Religious and community organisations have been paid thousands of pounds by the Home Office to assist immigration enforcement teams in removing people from the UK, in most cases rough sleepers.
There is mounting concern about Home Office tactics to deport migrant rough sleepers from the UK and its use of payments to assist with these removals, with the department facing accusations of racial profiling.
A list obtained by the Manchester-based human rights charity Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research, and seen by the Guardian, reveals that 21 Home Office immigration surgeries are embedded in community centres and places of worship across London and in Birmingham, Slough and Manchester. It shows that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are being targeted for removal, along with Brazilians, Albanians and Chinese people.
Fizza Qureshi, the co-chief executive officer of the Migrants’ Rights Network, condemned the practice of faith and community organisations assisting the Home Office with removals.
“The extent to which the Home Office is infiltrating our communities by co-opting community and faith organisations is extremely shocking,” she said. “These kinds of practices destroy trust within and between communities. It will also leave many marginalised people wondering who they can turn to and trust in their time of need.”
The Public Interest Law Centre previously brought a successful high court action against the Home Office for rounding up migrant rough sleepers from the EU for removal. A spokesperson expressed concern about the variety of Home Office schemes that can lead to the deportation of migrant rough sleepers.
He said: “There appears to be a strong element of racial profiling in the way the Home Office is targeting charities and faith groups for involvement in immigration enforcement. We are concerned that community groups are being paid to play ‘good cop’ to the Home Office’s ‘bad cop’ and help the government meet its targets for getting people out of the country.”
Two linked Sikh organisations – Sikh Council and Sikh Youth and Community Service – have received six-figure sums between them from a series of Home Office grants in recent years. They say they have helped the Home Office to send more than 400 people back to India. The Brazilian organisation Casa Do Brasil says it helped with the removal of about 320 people in 2018.
Balvinder Kaur of the Sikh Youth and Community Service in Nottinghamshire, said about 220 people had returned to India in “a respectful and dignified manner” since 2016. She said her faith-based organisation did not operate immigration surgeries in places of worship but put out messages in Punjabi media in the UK about the service the organisation provided to assist with voluntary return.
A spokesman for the Sikh Council said: “The scheme was a direct response to the need on the streets where people were sleeping rough, had ill health. It is not considered as conflict in charities accessing government funds to alleviate poverty and suffering of the homeless. The funding has to be applied for annually and paid in arrears. The allocation and actual spend figures differ due to unpredictability of numbers wishing to return voluntarily.”
A spokesperson for the north London-based Casa do Brasil said: “We do provide specifically a voluntary departure service from [the] Home Office every Monday for people without the right to stay in the UK to return to their country. Our budget is based on the work done and expenses incurred to make the programme available to the public.” There had been about 320 successful returns since 2018, he said.
On Monday, a letter signed by 15 different organisations was sent to all London councils raising separate concerns over the Home Office’s Rough Sleepers Support Service. The initiative involves local authorities and others identifying a course of action for migrant rough sleepers which may include a voluntary or enforced return. About half of London’s rough sleepers are estimated to be migrants.
Migrants Rights’ Network, Liberty and Public Interest Law Centre put together the letter calling on councils to suspend cooperation with the scheme because of concerns that migrant rough sleepers may be removed from the UK rather than receiving support.
The letter calls on the Home Office to provide detailed and transparent guidance about how the scheme works, asks councils not to pass on personal information about migrant rough sleepers to the Home Office without their informed consent and asks the councils to fund independent accommodation, advice and support for this group.
A Home Office spokesman said: “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. These are held in community and faith-based locations, including mosques, in order to have conversations with individuals without the fear of arrest. Home Office staff build relationships with community leaders and surgeries are conducted with their permission.”
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