By Luke Butterly
Immigrants, especially non-white, are singled going to/from the North, and asylum seekers take a circuitous route. Brexit’s hard border is already here for them, says Luke Butterly.
A unifying thread in debates about Brexit is avoidance of the borders of the past. Underpinning this is a shared understanding of what the border is now: ie, it is not there, it is unobtrusive, you pass it by without noticing.
Yet, for some in our nation —migrants and minorities — there is an alternative reality. Veteran civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey runs a community organisation that supports migrants in Tyrone. She says the biggest issue that immigrants have with the border is finding it.
“While this can be amusing for those to whom invisible borders are non-impacting, this causes anxiety and fear for people required by law to remain on one side of a border or the other.”
McAliskey says the invisible, frictionless border is potentially harmful if you can’t see it.
Someone in Donegal awaiting a decision on their asylum claim who has to go to an appointment or case hearing in Dublin must take the long route, as the most straightforward stops in Derry and thus traverses a national boundary.
The direct bus journey — breaking the law by entering the UK without permission, and then re-entering the Republic without permission — would invalidate their asylum claim.
After a shopping trip to Belfast, a young Dublin-based Chinese student with an ongoing visa application was stopped on the way home. The court accepted she was not attempting to break the law or evade authority, but she was nonetheless sent to prison while awaiting deportation.
Despite a prevailing narrative that there are no border controls, Irish and British police and authorities have carried out clandestine immigration enforcement operations along Northern Ireland’s borders since at least 2003. In 2016, 800 people were “intercepted” under these operations. That was a 66% increase on the year before.
Under a rubric known as Operation Gull, British and Irish police and immigration forces perform “non-routine” immigration controls. Little is known about this operation, but police and immigration officers check cross-border buses, search trains, and stop private cars.
In late 2016, eight labourers — from Romania and Lithuania — were travelling from Armagh to pick vegetables in Louth (20% of Northern Ireland’s agricultural workforce are migrants, mostly from the EU).
As is the norm for most cross-border commuters, they were not carrying their passports when their van was stopped by gardai at an impromptu, day-long immigration checkpoint. The workers were detained for several hours and were only released when their employer intervened, promising to return with their IDs.
Being stopped without the proper documentation on the northern side can mean being locked up in Northern Ireland’s only immigration detention centre, on Hope St, in the port town of Larne.
These checks have slipped under the radar because the people most likely to be affected by them have the least political currency. Even with the Brexit-inspired focus on the border, the pre-existing checks and implications have not been part of the conversation.
Human rights groups have long tried to raise the issue, expressing concerns about the immigration checks on cross-border public transport. They say there is “an obvious focus on people from visible ethnic minority backgrounds”.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a civil rights group that monitors the issue, is concerned that the checks in these areas have involved racial profiling.
While Ireland’s 2004 immigration legislation requires everyone travelling across the land border to be carrying a passport, British and Irish citizensare exempt.
Daniel Holder, CAJ’s deputy director, has questioned how such a law can be policed. In practice, officers end up targeting “some people more than others, on the basis of filtering through hundreds of years of colonial history what they think Irish and British citizens should look like”.
Speaking with people about their experiences at the border brings the problem into sharp focus.
Nomaxabiso Maye is an abortion-rights activist from South Africa and now living in Cork. Following the landslide victory in the referendum to decriminalise abortion last summer, she encountered problems when attempting to campaign for abortion access in Northern Ireland (where the procedure is still illegal).
“There was a big rally in Belfast, and my group wanted to show support with our comrades in the North,” she says.
Maye spoke of the fear amongst migrants about crossing the border. “It is known in our communities — you don’t just travel to the North [of Ireland], unless your paperwork is correct,” Maye says. “Even if your paperwork is correct, for that matter.
"Whether it is a bus or a private car, as an African or non-EU migrant, you are more likely to be stopped and asked to produce your ID. Even though there is literally one island, for people of colour, there is no one Ireland.”
Suleiman Abdulahi is an EU national, with the legal entitlement to cross the border without consequence or permission. A Danish citizen, his work as an interpreter means he travels frequently between Belfast and Dublin. Sulieman says he has been frequently singled out during immigration checks.
“I’m a black person; I have a Muslim name. And my experience is not only unique to me, it is the experience of many EU citizens who look different.”
When the cross-border checks were raised in the Seanad this summer, it was reiterated that these checks do occur, but they are “not geared towards, and do not impact upon, Irish or UK nationals or EU nationals.”
Sulieman recounts being the only minority ethnic passenger on a cross-border bus when it was pulled over.
“A very young Irish girl was sitting on one of the seats with her mom. When the gardaí just walked past everyone else, without checking their IDs, she was actually horrified. So the young girl looked at the guard when he took my passport and studied it, and said, loudly, ‘No-one else? Why? Why did they pick you?’ And I told her, ‘this is normal for me, it happens all the time’.”
Abdulahi does not have faith that this will change, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.
Mohammed Samaana is a nurse and freelance writer. Originally from Palestine, he has lived in Belfast since 2000 and is now a British citizen. Conceptions of citizenship that discount a Britishness inclusive of non-white citizens put him in the paradoxical situation of having to carry his passport to prove he is exempt from carrying it. He says that he has been racially profiled and questioned while crossing the border.
“I’m questioned about everything, from the day I was born to the day I’m there talking with them.” he says. “It reminds of me of Palestine, not being able to cross.”
The difference in treatment compared to his friends and colleagues makes him feel like “a second class citizen”.
“Whether you are Mohammed the Palestinian or Mohammed the British citizen, it’s still the same for them [the police]. If you don’t have the right passport, it’s a problem; if you do have the right passport, you are still subjected to racism and you are seen as a problem.”
When reporting on the issue back in 2011, the Dublin-based Migrant Rights Centre Ireland shared testimony of black Irish citizens being racially profiled and subject to unequal treatment when crossing the border.
The organisation warned that “border checkpoints … are now gradually being re-introduced for the purposes of immigration control. Such measures undermine the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and need to be stopped.”
Last autumn — almost a decade later — a BrexitLawNI report from the law schools of Northern Ireland’s two main universities echoed this, adding that “the situation has already deteriorated since the Brexit referendum; [and that] there are concerns of further deterioration when Brexit actually happens.” They called for these operations to be discontinued.
Like Abdulahi, Samanna sees little difference in a pre-and post-Brexit border.
“It’s a problem for a lot of people now, like a barrier, but many don’t see it,” Mohammed says. “And I don’t know how it is going to be after Brexit — for the majority of people — but it was like that for us already.”
Luke Butterly is a freelance writer, focusing on the politics of Ireland and Britain. He can be found on Twitter@lukejbutterly