group” show St Mungo’s and Thames Reach managers, amongst others, specifically discussing sharing CHAIN data with ICE in May 2015, as well as information sharing more generally.

Second, we are by no means convinced that data sharing stopped in March 2017. Whatever happened with that particular map scheme, the councils, charity contractors, and ICE continue to have regular meetings and share information.

Third, sharing CHAIN data was never the main issue. Joint shifts – where St Mungo’s and Thames Reach workers go out together with ICE officers – have never stopped. Of course, in many cases they are written into the ongoing contracts between the local authorities and the charities. NELMA and others working in the field continue to collect testimonies of such joint operations. (You can read here just a few of the individual stories NELMA have come across.)

New evidence on St Mungo’s and Thames Reach collaboration

In fact, further documents continue to emerge revealing the depth of collaboration by St Mungo’s and Thames Reach. Here we will mention two particularly striking examples. Both of these come from documents released under Freedom of Information requests, and recently sent to Corporate Watch.

One is St Mungo’s bid for the current City of London homelessness outreach contract, which it was awarded in 2013 (St Mungo’s outreach division was then called Broadway). The bid statement, written in 2012, shows that the charity was already enthusiastically working with immigration enforcement. The charity confirms that it “will work with enforcement agencies to tackle rough sleeping and anti-social behaviours”, even promising that staff don’t see enforcement activity as a last resort or separate to [their] work, but as part of the process of supporting people off the streets”.

It specifically states: “All Broadway Outreach Teams carry out joint shifts with police and enforcement agencies such as UKBA [now ICE]. For example, Broadway’s City Outreach Team identifies geographical areas of greatest concern and then coordinates an approach with police to target resources in these areas”.

There is a very similar approach in Thames Reach’s bid for the Tower Hamlets contract, which it won in 2014 (the contract passed to St Mungo’s in 2017). Thames Reach wrote that it:

has worked proactively with enforcement agencies across the capital for many years. Working closely with the UKBA [ICE] to achieve removals of A10 nationals [the countries that joined the EU in 2004] not fulfilling their treaty obligations is not palatable to some other teams. With Thames Reach, Tower Hamlets has a provider who has been working closely with the UKBA for some years, providing information for targeted operations and organising joint shifts.”

These documents show both charities boasting about their collaboration with the Home Office long before this issue became public knowledge. St Mungo’s say that all its outreach teams were doing joint shifts in 2012. Thames Reach in 2014 advertised how it was happy to do work others would find “unpalatable”.

To repeat: while some frontline workers may well have been “inadvertent”, or at least unwilling, participants, the charity bosses knew exactly what they were up to.

What next?

This week’s court judgment is a real victory. It may well save some lives. But the campaign is not over.

The Home Office was already targeting migrant rough sleepers before it came up with the EEA “abuse of treaty rights” guidance in 2016 – as the two documents quoted above further evidence. The “abuse” guidance, now quashed by the court, allowed ICE to rapidly escalate that strategy, as part of a Brexit-themed shift to target more European migrants. But the Home Office arrested European rough sleepers before the abuse guidance, and it is unlikely to give up now. We imagine its lawyers and policy wonks are right now looking for new ways to justify the mass round-up.

Nothing suggests that St Mungo’s and Thames Reach will end their involvement in the round-up. These two charities have been enthusiastically helping the Home Office with this for years. They evade or play this down in public statements – but gush about it in private documents looking to win contracts.

St Mungo’s and Thames Reach get a free ride here if other charities and organisations turn a blind eye or make excuses for them. Last week, Crisis came out against the round-up policy. Many charity managers have criticised the round-up in private, but this was the first time a major homelessness charity had spoken up in public, breaking an uncomfortable silence in the sector. Organisations are of course linked by many partnerships, relationships and histories. But the hostile environment strategy is fundamentally about collaboration – making us all into part-time border cops. This means the very active collaboration of such as St Mungo’s and Thames Reach – but also the silence and turning away of others.

See the NELMA website for further information on campaigning against the charities helping lock up migrant rough sleepers.

Challenges to come

The attack on migrant rough sleepers is just one part of the Home Office’s “Hostile Environment” agenda. Our April report on the overall strategy analysed 13 measures attempting to making everyday life unlivable for unwanted migrants, from education and hospital treatment to bank accounts and driving licenses. Across these areas, the same basic patterns are at work. One is the key role of data sharing; another is reliance on collaboration between government bodies, private companies, charities, and ordinary citizens who are asked to inform on our “illegal” neighbours or simply stand silent.

Legal cases alone will not fight off the Hostile Environment, but they can certainly play a valuable role in supporting and empowering resistance. Next up: Migrants’ Rights Network are launching a legal challenge against data sharing between the Home Office and the NHS.

Title image thanks to @protestencil

** In 2014, 2,819 EU citizens were put in immigration detention, 9% of the total detained. In 2016, the figure was two thirds higher at 4,701. As overall detention numbers were in fact dropping, they now made up 16% of all detainees. If we add in people from outside the EU countries, 7,528 Europeans were detained last year, 26% of the total.