A long way from home
The eyes of the media and the public are on the refugee crisis in Europe. Thousands are displaced, without shelter, fleeing persecution only to be met by it again. In Britain we watch aghast at the treatment of desperate people left with nothing.
Following the appalling events of recent weeks the Government has responded to public opinion and committed to accept 20,000 refugees. But what if we already knew that there were thousands who have crossed the channel, some fleeing persecution and most in search of a better life, and that they are living destitute and homeless in the UK? How might we respond as a concerned public? What would we demand of our politicians in Westminster and Brussels?
In London, the only city with reliable data, last year 2695 people from Central and Eastern Europe were recorded as sleeping rough on the streets. This is a rise of 38% since 2009/10, and a 6 fold increase since 2005/6.
This is a story largely unreported in the media, with homeless charities such as ourselves seeking to avoid a toxic political debate for fear of further discrimination or backlash against a population already subject to violence and extreme poverty.
And what of the political response? The UK Government has a clear policy of removing what are seen as the ‘pull factors’ that may attract people who are unwilling to work and/or wishing to exploit the benefits system.
Throughout 2014 the Government introduced new measures to restrict access to benefits and housing services. People from the European Economic Area without a recent work history in the UK are no longer entitled to Housing Benefit and those with no work history are ineligible for Universal Credit. Job Seekers Allowance is only available after three months of being in the UK, and for a maximum then of three months.
These changes have coincided with both the rise in Central and Eastern European homelessness and in net migration so it is difficult to conclude that they reduce either. Indeed the Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee has suggested the changes would increase homelessness. The truth is that while the vast majority of European people who come to the UK successfully find work, these policies make homelessness more likely for those who do not. And for those of us providing homeless services, the changes severely reduce our ability to help people into work and housing.
This week I went to Brussels to speak to MEPs. I wanted to know whether this European problem had any attention or solutions in Brussels.
Freedom of movement is perhaps the only constant in this context across Europe, with totally different systems of social security, housing entitlements, and access to labour markets greeting those who can move unfettered between them. An example of the stark contrast is that of France and the UK. In France there is a universal right to emergency shelter for all, including for migrants and refugees. In the UK no such entitlement exists.
In Germany €70m has been drawn down from the FEAD programme to fund programmes to deal with migrant homelessness through employment opportunities responsible reconnection to home countries. The UK is free to claim such funds but has controversially chosen not to, and instead has taken the minimum amount it must take (€3.5m).
There is a woeful lack of responsible policy to tackle migrant destitution and homelessness in the UK and in Brussels, and it appears that there is very little cooperation between UK and EU politicians to tackle the issue either.
Perhaps now the time has come to collectively face up to the scale of migrant homelessness; and to confer the same spirit of generosity and solidarity shown to those currently in the news?