Sister Ellen Flynn, director of the charity, tells Bridget O'Connor-Reid that her organisation cannot cope with huge numbers of homeless Eastern Europeans THE PASSAGE, Britain's largest day centre for the homeless, has decided that in future it will turn away economic migrants from Eastern Europe after the influx pushed it to breaking point.
The Catholic charity and shelter for the homeless, which is based near Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London, has had to take the tough decision after thousands of economic migrants, largely from Poland, started using their services as the first port of call for finding work, putting a huge burden on staff.
Sister Ellen Flynn, director of The Passage, blames Britain's "open-door" policy towards new European member states for the crisis. She said that the "inhumane" and "unrealistic" policy was creating thousands of new long-term homeless.
Since Britain opened its doors to migrants from new European Union member states in May 2004, over 2,000 people from central and Eastem Europe have been aniving every week in the Victoria area. Many are directed there because of their country's connection with the Catholic Church as they come seeking work and shelter.
As a frontline service The Passage is vulnerable to any change in society or Government policy and was among the first charities to feel the full impact of the Government's open-door policy. Sister Ellen recalls the day vividly: "I'll never forget May 1, 2004, because it was horrendous for The Passage. We had people queueing around the streets of Victoria. I'll never forget the panic and the absolute inability to address the need that was presented to us."
In the first few months after that about 15 per cent of all homeless people coining to The Passage were Europeans. Two years on, figures show that throughout 2005 until March of this year the percentage has actually risen to between 35 and 40 per cent of people who use the service.
Sister Ellensaid: "The ongoing situation is not sustainable and we are struggling to carry on with our core work."
Because the situation has become so dire the charity has had to take drastic measures in limiting their services to those who fit their strict client criteria. "We're not going to discriminate on the basis of where someone has come from," said Sister Ellen. "It is the basis of need that will inform our decision."
The Passage has a mission statement and set of services designed to help extremely vulnerable people with a complex set of needs, Sister Ellen explained. "Our mission is to unravel the problems of long-term homelessness, in order to help them move away from life on the streets. We provide resources which inspire and challenge them to transform their lives:'
However, the vast majority of new immigrants coming to The Passage are looking for more straightforward, practical advice in finding employment, getting the right documentation to work and locating accommodation. Half of those using the Employment, Training and Education unit at The Passage are economic migrants. Therefore the charity, along with Westminster City Council, has had to revise its approach in order to minimise the impact on local homeless people.
"The dilemma we face is that the vast majority of immigrants coming to us are exactly the same as those who have succeeded in finding work, but they just haven't prepared." said Sister Ellen. "Unlike our core clients, they are highly skilled, healthy, totally employable and highly motivated to work. Their needs are less complex. They couldn't be further away from our client criteria.
"Our services are not suitable for them. We have had two years of dealing with this situation and we run the risk of confusing and unfocusing our mission because of the strain.
"On this basis we have had to make a very painful decision. People who are young, fit, healthy and ready for work are not our clients. We will signpost them where to go, but fundamentally them is nothing we can do for them."
But Sister Ellen is adamant that is not the end of the story.
She said: "We have a responsibility to these people. By withdrawing our services, we have to speak out about this issue. And to express our fears that we are cultivating social exclusion for tomorrow."
The main issue to be highlighted is the significant proportion of economic migrants who are ill-prepared for life in Britain, arriving without money, a plan of action, or knowing the language. Consequently, these people are becoming a new socially excluded group without proper rights. A further concern is Britain's response to this worrying trend. Sister Ellen accuses the Government of ignoring its responsibilities, as little was done in preparing for this mass arrival. Sister Ellen sees this as a moral issue: 'There is a mismatch between the benefits that these immigrants bring to our country and the way that those who don't succeed, are allowed to fall through the net."
Alarmingly, The Passage has found that an increasing number of people who arrived two years ago have still not been successful and are beginning to decline into long-term homelessness.
Sister Ellen issued a stark
warning about opening up Britain's borders to Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in February 2007 without first putting a proper infrastructure in place to serve those already here. One key proposal is to extend the Job Centre service, and to give the service targets for working with this group, so that there is a more appropriate place other than the charity sector to send them frt. Campaigners hope that early investment now will avoid further, more expensive problems later on. As Sister Ellen puts it: "We must act now before we create more longterm homelessness."
While conceding that raising funds for the international poor arriving on our own doorstop is not an attractive issue for the public, Sister Ellen insisted: "It is totally unacceptable for us as a society to accept that it is all right for people to come into this country and be expected to sleep rough and queue for free food on the street." Last week it was revealed that Westminster City Council is paying Polish migrants to return to their country to stop them sleeping on the streets. So far over 265 people have been flown home. The council is also asking the Government for money to solve the problem.
Angela Harvey, a Westminster councillor, visited Poland to address the country's parliament on the growing number of homeless people in London. She said: 'These people did not come here to sleep rough. They came here to work but a human tragedy is unfolding."
On Monday, the Barka Foundation, a non-governmental organisation from Poland, agreed to collaborate to help the thousands of Polish immigrants living in squalor.
It intends to set up offices in Victoria with the aim of helping migrants to find work and accommodation, as well as providing language skills and counselling for drug and alcohol addiction. "It is terribly sad and I feel very much for my fellow countrymen," said spokeswoman Ewa Saclowslca,.
Since Britain's labour markets were opened to new European members over 400,000 Poles have arrived in the country, proving that the Government's initial numbers were drastically underestimated.
Of those living here the Barka foundation estimates that 45,000 arc living in poverty, although up to 100,000 could be "in difficulty", putting a huge strain on public housing, schools and healthcare services.
On Tuesday the English and Welsh bishops issued a joint statement with The Passage calling on the Government to provide "assistance or programmes to familiarise these workers with British life".
Bishop Patrick 0' Donoghue of Lancaster called on Catholic parishes throughout the country to welcome the migrant workers.
"There is always more to be done and I ask parishes to allow the use of halls so that migrants can meet with one another, deepen fellowship and find a place that they can call home,the bishop said.
"They also need our support for better employment and human rights. I must also add that in our interdependent world of migration, we must not forget the presence of migrants from other parts of Europe and the global South, many of whom are in an irregular situation.
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