This post is contributed by Agnieszka Martynowicz on behalf of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. You can read more about Agnieszka on our Guest Contributors’ Page.
Do you remember the first scene of ‘Love Actually’, the arrivals hall at Heathrow, people hugging and kissing, saying hello? There is so much happiness in these first few seconds of the film; so much of the feeling of safety and joy at being re-united with the people one loves. As someone who left their own country nine years ago to come and live in Ireland, I know that feeling too, being welcomed and awaited on either side of my journey – whether in Warsaw or Belfast or Dublin.
But this is not the experience of everyone landing in Belfast, and especially not those who chose to travel there from Africa, Asia, South America… If you hold a passport from one of the non-EEA countries, you have more chance of being met by UK Border Agency’s ‘Operation Gull’ team, asked for your papers, tickets, asked to open your luggage, hand-over your mobile phone, possibly arrested and taken to a police station where you may spend up to 7 days not knowing what will happen next. You may never get to the arrivals hall to meet your friends or loved ones who await you there.
In 2007, I had an opportunity to observe Operation Gull as part of an investigation by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission into immigration detention in Northern Ireland. For two days, we observed the interaction of UKBA’s officers with people disembarking from domestic flights at Belfast City Airport, observed the searches and interviews, spoke privately to those who were detained at the airport, and to some who were held in police stations in Northern Ireland. We found evidence of racial profiling in immigration enforcement; the use of anti-terrorism stop and search powers to justify internal immigration control; inconsistency and arbitrary decision-making in relation to arrest and detention, stopping people on the basis of a “feeling” or “something not being quite right”. More often than not, the main accusation against those who were stopped was that they had gained entry to the UK by deception, and that they actually always wanted to travel on to the Republic of Ireland.
There is no easy way of establishing how many people are detained in Northern Ireland through Operation Gull every year, as information about it is scarce, to say the least. In the Republic of Ireland, 961 people were detained in prisons in 2008 for immigration-related reasons, many of them for what Frances Webber, an English barrister specialising in immigration law, once termed “crimes of arrival”. We can suppose that quite a few detainees so held were arrested on the Belfast to Dublin train by officers of the Garda National Immigration Bureau who run their own ‘version’ of ‘Operation Gull’ south of the Border. In 2005, a report into immigration detention in Ireland concluded that immigration detainees are a particularly disadvantaged group, not having access to services which are available to immigrants, they may not be made aware of their rights and entitlements or may not be able to exercise them because of language and/or literacy difficulties. This is also true in Northern Ireland.
I wish that those policy makers who so easily talk about “flood-gates” opening for migrant workers, about “bogus asylum-seekers” or about “managed migration” would take some time to sit in a departure lounge of an airport and look carefully around them. They should look at those saying goodbye to their families, friends, countries, for a while or forever. They should listen to Luka Bloom’s song “No matter where you go, there you are” which describes the reality of migration so incredibly well. Even then, they will only ever get a glimpse of how it really feels to say goodbye to people and places that one really loves, and to make a choice to leave in search of a safer, better life. They will probably never experience what it feels like when that dream ends in a prison or a police cell.
The two reports on immigration detention in Ireland and in Northern Ireland can be found here:
Kelly, M. (2005) Immigration-related detention in Ireland, Dublin: IRC, IPRT, ICI. (http://www.iprt.ie/files/immigrationrelated_detention_report.pdf)
Latif, N. and Martynowicz, A. (2009) Our Hidden Borders: The UK’s Border Agency’s Powers of Detention, Belfast: NIHRC. (http://www.nihrc.org/dms/data/NIHRC/attachments/dd/files/109/Our_Hidden_Borders_immigration_report_(April_2009).pdf)