Belfast, United Kingdom – The high rate and pattern of immigration control operations in Northern Ireland’s capital, revealed following the release of new data obtained by Al Jazeera, has raised concerns about possible racial profiling and effects of Brexit.
Home Office data, following an access to information request, spanning nearly 10 years, shows Belfast had a higher rate of immigration enforcement checks compared to 11 major UK cities including London, Birmingham and Glasgow.
The top five nationalities arrested in Belfast were Romanian, Nigerian, Chinese, Pakistani and British, together accounting for over 40% of all stops.
While the British cannot be immigration offenders given that Northern Ireland is in the UK, they can be arrested as part of efforts to crack down on criminal suspects.
The overall average arrest rate was 32%, a level that some say casts doubt on official claims that such operations are intelligence-led.
Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) said there was “at least a perception of racial profiling, rather than intelligence, driving a high proportion of immigration checks”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, she said: “This is likely to get worse when the UK starts rolling out its stricter immigration frameworks.
“The quantity and low pass rate of immigration checks must be taken into account.”
The Member for South Belfast said the UK Home Office’s approach was “out of step with the needs of the island of Ireland economy and our more open approach to immigration”.
Irish Sea border
Immigration Enforcement is part of the London-based Home Office, whose responsibilities are to prevent people from entering the UK undocumented and staying too long.
The high rate of checks is notable due to Belfast’s relatively low immigrant population.
A spokesperson for the Home Office told Al Jazeera that immigration control operations in Northern Ireland “play a critical role in detecting and deterring immigration abuse” from the travel area common between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Immigration law enforcement operations include checks at ports and airports, primarily in Belfast, on domestic journeys across the Irish Sea to Great Britain.
Ireland and the UK maintain a common travel zone, and UK immigration law excludes “routine” passport checks for passengers traveling from Ireland to the UK, experts say.
The high rate of checks, and the rationale for them, means that the Home Office has “admitted to creating a border in the Irish Sea by targeting travel from Northern Ireland to Great Britain for passport controls, ”Úna Boyd, immigration project coordinator with the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in Belfast, told Al Jazeera.
“The information provided and testimonies on these checks indicate that they are not” intelligence investigations “but rather selective passport checks without any clear legal basis – often targeted against passengers on the basis racial discrimination, ”Boyd added.
Northern Ireland’s borders have been the subject of intense debate since the UK voted in favor of Brexit four years ago, in particular the need to keep the land border open with the Republic of Ireland.
As part of these negotiations, controls on goods between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland were introduced in January, which has been blamed for causing the recent troubles in Northern Ireland.
While so far the focus has been largely on the impact of Brexit on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea, “these figures show that the movement of people should also be of concern”, Boyd said.
Questions have been asked about the measures the UK will take after Brexit to control immigration along its only border with the EU state.
However, these figures show that there has already been a high level of controls for some time.
Katy Hayward, a Brexit expert from Queen’s University Belfast, told Al Jazeera the figures come at “a time of major change in traffic conditions across UK borders”.
‘While the UK’s promise not to have immigration checks at the Irish border necessarily means more checks and surveillance of people living, working and traveling in the UK, this needs to be treated with caution, in particular in Northern Ireland. “
Immigration control operations screened 11,247 people in Belfast from January 2012 to September 2020.
This rate is more than three times higher than in London over the same period when the population is taken into account. The check rate in Belfast was almost 36 people per 10,000 and less than 12 per 10,000 in London.
In addition, the total number of such stops in Belfast (11,247) was higher than that of large cities such as Glasgow (7,120), Liverpool (5,905) and Leeds (4,030).
Over the nearly nine-year period, the number of checks in Belfast has fluctuated. They rose steadily to peak in 2016 (2365), before dropping considerably in 2017 (635) and 2018 (556). They increased again in 2019 (1299).
The arrest rate per arrest also changed over the period.
The average was 32 percent, although for many years it was below 25 percent. However, over the two years with some of the lowest stops, the arrest rate was 80-85%. This figure fell again in 2019, to around 34%.
The period covered saw several changes and challenges to UK immigration policy, including the introduction of new ‘hostile environment’ policies in 2012 and 2014, as well as the reduction of some operations as a result of the backlash from the Windrush scandal revelations in 2018.
Asked about fluctuations in the number of arrests and changes in arrest rates, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “There has been no change in policy during the period described and all of our operational activity is intelligence driven. ”
MP Stephen Farr, deputy leader and Brexit spokesperson for the Alliance of Northern Ireland party, told Al Jazeera: “These reports are worrying and unfortunately not surprising.”
The government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has “doubled down on unjust and institutionally racist hostile environmental policies,” he added.
“The Common Travel Zone defends the rights of the citizens of these islands and should not be used as an excuse to discriminate against people in Northern Ireland.”