In 2017, a court battle was raging between a group of homeless EU nationals and the UK Home Office. The case would raise difficult questions about how we tackle economic hardship, test the scope of EU human rights law, and change the face of UK immigration policy.
The number of rough sleepers from outside the UK was at an all time high. London, Birmingham, and Manchester had all been hit hard by an influx of homeless EEA nationals, and their streets were bearing the burden. According to the Home Office, rough sleeping had increased by 55 per cent across the UK between 2010 and 2015. It also claimed that EEA nationals were arriving “intent on rough sleeping”.
In a bid to bring the numbers down, the Home Office introduced a policy which led to the deportation of EEA rough sleepers, under the premise that they were abusing their right to free movement by not having a place to live. More than 300 people were told to leave the UK under the policy. The guidance received widespread criticism from human rights groups and liberal leaders, with the charity Migrants’ Rights describing it as an “unlawful scheme of coercive expulsion”.
The debate came to a head when a group of three homeless migrants received notices informing them they would be deported. The men, who were from Latvia and Poland, launched a legal challenge, guided by the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU) and North East London Migrant Action (NELMA).
The case, R (Gureckis) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2017), examined whether or not the men were making use of EU free movement rights, which would earn them the right to lawfully live in the UK.
UK legislation gave the Border Agency the right to deport EEA Nationals if they did not qualify as “self-sufficient”. This policy was drawn up to prevent migrants becoming a burden on the state’s welfare system, and the Home Office argued that as the men were homeless, they could not be considered self sufficient, and were therefore abusing their right to freedom of movement.
Rough sleeping could be deemed an “abuse of rights” under EU Law if it was deliberate or persistent, which included planning to enter the UK to rough sleep in order to save money, or by failing to ensure they had proper accommodation available before entering. This argument, however, did not apply if the person had inadvertently fallen on hard times, and intended to find accommodation or leave the UK.
The claimants argued that because most migrants did not have access to the UK benefits system anyway, the men could be considered self-sufficient, despite being economically inactive. EU citizens have the right to live in another member state, without the requirement to benefit the state economically or socially. Their motive for movement is irrelevant ; migrants have no responsibility to fully integrate themselves in the member state they move to.
Investigations into whether an ‘abuse of rights’ had been committed by the men concluded that it had not, and confirmed that the Home Office policy discriminated against EEA nationals. Evidence presented by the Aire Centre showed that as a result of the guidance, Police and immigration officers were singling out rough sleepers for questioning because they presumed they were abusing their EEA rights of residence. Enforcement officers can only lawfully question nationals who are sleeping rough if they have reasonable doubt as to whether they are exercising Treaty rights.
The ruling was that deportation of EU law rights would only be permitted if someone posed a serious threat to the fundamental interests of the host State.
This decision shed light on the fact that, rather than attempt to find a solution to homelessness, authorities had decided to take harsh action that resulted in imprisonment and deportation.
Following the judgement, Paul Heron, a solicitor at PILU, told the Independent: “Hopefully this will stop the idea of promoting a hostile environment in its tracks .
“The Government’s argument takes the issue out of context, and the context is austerity … these people are a symptom of something they created.
“We felt this was the thin end of a potentially very big wedge – if they get away with this what do they do to British rough sleepers?
“There are other ways of dealing with the issue and this is not the best way.”
The judgement aimed to inspire government departments to look into the complexity of issues such as homelessness and create standardised guidance for officers.
Beyond the courtroom, this case helped highlight the systemic stigmatisation faced by EEA migrants in the media, as well as in the wider community.
Bethany is a freelance journalist with a passion for current affairs. She creates cross-media content for breaking news sites, food and travel publications, and health blogs, and likes a good cup of tea while she writes.