West Against Racism Network condemns the jailing of homeless Polish man

West Against Racism Network (WARN) condemns the jailing of homeless Polish man

WARN has condemned the jailing of Robert Lewandowski, a homeless Polish man who squatted in a Belfast apartment for four days at Christmas to avoid the freezing weather.

Flair Campbell, spokesperson for WARN commented ‘What was ‘unjustifiable’ in this case, to use the District Court Judge Ken Nixon’s words in sentencing Mr. Lewandowski to six months imprisonment was the jailing of this vulnerable man, not his actions in squatting in a flat for a few days during temperatures of -10 degrees’.  His actions were clearly those of a desperate man – desperate to stay warm and alive during the coldest spell of weather experienced in the past 25 years. Judge Nixon’s comments and decisions were punitive in the extreme and without warrant”.

Mr. Lewandowski’s case bears much similarity to the horrific case of Oksana Sukhanova, a 27 year old Ukrainian migrant worker. Like Mr. Lewandowski, Ms. Sukhanova ended up homeless and on the streets after losing her job in a poultry factory. With her work permit tied to her job she was unable to obtain other work. She ended up on the streets over Christmas 2004 and as a result contracted severe frostbite and had both legs partially amputated. More recently another Polish man, Robert Kowalski, who was also homeless, died from exposure to bitterly cold conditions in Belfast on Christmas Eve 2009.

The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister has recently consulted on a Strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI Strategy). In its consultation document it recognises the issue faced by individuals who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and states that government is ‘determined to examine what support (it) can give to people, who, through no fault of their own, fall into difficulty’.  A similar commitment was made back in 2005 when Oksana Sukhanova lost both her legs – Mr. Lewandowski’s would most definitely have faced a similar terrible outcome had he remained on the streets.

Despite all of the spoken and written pledges the reality is that the situation for those migrant workers who find themselves without work and homeless has not changed since Oksana Sukhanova’s case.  This is despite the recommendation from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2009, based on its research into homelessness and people with no or limited access to public funds, that ‘… no one should be allowed to fall into destitution.  For the purpose of ensuring these recommendations, the Government should ensure that everyone has access to appropriate emergency accommodation’.

Action on this issue was overdue in 2004. We urgently want to hear what our political leaders, and in particular our Minister for Social Development, Ministers for Equality and Human Rights (OFMDFM) and our Minister for Health have to say regarding this appalling judgement, how and when they intend to address the issue of lack of recourse to public funds, and more immediately when they intend to establish a ‘crisis fund’ for workers who have become unemployed but are unable to access public funds.

WARN supports Mr. Lewandowski’s decision to appeal this judgement and urges others in positions of influence to do likewise.

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