The worrying increase in EU citizens forced to leave the UK.

Theresa May’s repeated refusal to guarantee the rights and security of the three million EU nationals living in the UK was interpreted as a negotiating technique, albeit a cruel and anxiety-inducing one, aimed more at leveraging preferential deals elsewhere in the negotiations than intentionally stripping away citizens’ rights. Yet a catalogue of recent examples demonstrating the government’s direct hostility towards EU nationals suggest that the government’s true intention may have been even callous than it first appeared.

Government data shows that deportations of EU citizens are at their highest since records began, with over 5,000 removals during the last twelve months – a 20 per cent rise from the previous year. These alarming figures have prompted the European Commission to investigate reports that the UK is violating its membership conditions prior to leaving the EU, with a commission representative confirming they were seeking information to explain the “increase in the number of EU nationals who are being detained and facing removal from the UK for immigration reasons.”

The extent of the government’s disdain towards the security and futures of EU citizens was demonstrated by a recent Home Office letter, written on behalf of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in response to the request for emergency accommodation made by a Romanian national being held in a UK detention centre. The letter urged the sender to leave the UK, arguing they could “avoid becoming destitute by returning to Romania or another EU member state where you could enjoy access to all your ECHR rights without interference.”

A particularly unsettling reason behind the spike in deportation figures is a Home Office policy, introduced in May 2016 by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, that interprets EU citizens sleeping rough as a misuse of their treaty rights. This harsh and questionable interpretation of EU treaty rights, which form the foundation of EU citizens’ ability to reside in this country, is the first time that EU citizens can be forcibly removed from the UK even if they have not committed a criminal offence.

Recent investigations have shown the lengths the government have taken to target homeless EU nationals, with the Home Office secretly gaining access to a digital map created by Greater London Authority to categorise rough sleepers by nationality. This tool, designed to assist those helping the homeless, was instead used by the Home Office to target rough sleepers from the EU or central eastern Europe. The use of the map led to a 41% increase in the number of EU nationals detained. Liberty, a prominent human rights group, is making an official complaint to the European Commission, with Director Martha Spurrier criticising how “vulnerable foreigners have been systematically targeted by a government obsessed with deportation, whatever the human cost.”

The government’s apparent eagerness to drive EU citizens out of the UK has even resulted in some receiving mistaken orders to leave the country. Around 100 EU nationals received letters from the Home Office notifying them that “a decision has now been taken to remove you from the United Kingdom”, which included a threat of deportation if they did not leave the country within a month. Dr Eva Johanna Holmberg, a Finish academic at a London University, described how receiving the letter felt “like you are being treated like a common criminal” and how “this absurd nonsense has aged me at least five years … it shows the Home Office currently cannot function.”

What is it that is making the government willing to risk breaking both its legal international obligations and the trust of EU nationals living in the UK?

Since 2010, Conservative governments have shared a divisive, if politically convenient, rhetorical commitment to decrease annual immigration to the “tens of thousands”. The number of EU citizens being removed from the UK is five times higher than it was when the conservatives gained power in 2010. As Home Secretary, Theresa May intentionally created a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants which incentivises private sector landlords, teachers, medical staff and other public-sector workers to act as unpaid immigration officers by forcing them to provide information to the authorities. With no regard for the cohesion of our communities, Prime Minister May has been using her promotion to extend this damaging policy to EU citizens in service of her government’s farcical commitment. As Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott put it; “this Tory Government’s obsession with immigration targets and creating a ‘hostile environment’ mires everything that they do.”

Despite her persistent refusal to assuage the anxieties of EU nationals, Theresa May told Parliament in June that “EU citizens are an integral part of the economic, cultural and social fabric of our country and I have always been clear that I want to protect their rights.” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently attempted to reassure a meeting of Polish dignitaries that their post-Brexit rights would be “protected whatever happens”. Their words now seem incredibly hollow when stacked against their government’s covert assault upon the right of EU nationals to continue living in the UK.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights.

This article was first published as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign