Two years of skimped-on promises, but some light as well. Let’s keep up the pressure for change over Haringey’s treatment of destitute migrant families!

Since mid-2016 NELMA and others have been trying to hold Haringey Council to account for the local authority’s systematic poor treatment of destitute migrant families seeking social services support under s17 of the Children Act 1989.

In November 2016 NELMA met with Cllr Elin Weston, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services. We brought to Cllr Weston’s attention the use of unlawful ‘gatekeeping’ tactics to deter destitute migrant families from pursuing their entitlement to support under Section 17.

We showed Cllr Weston evidence of Haringey social workers:

  • threatening to take children away from their parents and into care despite there being no child protection concerns;
  • using aggressive (and sometimes racist) language and other bullying tactics to deter families from pursuing an application for support;
  • threatening families with deportation despite there being no legal basis upon which to do so;
  • falsely claiming that families are precluded from support on account of their immigration status.
  • Intimidating vulnerable families through inquisition-like meetings with ‘anti –fraud’ officers and embedded Home Office workers.

We pointed out to Cllr Weston that the refusal of support—or delays in accessing support—can have a devastating impact on destitute families with no recourse to public funds, placing children and parents alike at serious risk of street homelessness, malnourishment, exploitation and mental distress.

In response to our concerns Cllr Weston promised to investigate standards within Haringey’s NRPF team. She also promised to ‘set up a meeting between the NRPF team leader and NELMA’.

 The promised meeting never transpired and Cllr Weston ignored follow-up emails from NELMA for six months (November 2016-May 2017).

Meanwhile, in December 2016, over 60 people attended a demonstration arranged by NELMA in protest at Haringey Council’s failure to meet its obligations to destitute children. ‘No more broken promises!’, we shouted, but for a long time it seemed like nobody was listening.

In June 2017 Sarah Alexander, Haringey’s assistant director of safeguarding, sent NELMA a one-page letter telling us she was ‘satisfied that the service [provided to destitute migrant families] is well managed and compliant with requirements’.

Given that Haringey had been presented with a detailed dossier of concerns many months before, this brief response felt like an afterthought—and an insult to the families who had been courageous enough to share their experiences

NELMA and Project 17 asked to meet with Sarah Alexander to explain in detail (as we had to Cllr Weston months earlier) why we disagreed with her assessment.

During a meeting held in June 2017 Sarah Alexander changed her tune somewhat. She acknowledged that a problematic culture had developed in Haringey’s NRPF team and promised an independent review. She also (that old chestnut!) assured us that most of the problems in Haringey’s NRPF team had been caused by social workers and managers who were no longer employed by the local authority.

NELMA and Project 17 provided evidence for the independent review, which was conducted by an independent social worker and shared with Haringey in November 2017.

After which—silence.

Between October 2017 and March 2018 NELMA and Project 17 wrote to Sarah Alexander repeatedly asking for her to share a summary of the review’s findings. Nothing doing.

Separately, on 30th October 2017, Project 17 attended a meeting of Haringey’s children and young people’s scrutiny panel to push for change on the issue.

Councillors on the CYP scrutiny panel—particularly Cllr Mark Blake—were appalled by what they heard. (Strangely, given that NELMA had met with Cllr Weston, cabinet member for children and young people, almost a year earlier, this seemed to be the first most people in the room had ever heard about the issue.)

Just this month, after pressure from councillors on the scrutiny panel, the executive summary of the independent review of Haringey’s NRPF team was shared with the voluntary sector and activist groups who had been calling for it for so long.

(Unfortunately, the executive summary is written in civil-service jargon rather than English, so you have to read between the lines to stay awake. But if you can keep your eyes open, it’s pretty damning stuff.)

The independent social worker identifies significant failings in the way Haringey’s NRPF team works with destitute migrant families. She documents how vulnerable families feel they are treated as “second class citizens” by Haringey and how children and parents alike live in fear of Haringey social workers. Families spoken to for the review report:

  • being provided with accommodation that is of poor quality and unsafe
  • being given insufficient money to live on; and
  • being moved from borough to borough without planning or notice.

The review concludes by saying that ‘performance concerns’ had led to the formulation of ‘exit strategies’ for a number of staff members, and by noting (amusingly) that social workers from the No Recourse to Public Funds team should be given training on ‘what “no recourse to public funds” means’.

In March 2018 Haringey’s children and young people’s scrutiny panel published their own review of how Haringey treats children from families with no recourse to public funds.

(Again, this review feels either toothless or tactful depending on how you read it. Sometimes it’s hard not just to be grateful that somebody in power is paying attention.)

The scrutiny panel report makes ‘recommendations’ rather than criticisms, but reminds Haringey’s NRPF team that ‘the fundamental principle that should underpin all of the Council’s activity is that it should be humane’.

The report also notes that:

  • Subsistence levels for NRPF families do not compare well with other London boroughs and are lower than those that advice suggests is appropriate. There also appears to be no clear rationale for how they have been set.
  • Haringey needs to develop a culture of working in partnership with voluntary sector migrants-rights organisations

What conclusion should migrants’ rights campaigners take from these protracted efforts to make the powers-that-be in Haringey sit up and take notice of human rights abuses in the borough? Should we be satisfied with these reviews and reports?

One conclusion might be that the work of small organisations and groups like Project 17, Haringey Welcome and NELMA is essential in holding statutory services to account—and that grassroots groups are stronger when we work together. The experience of destitute migrant families with NRPF is at least on Haringey’s agenda these days, which it isn’t in many other parts of London.

We hope that the new political order in Haringey will sustain this interest.

At the same time there’s anecdotal evidence that not much has changed at the front line.

We know a destitute mother who went to Haringey social services this month to ask for help because she and her daughter faced homelessness. The response? ‘We can’t help you because you have no recourse to public funds.’

And no one—not even Haringey’s own children and young people’s scrutiny panel—is being allowed to see more than the first two pages of the independent review into the NRPF team. We’ve been told it’s far too confidential. You’d think Sarah Alexander had never heard that documents could be redacted to protect personal data…

If we really want to make local authority civil servants and elected officials take seriously the rights of migrants with NRPF, we need to do more to support campaigning by affected individuals—who often face multiple barriers to speaking up but without whose leadership campaigns like the one described in this blog will go nowhere fast.

As one NELMA member writes: ‘When you don’t have papers, they treat you so badly, like you are not a person, or like you are irrelevant. We are all human beings – it doesn’t need to be like this.’

The task for NRPF campaigners in 2018 is to put undocumented voices at the front and centre of our activism, both at borough level and nationwide.

 

 

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Good news in a hostile environment

On December 14th 2017 the High Court ruled the Home Office’s policy of detaining and removing EEA rough sleepers unlawful.

The full judgment can be found here.

There is more work to be done, both to support homeless people affected by the policy to understand their rights and to make sure that the Tories (and the charities and local authorities who collaborated with them to deport rough sleepers) don’t backslide.

Cut the collaboration

Twitter storm – Thursday 23rd November 10am-12pm

On 21st-23rd November, a Judicial Review is taking place against a Home Office policy detaining and deporting hundreds of European rough sleepers, simply for being homeless. This policy is sinister, feeding into the government’s ‘hostile environment’ agenda.

Three of London’s largest homelessness charities—St. Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Change, Grow, Live – formerly known as Crime Reduction Initiative—alongside the Greater London Authority (GLA), local borough councils, and the Mayor of London are collaborating with the Home Office to have EU (European Union) rough sleepers detained without charge and removed to their country of origin purely on the basis that they are rough sleeping.

St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Change, Grow, Live’s outreach teams are helping the Home Office implement the policy through a culture of information sharing, joint patrols and “local cooperation agreements”. Joint working between homelessness charities and the Home Office turns outreach workers into border guards, preventing homeless people from seeking help, in the name of reducing numbers by any means necessary. You can read more about our campaign against charity collaboration here.

We don’t want St Mungo’s, Thames Reach or Change, Grow, Live to get off lightly, even though they aren’t being tried in Court. As evidenced by Corporate Watch, these charities pushed for increased collaboration with immigration enforcement and helped to bring this divisive policy into being. We’re calling on St Mungo’s, Thames Reach, and Change, Grow, Live to immediately stop collaborating with ICE in the detention and removal of EU nationals rough sleeping.

Please join us on Thursday 23rd November—the last day of the hearing—in creating a Twitter storm against these charities between 10am-12pm (but feel free to start before and continue after!) We’re asking people to Tweet St Mungo’s (@StMungos), Thamesreach (@ThamesReach), and Change, Grow, Live (@changegrowlive). We’re using the hashtag #CutTheCollaboration to help keep track of them.

We’ve included some sample tweets below which will easily allow you to express your anger:

Sample tweet 1

Sample tweet 2

Sample tweet 3

Sample tweet 4

Sample tweet 5

We’ve also got some graphics (see below) to help the storm get more attention!

Please share this information with your networks and help us show solidarity with vulnerable migrants in our communities!

homesNOTborders

Thames ReachSt Mungo's

Two new short films highlight the cruelty and violence of the hostile environment.

We made one of them (with Whalebone Films). We’re featured in the other (made by the Guardian)

The first film is about a Romanian couple who were detained in Yarl’s Wood for sleeping rough and the effect the experience has had on their lives and their faith in the society in which they live.

 

The subject of the second film is ‘Britain’s homeless children’—forced to sleep on buses or other public places because their parents have no recourse to public funds.

 

There are still too few first-person stories out there about the human cost of the UK government’s current border policies. Those of us who know what goes on need to be better at making sure they are told.

Big asks and little asks for Labour.

On September 18th NELMA spoke at an event called ‘Immigration policy: what is the scope for a radical approach from Labour’. (We haven’t joined the Labour Party. We were invited to give the perspective of grassroots migrants’ rights activists.)

In case anyone’s interested, we’ve published our talk below:

I’ll start with a couple of stories about people we know.

Teofil was in his tent keeping warm when immigration came for him. It was his day off from the bread factory. He told the officers: “I’m legal. I’m working. Please check my papers.” He only has three years of school but his English is fluent.

He showed them his work contract, his pay slips from the factory, His Big Issue vendor’s badge. He had two jobs. Immigration said: “It doesn’t matter. You’re being arrested because you’re homeless”.

Teofil spent twenty-six days in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. It took that long partly because he had to do his own appeal. There’s no legal aid. It took that long partly because nobody told him he could appeal.

He was saving for a deposit when he was detained. He lost both jobs. When the Home Office let him out they kept his ID for three months. No explanation. No chance of work.

He tried to join the library. To keep warm. No documents. No chance.

He’s still on the streets.

Grace* is 20. Her parents brought her the UK from Nigeria—illegally—when she was 12. As a young adult she was granted leave to remain, but with no recourse to public funds.

So when Grace got pregnant and her boyfriend physically kicked her out, there was no state to turn to. She spent the last few months of her pregnancy sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s one-bed.

When the baby was born her aunt couldn’t cope. She kicked Grace out too.

There are rules in this country that are supposed to keep kids off the streets. But London local authorities—Labour local authorities—systematically flout those rules with respect to migrant children. The social workers looked at Grace’s Facebook page. Plenty of friends and family there, they said. You can’t be homeless. But nobody wanted Grace or her baby.

Guess what the social workers said next? Go back to your partner. Or if you won’t do that, give up your child.

NELMA has kept Grace housed ever since. The case is trundling through the courts. Without support from groups like ours, lots of women like Grace give up—go underground, go home with anyone they can find. There’s no other choice.

Child poverty’s a Labour issue. Decent homes and workers’ rights used to be, I believe. And yet, when NELMA campaigns around these issues, elected Labour politicians and Labour-run local authorities are, for the most part, our antagonists rather than our allies.

With a few exceptions, the only way to compel Labour-run local authorities to uphold the rights of destitute migrant children is to take them to court. Sadiq Khan, who sees rough sleeping as a ‘scar on the face of London’, refuses to oppose the Home Office’s policy of locking homeless people up without charge. Tincture of migrant colours the waters. Muddies the picture. Allowing Labour people to justify, or acquiesce in, or just keep schtum about, the otherwise unpalatable.

The human rights abuses I’ve just told you about—because that’s what they are—are so egregious that talk about triangulation, or the necessary soft pedal, or squaring the circle, or politics as the art of the possible, feels distasteful.

Even if ‘British jobs for British workers’ strikes you as a reasonable idea—as it does Owen Smith—it’s unlikely you think it’s reasonable to punish children for the perceived sins of the fathers.

Even if you believe, as Andy Burnham does, that the failure of immigration controls threatens the ‘safety of our streets’, it’s unlikely you’d lobby for the effective suspension of habeas corpus for homeless people.

Nobody’s asking, or expecting Jeremy Corbyn to say open the borders; only to say—some things will not pass.

In Britain in the twenty-first century we imprison people indefinitely without charge because they are homeless. In Britain in the twenty-first century we’re willing to leave children on the streets because their parents have the wrong papers. And these aren’t epiphenomena, or accidents. They’re the result of policy, deliberately made. Policy that went unopposed.

Is Labour just not paying attention, the way you don’t pay attention when it’s easier, less awkward, not to know what’s going on?

So: the “grassroots perspective”. There’s a big ask to Labour and, failing that, a little ask. The big ask goes like this:

Remember all the things you were taught you can’t say or else nobody would vote for you? And then remember Trump. And Corbyn. And Brexit. If all bets are off, psephologically, as they seem to be, what a release. What an opportunity to find orientation in your convictions.

If in your secret heart you believe there’s a post colonial critique, or a very gently Marxist—or a social democratic—critique, to be made of Tory immigration policy, surely now’s the time to make it.

There are clever ways of framing it, of dovetailing with existing causes. Think of DACA in the US, or the Sanctuary Cities movement. Migrants rights activists and the Democratic Party working together. You could start with the children who were born in the UK, go to school here, but don’t have the same rights as their peers. That shouldn’t be too hard a sell.

The little ask is this: carry on triangulating if you must. But at least raise your voice when the abuses committed by this government are so glaring are so that it’s a moral imperative to oppose them.

If, even then, Labour baulks, for fear of an imagined Middle England, or just because by now it’s a conditioned reflex, it’s going to be hard for people like me to see the party as anything other than part of the problem.

 *Not her real name.

NELMA Section 17 accompanying stats reveal…what we already knew, but the LAs persist in denying.

We’ve been crunching the numbers from the 50 or so destitute migrant families NELMA has accompanied to London local authorities since our accompanying scheme began in the spring of 2016.

Caveat: it’s a relatively small data set and we’re not professional statisticians. But our volunteer accompaniers take extremely detailed notes and we’re confident that our data gives a decent general picture of what’s going on.

Here are some headlines:

  • 62% of families accompanied by NELMA were given false information about Section 17.
  • 36% of families were falsely told their immigration status made them ineligible for support.
  • Families with less secure immigration status were more commonly lied to, especially in relation to immigration matters. 63% were given spurious immigration advice.
  • Families waited over 80 minutes on average before being seen.
  • Visits to social services lasted over four-and-a-half hours on average.
  • 51% of families experienced intimidation or threats.
  • 29% of families were threatened with deportation.  50% of families with no leave to remain and no application were threatened with deportation.
  • 40% of families faced disbelief or were accused of dishonesty by social workers.
  • Overall, 69% of families experienced intimidation, blame, disbelief or hostility during the interview process. This rises to 88% for families with no leave to remain in the UK and no imminent application to regularise.

So this is why we accompany.

Though we don’t have stats to prove it, it’s clear to us that the presence of a NELMA accompanier makes a vital difference to the experience families have when they approach social services.

If more than 50% experience intimidation or threats even in the presence of a witness, we can only guess at what the figure might be for families who go to social services on their own.

There are still places available on NELMA’s upcoming accompanying training sessions. If you’re available between 9-5 on at least some weekdays and want to show solidarity with destitute migrant families, please get in touch.

Not ‘theirs’. Ours.

Depriving a person of their liberty is a very serious thing to do.

This fact is generally acknowledged in UK law. The police can only hold suspects for 24 hours before they have to either charge them or let them go. If they’re dealing with a suspected murderer, they might get to keep them for up to 96 hours. Terrorist suspects can be detained without charge for up to fourteen days.

Indefinite detention is most commonly the lot of people deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others due to mental illness. Such powers are misapplied with frightening frequency in the UK. But mental health law dictates that a decision to ‘section’ somebody must be agreed by three highly-trained professionals.

The rough sleepers NELMA has spoken to about their detention breached no laws. They didn’t even break immigration rules. They speak sagely—and above all sanely—about the ordeal the UK government has put them through.

Teofil and Marineta, who feature in the video for our crowdfunding appeal, were locked up in Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre with a recent history of serious sexual abuse by guards, for almost a month.  They weren’t told when—or if—they would be released. And nobody mentioned that they could appeal.

They were told why they had been imprisoned. It was because they didn’t have anywhere to live.

Mihal and Teodora spent three months in Yarl’s Wood. Guards confiscated Teodora’s thyroid medication and wouldn’t give it back. Mihal witnessed one of the many suicide attempts made by desperate detainees. Mihal and Teodora were working when they were raided by immigration. They had been sleeping rough for three days.

There was no vote in parliament to allow the detention of rough sleepers. Theresa May just changed the rules one day. Low-level functionaries—not specialist professionals—get to decide that a homeless person should be locked up. Without charge. Indefinitely.

Please give to our crowdfunder. It could be the best chance we have of defeating this unfair and inhumane policy. But it could also be the beginning of a fightback against a frightening erosion of civil liberties. Not ‘theirs’. Ours.

The Public Interest Law Unit at Lambeth Law Centre, along with NELMA, are bringing a judicial review against a Home Office policy seeking to remove EEA Nationals for rough sleeping.