Officials have the right to detain anyone suspected of committing an immigration offence, or if their removal or deportation is pending. There is a Common Travel Area and local people can usually cross the border without any formal checks, and European Union citizens, before Brexit, had freedom of movement for the purposes of work. But the authorities in Ireland, both north and south 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 correct visas. This can include people who have no idea that their visa does not entitle them to cross the border.
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 (Irish police), and UK Home Office operation. The Home Office also conducts enforcement raids on homes and work premises within N Ireland to detect immigration offenders including those who have either overstayed their work or visitorsʼ 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 are thought to have broken Home Office rules. This makes reporting a frightening process. But former detainees often go on to get refugee status.
In the UK, those 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) pending their removal or deportation. There is currently no maximum time limit on how long they can be held. There are ongoing campaigns by human rights groups against indefinite detention, see for example www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk
The UK has the largest detention facilities in Europe. Between 2009 and 2018, between 1,800 and 3,500 people were detained at any given time. In 2018 24,700 people were detained. Around half had been in the asylum system at some time. Read more in the Migration Observatory briefing Immigration Detention in the UK, May 2019.
Many immigration detainees are released, but in 2018, 24,510 people were removed from the UK or left voluntarily after the Home Office initiated their removal. This included over 5,000 refused asylum applicants or their dependents, as well as over 6,000 people who had committed criminal offences. See the Migration Observatory briefing Deportations, Removals and Voluntary Departures from the UK, February 2019
Larne House, Co. Antrim
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 in County Antrim, where they can be held for a maximum of seven days, prior to being moved elsewhere within the UK, removed from the UK or released – in some cases to apply for asylum. Immigration statistics from the Home Office show that between 2011 and the end of September 2019 more than 4,700 people had been detained in Larne House. Three quarters of those detained were from outside Europe.
Local clergy visit Larne House regularly, as part of the Larne House Religious Advisory Group. There is also a secular volunteer visitorsʼ group, a member of the Association of Visitors of Immigration Detainees (AVID).
There has been unease about the inappropriate use of police custody suites for immigration detainees but this seems to have decreased and transfers are quicker since Larne House opened. See an inspection report from 2016.
The implications of Brexit
While there may be no intention to set up routine border checks after Brexit, there are fears that there may be heavier enforcement of immigration control and ad hoc checks may be carried out on the basis of racial profiling. See Fidelma O Hagan’s article, ‘Brexit and immigration control in Northern Ireland’, and ‘The Irish border and Brexit’ .
The Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom: A Joint Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, 2015
Report on an unannounced inspection of the short-term holding facility at Larne House by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, 2016
Robin Wilson, ʻImmigration Detention in Northern Irelandʼ, 2011
Liz Griffith, ʻPrison by another nameʼ in Frontline Social Welfare Law Quarterly, 81, 2011
Robin Wilson, Distant Voices, Shaken Lives; Human Stories of Immigration Detention from Northern Ireland, 2010
NI Human Rights Commission Our Hidden Borders: The UK Border Agencyʼs Powers of Detention