No sanctuary for migrants

Undocumented migrants criminalised

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When Moulay fled from torture in West Africa he did not apply for asylum but instead obtained a fake British passport and tried to blend in.

He was caught during a police stop and search, jailed on remand and sentenced to six months – with his wife and child put in detention.

Prison worsened his mental health problems and left him on the brink of suicide.

He said: “I tried attempting suicide on several occasions. I keep on having nightmares. When people talk to me, I sometimes cannot hear what they are saying. The noises of prison, people banging the doors, all run in my head – and my head wants to explode at that time. I get panic attacks all the time. I used to have flashbacks in the past, but prison made it worse for me.”

Moulay – who shared his story with criminologist Monish Bhatia – is one of hundreds of suspected undocumented migrants arrested every year by police in northern England.

Merging systems

Forces detain refused asylum seekers and undocumented migrants for a variety of immigration offences – with Immigration, Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) agents sometimes even working out of police stations. The trend reflects what Bhatia, from Birkbeck College at the University of London, sees as the merging of the UK immigration and criminal justice systems in recent years.

He said: “Using a false passport, for example, used to be a civil offence but now it’s dealt with under criminal law. There are now 89 immigration-related offences on the statute books where a person can go to prison.

“The focus on the inherent ‘dangerousness’ of this group and re-classification of immigration breaches as serious criminal offences mean the system frequently resorts to imprisonment for what are non-violent offences.

“A lot of the people being targeted this way are really vulnerable. Some are asylum seekers, like Moulay, who have been too scared to make a formal claim. Under the hostile environment, state agencies have been drawn
into the bureaucracy and are now doing border control’s dirty work.”

This year campaigners in Sheffield – the UK’s first designated City of Sanctuary – learned immigration arrests had soared from 67 in 2010 to more than 400 in 2013-2014. The spike followed the introduction of the hostile environment policy in 2012 – which delegated immigration enforcement to employers, schools, the health service and others.

Incentivised arrests

Big Issue North went on to submit similar Freedom of Information requests to other northern police forces.

They showed that in West Yorkshire there were 7,000 immigration-related arrests between April 2010 and March 2019 – with 614 in 2018-19.

Lancashire logged 2,113 arrests between 2010 and 2019 – including 240 in 2018-19. Cheshire Police made 1,244 arrests in 2011-2019 – with 112 in 2018-19.

Police in Merseyside made 1,100 immigration-related arrests between 2010 and 2019, with 112 in 2018-19.

Cumbria’s annual figures are normally in single digits, but peaked in 2013-14 with 40 arrests. Between 2010 and 2019 the force made 224 arrests for immigration offences. Greater Manchester Police did not respond to the FoI request, and North Yorkshire Police could not comply due to cost.

Some forces also admitted that immigration enforcement staff had spent periods based in police stations. ICE agents were stationed in several Sheffield custody suites throughout 2017, as well as several other locations in the area. ICE officers also worked in Carlisle police station in 2017, and two Merseyside police stations between 2017 and 2018.

The UK’s 19 ICE teams carry out various operations including raiding homes and businesses, breaking up sham marriages, and tracking down and arresting refused asylum seekers and people who have overstayed their visas. As recently as 2018, teams were being incentivised to compete on arrest numbers with cake and chocolates.

In 2017 a Romanian Big Issue North vendor and his partner were arrested by ICE agents at a homeless camp in Sheffield and sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

In February agents arrested and detained three long-standing South Yorkshire residents from Zimbabwe – including a learning-disabled man who had lived in Barnsley for 19 years. They were released following demonstrations and a petition.

As well as police, immigration agents work with HM Revenue and Customs, local authorities and other bodies and encourage tip-offs from the public. So far this year, more than 55,600 reports have been made to the Home Office’s immigration enforcement hotline. MPs have made 134 referrals this year and Barnsley Hospital Trust referred 91 people, according to a recent FoI request.

Councils as border control

In Sheffield the council has stated its opposition to the hostile environment, yet officers have been referring individuals who they find suspicious during housing inspections to the Home Office since 2014.

Campaigners would like the city to join 11 Labour local authorities – including Liverpool – which are actively opposing the government’s policies by refusing to share personal data of migrants with the Home Office over fears it could lead to deportations.

John Grayson, of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group – who uncovered Sheffield’s arrest numbers – said: “We have exposed the fact that Sheffield is not really a City of Sanctuary resisting government hostile environment policies.

“Sheffield City Council had in effect turned its council officers into border control guards.

‘The council should have known that to be homeless, destitute and living in slums and ‘not have all the approvals’ for residence in the UK is not unlawful or illegal.

“Our protests have had a real effect on the council, however. They are now convening a meeting in January with asylum rights groups to draw up a strict protocol of how council officers should approach undocumented migrants in the city and stop any reporting to the Home Office and ICE.”

Paul Wood, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and community safety at Sheffield City Council, said: “The council’s Private Sector Housing Team does not have a direct relationship with the UKBA and officers from the service do not check the immigration status of any tenant or individual as part of their role.

“The team works to ensure that vulnerable people are safe, free from harm and to address any illegal activity taking place in private sector housing. Their duty is to ensure that vulnerable people are safe and not being exploited, or put at risk

“However, if the service were to find that that a person is living in the UK without permission and is in a vulnerable situation, they would work with all key bodies and third sector organisations to support that vulnerable person to ensure that they are not being illegally exploited.

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Interact: Responses to No sanctuary for migrants

  • Home Office Prioritises Immigration Rules Over Public Health - Immigration News UK
    25 Apr 2020 10:21
    […] [Header image: Big Issue North.] […]
  • Riccardo
    07 Jan 2020 00:50
    I don't understand why anyone should refrain to report a crime. And if the law says that foreigners illegally residing in the UK are committing a crime then it's our duty as citizens to report them to the relevant authorities.

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