Testimonies from destitute migrant families who have approached London local authorities for support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989
‘You can’t go there on your own. I went [to Children’s Services] alone and called them from downstairs, asking to see someone. I was seven months pregnant and crying down the phone. They refused to come down to see me for the whole day.’
‘It took months to get a social worker to help me, partly because I had to be wait to be evicted. I went on my own and they wouldn’t see me at all.’
‘My solicitor had to send them a letter for them to house me. They said they weren’t there to help. Then they did the credit checks before they even saw the children. They don’t believe you are destitute, but why would you go there if you had anywhere else to be?’
‘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.’
‘If someone has no recourse to public funds, how are they supposed to cope?’
‘The conducts of the social service team has made me and my children lose trust and confidence in them. I have been called […] unprintable names [including] ‘bush girl’. My daughter was shouted at. My social worker [turned up early in the morning while] my children were still in bed sleeping [and] demand[ed] I visit the council immediately without a prior appointment. [She] would lie and turned my words around [to the point at which] I needed a witness whenever I had to talk to the social worker.’
‘They are not supposed to treat people like animals. They need to stop this [gatekeeping] before children die because of it. ‘
‘When they eventually gave us temporary accommodation they moved us again after three days’
‘They asked me to do a DNA test to prove I was the mother of my children’
‘Do they think we’d pretend to be destitute in order to be treated like this? The reason we have to go to the council is because we have nowhere else to go’
On the role of the Home Office in Children’s Services
‘They are using social services to catch people.’
‘I was afraid they would deport me. They gave me removal papers and pressured me to sign them before I had even had a chance to read them’
On Haringey Council
‘My story of a failed system. Right from the very first minute I approached Haringey council it has been hell of a journey for me and especially for my 3 young kids. The Haringey social worker made sure life was horrible for me and my children. She went on a spree of lies, changing every word I mentioned to something else to suit her to calling me names and using some derogatory remarks. She didn’t spare my daughter of 9 years either; she shouted at her one time too. The social worker’s name, Haringey council, police and social services have now become a threat to my children that they do not want to hear. I am faced with questions everyday from my children regarding how many places do they have to sleep in a single school term.
As much as I tried to keep this away from them it’s in their memory how they were made homeless and sent on the street. What this will do to their confidence, self belief, esteem and their future as a whole is yet to be seen. I have no confidence and trust in the system again.’
Testimonies from homeless people affected by the Home Office’s policy of detaining and ‘removing’ EEA-national rough sleepers
I’m 54 years old. I was born in a small town in Poland.
I came to the UK in 2013. I had savings of about £2500, so I planned to live off those while I looked for a job. I had spent time in other countries—in America, Italy, France, Yugoslavia—and wanted to try somewhere new, and see how it went. I wanted to see what life was like for Poles living in London. It helped that my brother had lived here for over ten years, and had networks here. He said it would be a good idea for me to come here.
When I arrived I took English classes at college for three months. I was looking forward to a new life, and new experiences. But the whole experience has turned out to be disappointing.
It was never difficult to find a job. Some of the work was OK, and some was exploitative. When I worked for other Polish people, they mostly paid me properly, and the conditions were good. The worst experience was when I worked as a rubbish collector for the Hilton hotel chain. I worked 220 hours in a single month and at the end of the month they paid me £700. So I left. But I have good memories of the other people—mainly Italians—who worked there with me.
But the living conditions for migrant workers in the UK were the worst I had ever experienced. For a while I shared a room with nine other adults and a baby. I was really shocked that this was all that was available for workers. There was and remains a lot of exploitation, including exploitation of Polish people by Polish people. Once when I was doing casual work as a painter in Stamford Hill, they worked us so hard that I said I’m not doing this any more. My employer said I owed him £600 for not turning up.
I spent two years working as a painter and decorator. For much of this time I was living with my brother. This was good for a while, but then my brother’s wife developed a drug problem. I ended up having an argument about this over Skype with relatives back in Poland. This strained the relationship with my brother. Eventually, my brother and his wife moved outside of London, to a small town, and I decided not to go with them.
I lived with different friends for 6 months after my brother moved away. Moving from one place to another, it was harder to get steady work, but I used to pick up odd jobs here and there.
Eventually, though, my friends’ hospitality ran out, and I ended up alone, and on the streets. I find it distressing to have people look at me when I’m on the streets. I feel like they despise me for being homeless. I feel shame at being in this position.
Through a Polish man I met on the street, I learnt about the Big Issue, and began selling it in Finsbury Park. Selling the Big Issue made things slightly easier for me—at least I had a little money. For a few months I was going to the Passage, a homelessness charity in Victoria, for the soup kitchen, and to take a shower. But when they found out I was selling the Big Issue, and doing other odd jobs, they said I wasn’t eligible for their services any more.
I ended up sleeping at an encampment near Seven Sisters with a group of other Polish men. One night I came back late and immigration enforcement was there. I literally bumped into them as they were there serving papers on some of the other guys.
There were about eight immigration officers, maybe ten. They served me and the others with removal notices. They wouldn’t explain the reason, or tell us what crime we had committed—they literally would say nothing about it—but on the letters they gave us it said we were abusing our treaty rights by rough sleeping. They took away all our ID documents and didn’t tell us anything about appeal rights.
Some of the guys were taken away that night to the detention centre at Heathrow. I don’t know why I wasn’t. Maybe because they didn’t see me bedding down. Of the guys who were taken away, one was released because he was seriously ill as a result of his alcohol problem, but the others were kept there for a couple of months before being deported.
The charities weren’t involved, I don’t think. But we all knew that some of the homeless charities are fake – they pretend to help people but actually they gather information for the Home Office. Friends told me that, in another raid in Tottenham, charity outreach workers helped immigration enforcement detain four people, two of whom were deported back to Poland.
Being served removal papers and having my documents taken away has had a massive impact on my life. I am suffering from stress. I feel absolutely restless and like I have to be on my guard all the time. I’m afraid I’ll be stopped again. I don’t sleep well—I have nightmares about that raid.
I feel like my condition has deteriorated a lot since that raid. I feel a lot worse. I’ve been offered jobs, but I can’t take them because employers want to see my ID documents, and the Home Office has got them. Even if I had the money, I couldn’t rent a flat now. Without documents it’s impossible to live a normal, dignified life.
As soon as I get my documents back I want to go back to Poland. I’m very tired and disappointed by the UK. Life here has been completely different from what I imagined and hoped. But it’s ironic – now I want to go back, but I can’t until I have my documents back.
I feel that my friends and I are being treated like criminals even though we haven’t done anything wrong. I feel hurt by what has happened. This policy really hurts people and is completely unreasonable. Most of the people I’ve met on the streets are in work but can’t afford accommodation. They really wanted to improve their situation – they were real fighters – and some of them had absolutely nothing in Poland. Deportation would not be a solution for them as they have no networks. Most people on the streets would be better off being helped into work and accommodation in the UK, rather than being deported. The problem is accommodation – it’s too expensive for working people.
If I thought I could get that sort of help, I would have loved to stay here in the UK. I don’t think the government is doing anything good for migrants, and it will only get worse after Brexit. That’s another reason to go home. Immigrants are massively exploited here: the people I know are working really long hours and aren’t paid properly. Sometimes they’re not paid at all. I don’t feel like I’m wanted or valued as a person. My labour is not valued.
*Not his real name.
Mihal and Teodora*
We’re from Bulgaria, but before we came to the UK we lived in Greece for a long time. We did seasonal work in the fields, mostly picking olives. For four months of the year we could earn well—€30 a day—but the rest of the year was hard.
We came to the UK because we had heard it was the country with the most work. We thought it would be good here, and at first it was. Mihal got a job as a handyman. He was earning decent money. Then we found a place to live in Ealing.
Mihal doesn’t speak much English, so he worked with a friend. When his friend left, it became much more difficult for him to get jobs. The house in Ealing also turned out badly. The guy we were living with was drinking heavily and was impossible to live with. So we left.
We slept rough outside Victoria station for three nights because we had nowhere else to go. During the day we looked for work and for a place, and at night we slept out. We found a place to live in the first couple of days—we were just waiting for two people to move out.
But then immigration came. It was about one in the morning. They came to our sleeping site—there were lots of us sleeping there, mainly Romanians. We were sleeping on cardboard, and on top of us we had the blankets from our house in Ealing.
There were about five of them, maybe more. They were polite but they didn’t explain anything. They took our details and gave us papers saying we had to report to Becket House. That was all. We weren’t upset or worried at first. We had all our papers in order, so we would be fine.
But when we went to sign—this was three days later—they were rude to us. They told us we had been served papers because we were sleeping on the streets. We asked for an interpreter but didn’t get one. One immigration officer said: ‘Shut up! Fuck you! Go back to Bulgaria.’ We signed something else but I don’t know what it was. Then they took our passports away and detained us.
They put us in Yarl’s Wood. They took Teodora’s medication away and kept it at reception. She’s not well. She can’t do anything without it. We were in there for three months and fifteen days. It was time of fear and stress. Teodora was crying. Her pulse was fast. She couldn’t breathe. She was always in the hospital wing.
It felt like a prison. Knock on wood, we’ll never go back. We saw lots of people try to kill themselves. It happened every day. They took away our mobile phones. I would die before going back. I’m not a criminal.
Our solicitor got us out. We don’t know how or why. We could have been there forever. Whoever works in immigration needs to know it’s not a good job. They’re like criminals. I want the big boss to know what happened to us. I’d like to choke the big boss.
We want to leave the UK. We want to go back to our family. If they had just deported us straightaway, it would have been OK. But they kept us there for three months. And then they kept our passports after we got out. So we can’t get an address, or a National Insurance number, or anything. Teodora has been offered a good job as a cleaner in a hotel. But she can’t do it.
Lots of people have helped us. We wouldn’t have survived without them. Now we’re waiting for our day in court.
*Not their real names.