09.10.17 The Bureau Local

Thousands of British citizens swept up in immigration spot checks

The Home Office is accused of "racial profiling" by human rights lawyers as MPs call for review

Members of Parliament and human rights lawyers are calling on the Home Office to review how immigration officers carry out spot checks after data suggested that they were using racial profiling and stopping Britons. 

The Bureau, working with the media co-operative, The Bristol Cable, has obtained new Home Office data. The data shows that over 19,000 British citizens, out of a total of 102,552 people, were caught up in immigration checks over the last five years - nearly one in five. 

Human rights lawyers say that this high proportion of British citizens suggests that "the checks are led by racial profiling". The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, who has previously raised the issue of raids in her own constituency, is calling on the Home Office to “urgently review” its practices and told the Bureau: “the blanket targeting of communities like mine is neither intelligent nor effective”.

The data, covering January 2012 to January 2017, was obtained by the Bristol Cable and then analysed by the Bureau. The Home Office has always insisted that their officers do not challenge people on the basis of ethnicity, but on the grounds of "intelligence". 

However, as nearly one in five of those questioned are British citizens, the human rights lawyers interviewed question that assumption. They stress that "by reason of those individuals being British, by definition, any intelligence relied on to spot check them must have been wholly flawed". 

The data covers 11 of the largest cities in England, Wales and Scotland. It records the nationalities of people stopped by immigration officers in those cities. In London alone, some 8,002 British citizens were stopped. Most strikingly, nearly one in three of those stopped in Sheffield and Glasgow were British citizens.

Immigration enforcement officials gather during a raid Via the Anti Raids Network

This is not the first time that the Home Office has been in the spotlight, accused of deploying racial profiling. 

In 2013 the equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wrote to the Home Office, following concerns by human rights campaigners and politicians that immigration officers were using racial profiling techniques at public transport hubs. 

Theresa May was Home Secretary at this time. North London MP Jeremy Corbyn, (then a back-bencher), also raised the issue in Parliament, saying that he had witnessed such stops at tube stations in London. The then Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, insisted, in his reply, that "we do not stop people at random; we are not empowered to do so by law", adding that "we stop people when we think there is intelligence to indicate that they are breaking our immigration laws."

Home Office logo outside its Westminster headquarters
Home Office logo outside its Westminster headquarters via Juliet Nagillah/the Bureau

"Divisive and offensive"

However, the new data obtained by Bristol Cable and the Bureau questions the Home Office’s claim that the stops are based on intelligence. 

The data, which took seven months to obtain, following a freedom of information dispute with the Home Office, was analysed by two barristers at Garden Court Chambers, Chris Williams and Nicola Braganza. 

In each city examined, British citizens were the most stopped nationality, despite the fact that Home Office guidance states that stops must be carried out on "an intelligence-led basis".

The barristers conclude that “the obvious inference is that those who look like immigrants are targeted".

Four Members of Parliament including the shadow immigration Minister, Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gordon, Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West -  have called on the Home Office to take measures in response to the findings. 

Stella Creasy MP, from the north London constituency of Walthamstow, told the Bureau: "As we have seen in Walthamstow, this policy is not only divisive and offensive, it is also a waste of time." 

Afzal Khan MP told the Bureau: “It is vital that these checks are intelligence led”.

Thangam Debbonaire MP has submitted a written question to the Home Secretary seeking clarification on the matter.

Other groups have also raised concerns. 

Frances Webber, a former barrister who is now the vice-chair of the Institute for Race Relations, said: "It is not enough for the Home Office simply to deny that racial profiling takes place, given the evidence of heavy-handed stops of [black and minority] Britons at tube stations...The Home Office needs to demonstrate that its practice has changed." 

Pragna Patel, of the advocacy group Southall Black Sisters, told the Bureau: "this data clearly points to racial profiling practices by the Home Office. Unfortunately this is part of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy that this Government is intent on pursuing, no matter the impact on communities and individuals”.

Prominent Glasgow human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar told the Bureau: "There is definitely racial profiling going on and we’re increasingly concerned about the intelligence."


Stops by British Immigration Officials between January 2012 to January 2017
City All stops Stops of British citizens Percentage of Britons stopped of the total
London 58,463 8,002 13.7%
Manchester 9,509 2,143 22.5%
Birmingham 7,516 1,966 26.2%
Sheffield 4,687 1,540 32.9%
Glasgow 4,762 1,507 31.7%
Cardiff 4,437 1,126 25.4%
Liverpool 4360 678 15.6%
Newcastle 3,494 806 23.1%
Leeds 2,799 817 29.2%
Nottingham 1,382 360 26.1%
Bristol 1,143 151 13.2%
TOTAL 102,552 19,096 18.6%

Source: Home Office, analysed by The Bureau and The Bristol Cable

When the police stop and search suspects they must record their ethnicity. By contrast, the Home Office does not routinely collect that information when it stops people for immigration checks. This means that although the data demonstrates that one-fifth of those stopped are British citizens, their ethnicity is not currently known. 

Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal Khan MP joined Stella Creasy’s call for the Home Office to take action on this point, saying: "The Home Office must start collecting data on the demographics of people whose immigration status they check." In Manchester, where his own constituency is located, over 2,000 British citizens were stopped.

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq said: “these statistics reveal a system which seems arbitrary, unsophisticated and possibly discriminatory to British citizens simply trying to go about their day. I hope the Home Office will reflect on these figures.”

A Briton speaks out about his experience via Clémentine Schneidermann/the Bureau

Raided - the story from Cardiff

Meanwhile, anecdotal and research evidence suggests that the nature of enforcement raids is changing. 

The independent research organisation Corporate Watch, which publishes information on multinationals, charted the issue of workplace raids in a 2016 report. The organisation noted that on-street enforcement "appear to have decreased in the last few years",  since the outcry following the 2013 raids around transport hubs. However, it added that workplace raids continue and that residential checks may also be on the increase. 

The Bureau has charted one particular raid in Wales. On a Friday evening in July 2017, at about 9pm, James Li (name changed) was standing in the Chinese takeaway restaurant he had known his entire life, working the last hour of his shift.

The night was quiet, the shop empty. “Nothing was happening, I was just sort of—I remember I had just been looking at my phone, so I switched it off. I had my back to the front of the shop,” he said.

“Then I turn around, and see these people rush in.”

Six immigration officers were suddenly standing in the shop. They were in black or navy blue gear, and were wearing boots and black vests, Li recalled. “They came in with a document, locking all the exits, making sure no one got away,” Li said.

 “They got us all into the front of the shop, asking who the owner was, who was responsible, who was in charge,” Li said.

 “When it came to me, they first asked me if I had any sort of documentation. But I said obviously I wouldn't. It was just a casual weekend job...no need for me to be carrying documentation,” Li, who is British Chinese and speaks with a subtle Welsh accent, said. "They asked 'where was I born, where was I brought up.'”

He told the immigration officers that the takeway "was actually my home for twenty five years. I was born just down the road, everything was local. I went to school across the road. Based on my accent and how I was dressed, they were satisfied I had the right to be here. The interview was pretty short,” he said, adding that officers did not insist further on seeing his passport.

A wide shot of the street near where the raids took place via Clémentine Schneidermann/the Bureau

The Chinese takeaway, in the Heath area of Cardiff, looks like one of the many other takeaways located there. It is a take-out restaurant on street level, and it has a flat above it.

Shops, restaurants and nail salons dot the rows of two-storey homes along the main road and its side streets, a mix of social housing and older buildings. Over three quarters of pupils at one of the schools in the area come from a minority ethnic background, a school report from 2016 said. It is, as Li said, his home. 

Li, who is now 30 and also works at a bank, lived in a flat above the restaurant with his parents for 27 years. They migrated to the UK from Hong Kong in the 1970s and became British citizens in the late 80s.

When they retired in 2014, Li and his parents moved out of the flat, and new managers took over. Li still works the odd shift there, usually on Fridays and Saturdays. A local resident, who wished only to be identified as Mrs Hughes, said the takeaway in question had been around “for as long as she could remember.” This was the first time something like this happened to him. “I was a little bit intimidated..you know, six people storming the building, and they’re dressed quite officially,” he said.

The restaurant’s delivery driver, a British-born man of Pakistani origin, arrived after the raid had begun. “His interview seemed to last a bit longer, they were asking about gaps in employment, they were asking about where he was educated in college. He was born in Cardiff, he had a bit of an accent,” Li said.

But once the officers were satisfied with his situation, he was let go, too. According to Li, the driver later said the immigration officers had parked their van down a side street. A reason he thinks was to prevent those in the takeaway and flat from having any advance notice.

According to Li, the officers did not offer a reason for their visit, saying that it was a normal check. They proceeded to interview all those in the building at the time—Li, three other employees,  and the managers upstairs, but not their children—one by one. The raid lasted about 40 minutes. No one was arrested.

At least four other establishments in the area, including a nail salon, a massage parlour and another takeaway restaurant, have been raided in the past year by immigration officers, the Bureau was able to confirm through direct eyewitness accounts.

Reflecting on his experience, Li says: “Physically, I look like a foreigner. They had to interview me because they were there for the takeaway, and then I just happened to be there, and I had to be interviewed as well,” Li said. “I was collateral damage.”

A photograph of the front of the Home Office building in Westminster
Home Office entrance, Westminster via Juliet Nagillah/the Bureau

A "hostile environment"

In 2012, Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, gave an interview to the Telegraph explaining how she would reduce illegal migration. She said: “the aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.

The government has introduced policies that require public sector workers, employers and landlords to verify an individual's immigration status, along with encouraging members of the public to provide information to Immigration Enforcement. However, the result can be weaknesses in the quality of intelligence used by the Home Office.

Gracie Bradley, Advocacy Officer for the human rights organisation Liberty, said the “so-called ‘intelligence-led’ immigration enforcement is rarely anything of the sort – in practice these are often fishing expeditions based on ‘intelligence’ as paltry as a call from a disgruntled neighbour.”

According to a 2015 report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, over two thirds of immigration raids on workplaces found no illegal workers. Commenting on the reliance of tip offs from the general public, an official audit recognised this is "not the most efficient way for Immigration Enforcement to direct its activity".

In September of this year, the leading political news website, politics.co.uk revealed that the Home Office had received 482 tip-offs from MPs between 2014 and 2016.

A recently leaked Home Office document indicates the Government’s possible intention to extend and expand on current policy.

Immigration enforcement vans
Immigration enforcement vans Via the Anti Raids Network

Getting the data - a seven month battle

The data we publish today was not publicly available when the issue was in the spotlight four years ago. In 2013, the Equality and Human Right Commission wrote to the Home Office following complaints of racial profiling by immigration officers at transport hubs. At the time, the claims were dismissed by Mark Harper, the then Minister of State for Immigration, who had insisted that the operations were intelligence based.

The new data obtained by The Bristol Cable, follows a seven month Freedom of Information dispute with the Home Office. The information request was sent to the Home Office on 4 January 2017 but the data was not released until 3 August 2017, when the Information Commissioner’s Office approved The Bristol Cable’s appeal and required the Home Office to respond to the request. The timestamp on the datafile shows that the information had been extracted on 23 January 2017, just two and a half weeks after the request.

The data breaks down the number of nationals stopped by immigration officers in the UK’s eleven major mainland cities - London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and Cardiff from January 2012 to January 2017. It gives us the first insight into the number of British nationals being stopped and challenges the previous assertion from the Minister of State for Immigration.

The Home Office said:

“It is unlawful for an Immigration Officer carrying out their duties to undertake any act that constitutes direct discrimination based on a person’s race or ethnicity.

“A person’s colour or perceived ethnic origin can never be the basis of a reasonable suspicion that someone is an immigration offender. Nothing in the data provided indicates that this is happening.”

Get the data

All the data and correspondence relating to the Freedom of Information request is available here.

Access it here

This story is part of the Bureau Local project. It was researched and written with the co-operation of The Bristol Cable

Main image, of tube passengers being stopped by immigration officials in north London, courtesy of Friends of Kensal Rise Library.

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