UK homeless charities are calling on the government to suspend evictions of asylum seekers, as more and more are being made destitute this winter. During the first lockdown, the government’s “everyone in” scheme provided temporary accommodation and testing for COVID-19, but this stopped in September. The Home Office then restarted evictions, leaving many in a vulnerable situation and heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
A study by The Lancet published in September found that, during the first national lockdown, providing homeless people with temporary accommodation and widespread COVID-19 testing averted over 21,000 infections, 266 deaths and 1,164 hospital admissions. The study warns that if preventative measures are lifted, which they now have been, outbreaks amongst homeless settings may lead to larger infection and death rates, even with low incidence in the general population. Given that the UK is seeing over 30,000 cases a day (as of 12 November 2020), the risk for homeless people is clear.
The Guardian spoke to homeless asylum seekers, who said that they have been kicked out of accommodation with no warning. Tinashe, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who was temporarily housed in Brighton, said that he was told he must leave in September, with the manager of the accommodation taking away the keys. His clothes were put into storage, and he was forced back onto the streets until he was referred to St Mungo’s, and given a bed in a hostel. A similar story was told by Mercy, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, who received an eviction notice in October. She said that she was not given any reason as to why she was being evicted, someone just came to change the locks and threatened police action if she did not leave.
Last month, ministers were urged to abandon “deeply immoral” plans to deport rough sleepers, after the Home Office announced that rough sleeping would become grounds to cancel or refuse a person’s right to be in the UK under the new immigration rules due to come into effect on 1 December. A letter signed by 78 organisations, including homeless charities St Mungo’s, Shelter and Crisis, warned that punishing people for being homeless will take them away from seeking support if they felt it would risk deportation.
Homeless charity NACCOM tweeted in response to the proposals:
“Sleeping rough shouldn’t ever be grounds for deportation. The just and humane response to street homelessness is to provide safe housing and support, not to punish people with the threat of deportation.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also voiced his concern, warning the plans could “set a dangerous precedent”. The Home Office said removing rough sleepers would only take place if they refused support and were engaged in persistent anti-social behaviour. However Chief Executive of Crisis, Jon Sparkes, pointed out that many people in the UK legally were forced into homelessness because they cannot access mainstream support with housing and benefits due to “no recourse to public funds” conditions placed on their immigration status.
The poor treatment of asylum seekers who are homeless is consistent with reports from independent monitors, who have said that asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats are subjected to “inhumane treatment”.
Evidence collected by four different independent monitoring boards which scrutinised immmigration and prison facilities found that people arriving at Dover were suffering health and safety abuses. This includes moving individuals between detention centres with broken bones, burns and advanced cancer without treatment, and being kept in crowded conditions with no social distancing. The reports, now submitted to the home affairs select committee’s inquiry into migration and asylum seeking routes through the EU, detailed 291 detainees being held in crowded conditions in Dover for more than 24 hours in September. They also noted that there were serious errors in documentation by Border Force officials, such as wrong names next to photos, leading to unaccompanied children being moved to different centres. On 7 October, 51% were deemed at risk of suicide. Some asylum seekers were put on charter flights to remove them from the UK before vulnerability reports had been completed.
National chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), Dame Anne Owers, said that monitors “believe that the cumulative effect [of the failings] amounts to inhumane treatment of detainees which should be urgently addressed”. The IMBs involved in this investigation, the first of its kind, alerted the Home Office immigration minister Chris Philp of the concerns they had in the beginning of October, but are yet to receive a response.
Asylum seekers and homeless people are amongst the most at risk and most affected by COVID-19. Their human rights are essential, and the Home Office needs to ensure vulnerable people are protected and not threatened with deportation in such a difficult time.