Rough sleepers could ignore life-saving services, for fear of deportation

A rough sleeper in the West End of London. Image: Getty.

As the UK was hit by snow and freezing temperatures in early March, more beds in shelters were made available, and people in England and Wales were advised to use the StreetLink app and helpline to report rough sleepers. The project sets out to ensure that no one in a wealthy country dies of cold because they have nowhere appropriate to sleep.

But this is overshadowed by reports of Home Office immigration, compliance and enforcement (ICE) teams seeking out rough sleepers without a recognised claim to be in the UK for detention and deportation, alongside homelessness charity outreach teams. This raises important issues about the relationship between border policies and the treatment of people who are already in the UK, and about access to basic human rights.

A long history

This story starts back in 2015, when the House of Commons heard about Operation Adoze – a pilot scheme by the Home Office to deport non-UK citizens from the European Economic Area (EEA) sleeping rough in London. Guidance notes clarifying the regulations on the administrative removal of non-UK-EEA-citizens drew concern from homelessness advocates and lawyers, for identifying rough sleeping as an “abuse” (in May 2016) and later a “misuse” (in February 2017) of the EU’s right to free movement.

Throughout 2016, a round-up of rough sleepers in London is reported to have taken place with the cooperation of outreach teams from homelessness charities, which allegedly passed information about non-UK-citizens who were sleeping rough to the Home Office, leading to detentions and deportations. During this time, charities’ data were also reportedly being used for Home Office mapping. Similar stories have emerged as far afield as Bristol, Brighton and Cardiff.

Finally, in December 2017, the High Court ruled that the round up and deportation of non-UK-EEA-citizen rough sleepers was unlawful, as rough sleeping was not an abuse or misuse of EU free movement. But this story is not only about EU free movement rights. It is about the relationship between the right to life-saving shelter, and migration enforcement.

Desperate and destitute

The snowfall which recently covered parts of the UK served up a stark reminder that access to adequate housing is a basic human right, which can save lives. Now, more than ever, it is clear that access to adequate housing must be decoupled from migration enforcement, to move away from an environment in which destitution, administrative detention and deportation are contributing to a hostile environment for non-UK-citizens, without legal process.

For example, hunger strikers in Yarl’s Wood detention centre were recently informed by the Home Office that they risk being deported sooner if they continued to protest.

Some might argue that if Home Office officials can assess individuals’ cases, those with a genuine claim to remain in the country will be fine; only the nefarious will be removed. But even if things did work this way, it would raise two problems. It implies that the right to life is dependent on a person’s paperwork, and not their humanity. And it doesn’t make provision for those who are scared and unwilling to risk seeking help.

What’s more, as a result of drawn-out and unfair asylum decisions (a third are reversed if they get to appeal), administrative issues and inappropriate housing, migrants can be left destitute through their engagement with the Home Office. Ill-considered migration control measures could prevent the most vulnerable from seeking help, and undermine the work of organisations that have been serving rough sleepers for decades. It has been suggested that cooperating with the Home Office undermines the integrity of those homelessness organisations, which try to give their service users a voice and a platform to challenge government policies.

Out of sight, out of mind?

This is all part of the changing reality of how homeless people of all nationalities are treated across the UK. Greater numbers of people are becoming homeless, while some police forces and local authorities are taking tough stances against people begging and sleeping rough, purporting to crack down on the “fake homeless” and arguing that homelessness is a choice, without acknowledging how “choices” are affected by the range of options on offer.

Homelessness charity Crisis has warned: “If it is true that people are avoiding help from outreach teams for fear of encountering the Home Office, then these people will become more vulnerable, not less.”

In this hostile climate, it’s important to ask national and local charities and shelters for clarity on their policies relating to immigrant rough sleepers and to raise wider questions about the domain of migration enforcement. Organisations like Red Cross and Praxis offer specialist services for migrants, along with many others. Information about them can be found online.

It’s also important to ask a rough sleeper what sort of support they’d find helpful. This might involve helping them call a shelter, letting them know about local specialist support, or buying some food, gloves or a hot drink.

The truth is, in the UK today, there are pitifully few options for destitute non-UK-citizens – some of whom have been cut off from both work and welfare, and left with no alternative. Looking beyond immediate measures, it’s crucial to decouple shelter and other basic goods from migration control, and to critique policies that increase destitution – irrespective of citizenship.

The ConversationThere’s also a discomforting possibility that the appeal of Streetlink’s simple app comes from a twin desire to save homeless people, and to hide them from view. Seeing someone sleeping in the snow raises uncomfortable questions about British society today which must be acknowledged – then addressed head-on. It’s not enough to send a text and continue walking.

The UK is a democracy. Its policies rely on the taxes and mandate of the electorate. If enough people make it clear that these injustices cannot continue, the government will put a stop to them.

Tendayi Bloom, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.