“Attendees at ‘immigration surgeries’ at churches and centres told it won’t involve enforcement.”
The Home Office is using information gathered in “immigration surgeries” at charities and places of worship to deport vulnerable homeless people who are told that attending will help them get financial support, the Guardian has learned.
Interivews and internal emails revealed the Salvation Army, Sikh gurdwaras and a Chinese community support centre are among the bodies allowing Home Office teams in London to run sessions in spaces that are intended to be safe havens for homeless people.
Attendees are assured the sessions are not offered as part of “an enforcement approach” to immigration cases and told that taking part may help them regularise their status.
However, the initiative is run by the Home Office’s immigration enforcement unit and if officials conclude that attendees have no right to be in the country, they may be asked to agree to their voluntary removal. If they refuse they risk being subjected to the Home Office’s “case-by-case” discretion and deported.
Experts said the practice allows Home Office officials to gain access to vulnerable homeless people they might otherwise not be able to locate and warned the approach was part of a broader strategy. Last year the Guardian reported that the homeless outreach charity St Mungo’s was working with Home Office teams searching for rough sleepers to arrest and deport.
The latest disclosures are supported by 46 pages of email exchanges between the Home Office and local council officials in Redbridge, east London, initially obtained by the Public Interest Law Centre, that shed light on the Home Office’s contribution to the government’s rough sleeping strategy.
In one email a Home Office official asked a council worker: “How can local authorities share some basic details of non-UK national rough sleepers with my team so that we can provide a status check ?”
The practice was condemned by other charities and lawyers as an invasion of “safe spaces” that will “deepen the mistrust that already exists”.
One female rough sleeper from the Caribbean, with multiple health problems, told the Guardian she had attended the Salvation Army in Romford, east London, which hosts a Home Office immigration surgery on the first Tuesday of every month.
She provided sensitive and personal information to someone she believed was an independent legal adviser, only to find out afterwards that she had been speaking to a Home Office enforcement official. She was asked to sign voluntary return papers to her home country but refused.
“The Home Office has infiltrated charities like the Salvation Army”, she said. “I’ve been in the UK for 16 years and I’m trying to regularise my immigration status. My life is here now and I don’t want the Home Office to send me back to my country”.
The practice sits in parallel to the Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS), a Home Office initiative that was launched in August 2018 to “help non-UK nationals sleeping rough resolve their immigration cases”. As with the immigration surgeries, removal from the UK is an option for people who seek out the service, although the Home Office said that, where appropriate, people will he helped to regularise their status.
What are enforced departures?
A Home Office spokesman said this information was requested so the RSSS could provide support.
“No attempt was made to match any information with Home Office data”, he said. But the service’s own webpage warned: “The service was not designed to undertake enforcement action but it may be considered on a case-by-case basis”.
Three Sikh gurdwaras in east London confirmed that they hosted Home Office surgeries on their premises: Karamsar Gurdwara in Ilford, Singh Sabha London East in Barking and Singh Sabha in Seven Kings. “We provide the venue for those Home Office surgeries,” a spokesman said.
The Chinese Information and Advice Centre in Soho also hosts Home Office advice surgeries. Its website says that “friendly officers from the Home Office” will be present and adds “the Home Office assures there will be no immigration enforcement during the surgery”. There is no reference to the possibility of case-by-case enforcement activity. The organisation did not respond to a request for comment.
James Tullett, the chief executive of the Refugee & Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel), condemned the embedding of Home Office surgeries in charities and religious organisations. Tullett, who asked to share data about migrant rough sleepers with the Home Office, suggested the arrival of colder weather meant that charities were keen to find ways to regularise clients’ statuses and get them off the streets.
But he added: “Home Office officials who run these advise surgeries are trying to trick migrants and other organisations into thinking they are giving them help and advice when their true purpose is to remove people. They talk about a voluntary return but once they have people, if they don’t agree to a voluntary return then there’s enforcement action – detention and deportation without any further legal advice”.
A spokesperson for the Public Interest Law Centre said the practice would do nothing to improve the lot of the people it purported to help. “This scheme will deepen the mistrust that already exists”, the spokesperson said. “We are especially concerned that the presence of the Home Office is being presented as ‘advice’ when in fact it serves an immigration enforcement and removals agenda”.
A spokesperson for The Salvation Army said: “Some service users in Romford told our local drop-in centre that they would like help with their paperwork and on that basis, we approached the Home Office. Our monthly advice clinic is also attended by other services including job clubs, dentists and the local mental health team. Attendance is voluntary and it is down to individuals to decide which agencies to take-up”
A Home Office spokesperson denied charities and local authorities were being used to target rough sleepers for removal. “Immigration surgeries give people the opportunity to speak to immigration officers about the steps they should take to regularise their stay or to get practical support to return voluntarily”, the spokesperson said. “They make clear that they are Home Office immigration officers and do not provide immigration advice”.