Until very recently it was unusual to meet someone from another country in Northern Ireland but it was very common to have family members who were working elsewhere. Within the last couple of decades we have seen dramatic change, with people from many different nationalities coming here to study, work or visit. The sudden increase in inward migration has been bewildering for many local people and this section of the website sets out to help with understanding immigration, its impact on society, and on the people from other countries and ethnic backgrounds who find themselves here.
Q Who is an immigrant?
A This term has been applied to all people coming into the country to work, but it is now often applied to people who intend to settle and integrate here, as opposed to being a more temporary ‘migrant worker’. It is important not to view people who are part of long-established ethnic communities and populations as ‘immigrants’.
Q Who is a migrant worker?
A Someone who leaves their country with the intention of seeking work elsewhere. In practice the words are usually applied today to people who do not intend to remain permanently in the host country.
Q Who is an economic migrant?
A Anyone who moves from their home country to improve their economic situation can be termed an ‘economic migrant’. This term is sometimes used in a derogatory way, to throw suspicion on people’s motives in seeking asylum. In fact, poverty and economic deprivation, as well as violence, are tools of those who persecute individuals and groups of people. Most economic migrants simply seek a better life for themselves and their families, as many people from Ireland have done for generations.
Q Who is an asylum seeker?
A Someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution by reason of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, in their own country, and seeks refuge in another country.
Q Who is a refugee?
A Someone who applies for asylum, and is successful in being granted refugee status, under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to Refugees. ‘Refugee’ is also the general term for all people who have been displaced from their own countries by persecution, war and civil unrest.
*The term ‘asylum seeker’ is now regarded by many people as a depersonalising term of abuse, often associated with the word ‘bogus’. We try to use the phrase, ‘person seeking asylum’. Similarly, the broad-brush term, ‘illegal immigrant’ is best replaced by the more objective words, ‘undocumented person’. How can a human being be illegal?
A detainee interviewed by NI Human Rights Commission Researchers, Our Hidden Borders: The UK Border Agency’s Powers of Detention, page 52
The Medical Justice Network campaigns to improve conditions for people in detention. Their literature gives a sense of how traumatic detention can be:
‘My torture was terrible, but giving birth in handcuffs came a close second.’
There is a Common Travel Area, including the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and citizens can cross the Irish border at present without any formal checks. There is also freedom of movement for members of the European Economic Area for the purposes of work.
The authorities in Ireland, both north and south, however, try to prevent movement for the purposes of human trafficking and other organised crime. They also try to control unauthorised movement into the island of Ireland or across the internal border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK by people from outside Europe who do not have the proper visas. In recent history, the enforcement of immigration controls, at our ports, airports and the border, has been through Operation Gull, a joint PSNI, Garda Síochána and Home Office operation.
Between 2010 and 2015 1,133 suspected immigration offenders were detected through Operation Gull.
In October 2016, the NI Secretary of State, James Brokenshire stated that there is still a ‘high level of collaboration on a joint programme of work’ between the ROI and the UK to control immigration.
The Home Office also conducts enforcement raids on homes and work premises within N I to detect immigration offenders who have either overstayed their work or visitors’ visas or who have never had proper documentation.
People within the asylum system have to report regularly to the Home Office in Belfast and may be detained at any time, if it is felt that their case has little hope of success, if they have exhausted all appeals, or have broken Home Office rules. This makes reporting a frightening process.
Immigration enforcement is not without problems:
• Travellers may be stopped or detained by mistake.
• There have been accusations of racial profiling.
• People, including asylum applicants, may stray across the border because they are unaware of its existence.
• Those who live on one side of the border and work on the other may experience difficulties.
• The victims of human trafficking may find it hard to prove that they are not immigration offenders or willing participants in organised crime, such as cannabis farming.
• Asylum applicants who are detained may lose their belongings and find it hard to maintain contact with legal advisers and friends.
• Immigration detention is like being imprisoned, is stressful and has no legal time limit.
Read more about these issues:
Migration Observatory briefing, Deportations, Removals and Voluntary Departures, July 2017
People who are charged with immigration offences may be remanded in custody within the prison system but the majority of immigration detainees are housed in Immigration Removal Centres (IRC) on the assumption that they will be removed from the country within a short time.
In the years from 2009 to 2016, between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been detained in the UK at any given time. During 2016 28,900 people entered detention.
In 2015, 40,896 people were removed from the UK or left voluntarily after the Home Office initiated their removal. Of these, 5,238 were asylum applicants, or their dependents. See http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/deportations-removals-and-voluntary-departures-from-the-uk/
Officials have the right to detain anyone suspected of committing an immigration offence, as well as people in the asylum system. Locally, this may include people who have strayed across the border without the correct visa, or asylum applicants who live in the community. Others are detained if it is felt that their asylum application has little hope of success, or if the person has exhausted all appeal remedies.
People picked up in N Ireland used to be detained within the prison system locally but are now sent to Larne House Short-term Residential Holding Unit, Larne, Co. Antrim. These immigration detainees can be held at Larne for a maximum of seven days prior to the majority being removed directly from the UK. A few are moved to Immigration Removal Centres in GB, or released – in some cases to apply for asylum.