Brexit has thrown the futures of thousands of Europeans who live and work in the UK into uncertainty. Before that, it was the hostile Home Office putting people in danger. But knowledge is power, says Jen Ang, co-founder of human rights law charity JustRight Scotland (JRS) and supervising solicitor for offshoot project StrEEt Aware. She is arming homeless migrants with the information they need to demand their rights from powerful authorities – and to secure settled status in the UK before the Brexit clock finally runs out of time.
Ang, 42, has more than 13 years’ experience as a legal expert on asylum and human rights; training in New York originally, before moving to qualify in London in 2002 then to Scotland in 2008. “I know I am a migrant here,” she tells The Big Issue. “I think there’s something to that, something about why I focus a lot of my work around migration.”
JustRight was launched in 2017 by Ang and three other human rights lawyers as a response to legal aid funding cuts and government agencies struggling to meet capacity because of austerity. Importantly, they wanted a way to use their legal expertise in “cleverer” ways that would reach more people.
The Home Office were checking nationality against documents, detaining and deporting people. We couldn’t stand by and have that happen
Ang was central in setting up JRS and its three centres: the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, which works with gender-based violence, the Anti-Trafficking and Exploitation Centre and the Refugee and Migrant Centre. The latter houses the StrEEt Aware Project, a collaboration with Shelter Scotland and Edinburgh outreach charity Streetwork. Ang is the supervising solicitor for the project, working with homeless EEA (European Economic Area) nationals to give them free, confidential legal support that can help them avoid deportation and get housed. StrEEt Aware has helped around 150 people over the past two winters.
“Setting up the project in 2017 was really a defensive reaction to what was happening,” Ang explains. “The Home Office were on the streets with Police Scotland stopping rough sleepers who they decided didn’t appear to be British. They were checking nationality against documents, detaining and deporting people. We couldn’t stand by and have that happen.
“We ran fortnightly surgeries in a Streetwork hub, working with people who were at risk. That Home Office policy was ruled unlawful later in the year, but we carried on: through the surgeries, we realised there was a huge number of people being denied access to housing and financial support who actually had a right to it already.
“They just didn’t have access to the information. That knowledge changes everything.”
The lawyer doesn’t hesitate when asked what the main barriers are between homeless migrants and settled status. Valid identification is one, she says, because when people become street homeless they tend to lose access to their documents or they expire. Replacing them often involves a fee which homeless people can’t pay – and if you can’t renew your passport, you can’t apply for settled status.“For at-risk groups, the inability to document their lives is a very real thing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here for decades.”
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People with previous criminal convictions, however slight, should also seek legal advice before making an application – Ang explains that it’s not a barrier but can be grounds for refusal “at quite a low level, which is a worry. You risk someone making a settled status application and then actually being served with a deportation order”.
As Brexit looms, Ang is receiving an increasing number of concerned enquiries (which is exactly what happened in the run-up to the original March 29 deadline, she says). But this is good, she reckons: for homeless people, taking action is urgent.
Next year, JRS will launch its fourth arm: the Just Law Centre, which will look at empowering people and organisations using the law to advance wider issues of human rights and equality and making legal education even more accessible for people across Scotland. In the meantime, Ang will be leading the StrEEt Aware team’s new settlement scheme law clinic to make sure all European citizens get the housing and security they’re entitled to.
A Home Office spokesperson said there is “plenty of support” available for those applying to the EU Settlement Scheme and that they are “looking for reasons to grant, not refuse”.
They added: “We’ve made up to £9 million available to homelessness charities and other voluntary and community sector organisations across the UK to help vulnerable people apply.
“The application process is flexible and a range of alternative documents may be accepted if applicants do not have a valid passport or ID card due to circumstances beyond their control or for compelling practical or compassionate reasons.”