The immigration body in Northern Ireland has had to compensate black visitors wrongly accused of asylum fraud, writes Susan McKay.
Last week the British Home Office abandoned its intention to deport an African family from Northern Ireland. It did so because the family has every right to be in Belfast, and had visas, passports and other papers to prove this when they arrived at Belfast harbour last month, on the boat from Scotland.
This did not stop officials from the British Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) detaining the family, parents Bola and Paul, who, for reasons of privacy, do not wish their real names to be used, and their three children, one of whom is an Irish citizen. Paul was in fact taken to Antrim police station and held overnight, then moved to Dungavel detention centre in Scotland for 10 days.
"They took our papers and they took my husband. I was left alone with the children and the baby and five bags," says Bola, a Nigerian businesswoman. "They said they were going to deport us. I told them we had done nothing wrong. They said we were lying. Before they took him away, I spoke to my husband in my own language. They said I was not allowed to do that. I had to speak English."
When Paul arrived in Scotland, he was handcuffed. "We are not common criminals," says Bola. "We had no intention to deceive anyone. They were very aggressive. I was shocked." Because they have an Irish child and they have independent means, Bola and Paul are entitled under EU legislation to live in the UK. They will not be a "burden on the state". They had already had their documents checked when they entered the UK through London. However, their case is, according to lawyers in the North, an example of what Belfast solicitor Barbara Muldoon calls "a heavy-handed, racist approach" to black people coming into the North.
LAST MONTH, FRANK Kakopa was given compensation and an unreserved apology from the BIA. The structural engineer from Warrington had what he describes as "the worst experience of my life" when he brought his wife, 15-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter for a weekend break to see the Giants Causeway in 2005. The family had booked a B & B on the Antrim coast and a hire car to be picked up at Belfast City Airport. Instead, Kakopa, who is originally from Zimbabwe, was arrested and thrown in jail.
"We'd planned this trip for some time and everyone was quite excited," he says. "When we arrived, officials asked to see my ID. I'd phoned immigration the night before to check what documents I needed, and I'd also been in touch with the car hire firm. So I had our drivers' licenses, the children's passports, a pay slip with my national insurance number and a bank statement. They asked me if we were asylum seekers. I said, 'You have our papers, why do you ask that?' I was smiling, but I didn't feel very welcome. Then they took us aside and started interrogating me in front of the other passengers. They kept saying, 'Prove who you are.'"
Kakopa was brought to see Irish officials at the airport. He had worked in Dublin before he got his current job in England. They also questioned him. He complained to the BIA about the way he was being treated but this was not recorded. By this stage he had been separated from his wife and children.
Several hours of questioning later, a BIA official told him he was an illegal immigrant, took mugshots and called the security guards. "It was so humiliating. They were chaining people up like animals. I refused to be handcuffed. I said I was not going to walk past my children in chains," says Kakopa. "My daughter was screaming. I couldn't look at her . . . I was struggling to control myself."
All the others in the prison van were, like Kakopa, black. They were taken to Maghaberry Prison where Kakopa's possessions were taken, and he was made to strip and given a full body search. "They made comments about my skin colour. Then I was thrown in a cell with another criminal and the door was locked. My window to the other world was closed. It was horrible." He became ill and had to be taken to the prison hospital. He was not allowed to contact his family that day or the next.
Meanwhile, the immigration authorities had confiscated his children's passports so they were unable to fly home with their mother. "My wife was stranded so she had to call friends in Dublin to come and look after the children, and she flew home to get my passport."
She brought the passport to Liverpool airport to show officials and contacted her husband's employer. He, too, contacted immigration. Kakopa was eventually released on the Monday afternoon and given a prisoner's pass to get the bus into Belfast. He had no record of his detention except the envelope in which some of his belongings were returned to him.
"This was a nightmare," he says. "I rang my mother and sister in Zimbabwe and they couldn't believe it. You expect these things in lawless countries. It has really damaged my faith in the authorities." He said he had taken his case through the North's Equality Commission to clear his name. He settled the case out of court for a relatively small amount. "I don't think I could have managed to stand up in court and go through it all. We are private people. We are all very damaged by this."
Eileen Lavery, head of enforcement with the Equality Commission, said the way the Kakopa family was treated was "horrendous" and that it highlighted the need for the full implementation of the Race Relations Order. The BIA agreed to meet the commission to review its policies and discuss race awareness training.
The BIA's chief inspector, Elwyn Soutter, says Operation Gull has been extremely successful. "We are detecting 800 to 900 illegal immigrants a year," he says. "We could catch far more if we had more resources. We occasionally get our facts wrong, but that is an inevitable by-product. We apologise when we do. The figures speak for themselves. It is a tiny percentage of the huge volume of people who are travelling illegally. We detain people if we think they'll abscond. We have saved Irish taxpayers millions in fraud by catching people who are trying to flaunt immigration controls by using the land border into the Republic."
He denied that there was any racism in the way his officials operate. "They question everyone, but inevitably EU citizens can quickly satisfy us. It is not terribly surprising to find it is people who are black or of other ethnicities who are detained."
However, Muldoon, who deals with many cases of Africans who are detained under Operation Gull, says this attitude is outrageous. "You wouldn't say in relation to any other crime that it was acceptable to lock innocent people up just because others were committing crimes. These people are either living in the UK or they have been through immigration on entry to the UK. They are making domestic journeys. Their rights are being trampled on. They are being left traumatised, angry and upset. This is meant to be the new Northern Ireland. There seems to be a deathly silence from our politicians."
Muldoon is currently seeking compensation for a client who came to Belfast to get medical treatment, for which she paid and had receipts. She was accused of attempting to defraud the National Health Service and her passport was confiscated. Another client from Cameroon was on a professional training course in England and came to the North to visit friends. He was detained at Maghaberry, where, he said, he was "paraded naked like an animal" in front of prison guards. His detention was declared illegal. The Home Office is appealing this decision.
THE REFUGEE ACTION Group, which operates under the auspices of the Belfast Law Centre, is also concerned about illegal detentions which are being carried out under conditions of secrecy. "It is appalling that there is no independent, transparent oversight of Operation Gull," says its chairwoman, immigration advisor Anna Morvern.
"People are being arrested and taken away to detention centres before they can get independent legal advice." The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is currently investigating Operation Gull and is to report on its findings early in 2008.
Asked whether the Irish Government had any concerns about the way Operation Gull was being implemented, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that "due to the ongoing success of Gull operations [ in confronting failed asylum seekers], it has been proposed that more operations be conducted at Belfast and Dublin airports."