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.