A new policy that will see foreign rough sleepers deported from the UK will increase levels of exploitation and undermine the government’s efforts to tackle modern slavery, the home secretary has been warned.
Changes to the Immigration Rules that come into force on Tuesday will make rough sleeping grounds for removal for non-UK nationals. The Home Office has said the provision will be used “sparingly”, but campaigners have questioned whether this will be the case.
In a letter to Priti Patel, seen by The Independent, 141 charities, lawyers and local authorities that work with victims of exploitation or homeless people said the policy would have “severe consequences” for confirmed and potential survivors of modern slavery, increasing the number of cases where victims are wrongly arrested, detained and removed from the UK.
The signatories, who include Anti-Slavery International, the Salvation Army and Southwark Council, also warn that the new rules risk enabling exploitative employers to use the threat of homelessness to coerce workers, due to the threat that they will be detained and removed if they escape, and therefore “playing into the hands of traffickers”.
They say the fact that the changes are coming into force in the midst of a global pandemic is “extremely concerning”, seeing as many workers, including migrant workers, are being affected by large scale dismissals and unemployment linked to the economic downturn.
Many migrants face restrictions accessing state support under the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition, which puts them at great risk of destitution and homelessness since they have little to no safety net to assist them and their families during these difficult times, according to the signatories.
“In short, the rules punish rough sleeping, force people into riskier and exploitative situations to avoid it and are likely to put victims in a revolving door of abuse and re-victimisation and at increased risk of detention and removal,” the letter concludes.
“We strongly urge that you revoke the rough sleeping rules to avoid aggravating the already precarious situation that many victims find themselves in and the potential negative impact on the current modern slavery strategy.”
One of the signatories, Cllr Helen Dennis, cabinet member for social support and homelessness at Southwark Council – where half of rough sleepers currently have NRPF due to their immigration status – said it was “inhumane and morally wrong” to deport someone “simply for falling on hard times and losing their home”.
“Most foreign nationals are here to work, quite legally, and we should be encouraging them to seek help and support, rather than pushing them away and increasing their vulnerability to modern slavery and other forms of exploitation," told The Independent.
Letícia Ishibashi, networks officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said it was “shocking” that the government had chosen to threaten homeless people with deportation at a time when so many workers are faced with job losses and wage cuts.
“These new rules will likely pressure people facing destitution to accept any jobs, even exploitative ones, to avoid sleeping rough,” she added.
"After the Windrush scandal, the government has promised a more compassionate and humane Home Office, and yet, it has now chosen to target people experiencing extreme hardship in the middle of a global pandemic and one of the worse economic downturns of last years. It’s time the government delivers on its pledge and revokes these troubling policies.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The new rule provides a discretionary basis to cancel or refuse a person’s leave where they are found to be rough sleeping. The new provision will be used sparingly and only where individuals refuse to engage with the range of support available and engage in persistent anti-social behaviour.
“We remain committed to ending rough sleeping for good and have been working hard to ensure the most vulnerable in our society have access to safe accommodation. This year alone, we have provided over £700m in funding to support rough sleepers.
“The safety and security of modern slavery victims is also a top priority for this government, and the Victim Care Contract provides support to potential and confirmed victims of modern slavery who consent to support, including accommodation.”