This article was written by Rita Chadha of RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London), a member of the Detention Forum. The article was originally published in Open Democracy as part of the #unlocked series.  

Growing police engagement in immigration enforcement distorts people’s rights, fosters mistrust and does the police a huge disservice. But the blurred lines that are emerging in London’s communities are just part of a more general criminalisation of migrants.

The articles featured so far in openDemocracy’s Unlocking Detention series reveal immigration detention in the UK to be inhumane, cruel and disproportionate to the supposed offence of being an ‘immigration offender’. However, an area rarely considered or critiqued is that of the actions taken prior to an individual entering a detention centre.

If we are to reform detention, we need to look at what it is that determines whether a migrant enters detention or not, for immigration enforcement is a space plagued with ambiguity. Like detention, it a space where rights and entitlements are equally abused and forgotten – all in the interest of ‘control’ and ‘security’.

The police have always had a role in dealing with immigration offenders, but since 2012, through Operation Nexus, their role in identifying, arresting and detaining immigration offenders has become mainstreamed. The Metropolitan Police in London (where Operation Nexus was initiated) has, as a result of their engagement in immigration detention, introduced a two tier system of policing (migrant vs non migrant) where public scrutiny and accountability are virtually nonexistent.

Operation Nexus was initially established in 2012 for two weeks during the Olympic Games. Initially called Operation Terminus (until it was pointed out that this was rather inappropriate) it was initially designed to target high harm, high risk, and prolific foreign national criminals. These could be individuals who had a serious offending history: murder, attempted murder, grievous bodily harm (GBH), possession and use of weapons (knives and guns), sexual offences, human trafficking or three or more convictions for burglary or robbery. Foreign nationals are defined as anyone without British citizenship or a British passport.

It is difficult to argue for a place, even in the most liberal of societies, for individuals who are such a serious risk to others. But from the outset attempts have been made to expand the scope of Operation Nexus to the wider migrant population and to use it as a political volleyball in the propaganda against immigration.

During the first quarter of 2014, a total of 56,887 arrests were made in London. Of those 16,425 (29%) were foreign national criminals – 51% were non European and 49% European. At the same time, the latest data to stem from Operation Nexus (June to August 2014), presented at a meeting last week, shows that 26 high harm individuals have been removed from the UK in recent months. Yet the same Nexus dataset shows that a further 73 individuals have been extradited and 303 removed. This is important, for the figures show clearly that Operation Nexus is catching and detaining more than just ‘high harm’ criminals. Though it remains the case that Operation Nexus centrally focuses on the high risk cases – as per its initial mandate – at the local level, more ‘low level’ offenders and migrants are being detained by the police as opposed to Home Office Immigration Enforcement.

It is what happens to these foreign nationals who are not criminals – and who are simply defined as ‘immigration offenders’ – that is of greatest concern to the organisation I work with, RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London). This is the reason behind the series of tools that we are currently developing to assist migrant community organisations in their understanding and scrutiny of the relationship between policing and immigration enforcement practices.

Entering custody

In theory, all individuals who enter custody will have their details checked against a Home Office database as well as national and international crime databases. The police will occasionally draw out a reference to such databases also finding ‘white British citizens’ wanted for offences abroad, but it is hard to believe that there is a consistent check of absolutely all individuals that go through custody. Given the Met’s history of race relations and ongoing issues with racism, you can well believe that some officers would take short cuts and only check the Home Office database if the person was obviously ‘foreign’.

If identified as an immigration offender, either by virtue of the Home Office database, or as a result of not being able to produce valid documentation, the individual is detained, both under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and the Immigration Act. Both investigations in theory will run concurrently. However just as in immigration detention centres, there is variable access to appropriate legal advice.

Commonly individuals will require an immigration as well as a criminal solicitor. We have heard of far too many cases where individuals have been given a duty solicitor who knows nothing about immigration and cannot advise them. Whilst there are specially trained Operation Nexus officers in at least 19 London custody suites (49% of Met officers have been trained on Nexus) their role is merely bureaucratic, as they grapple to get Home Office Immigration Enforcement to take responsibility for individuals identified for immigration offenders. You can imagine the scenario: with the clock ticking, the police officer has completed what he needs to do and then they are awaiting a pick up, or call, or – more commonly – a fax from the Home Office Immigration Enforcement Directorate telling them what to do next. At best the individual will be asked to present themselves at Lunar House in Croydon for ‘signing’ – a way of tracking their presence in the UK. At worst they will be taken into immigration detention.

There are obvious drawbacks to this channelling of immigration enforcement powers through an unspecialised police force, but there are also wider concerns. These relate not just to access to justice for those taken in, but also to public perception of both the police and immigration issues locally.

Accountability and public perception

Local police involvement in the detention of migrants raises a number of serious questions of process, policy and procedure. One significant concern is the difficulty of working out who is responsible if there is a serious harm – or worst still a death – in custody: Home Office Immigration Enforcement or the police? Furthermore, the default risk of being detained by police as a default of their immigration status may prevent some of the most vulnerable migrants from approaching them for help when needed.

Once held in custody, there is very little opportunity for remedy or even to access the most basic recourse to justice. Independent Custody Visitors, who are volunteers, represent additional actors who are poorly briefed on immigration. RAMFEL’s understanding is that Independent Custody Visitors have only received the briefest of training sessions on immigration issues, so they are in no position to genuinely safeguard and protect the rights of immigration detainees in police custody. One lay custody visitor told me last week that they were only ever able to interview a really small number of detainees on their visits because so many didn’t speak English and there was no access to Language Line or translation facilities in the cells.

Over the last year we have seen a growing number of clients come to us after being released from police custody or ringing from detention centres asking for clarification on their situation. This suggests that somewhere along the way people detained for immigration offences are not having their rights and the process explained clearly to them. Were individuals who have been detained clear about what they have been detained for, the alleged offence would more commonly be at the forefront of their mind.

Police engagement in immigration detention may be a cost cutting exercise for the Home Office, but the reality is that it achieves very little, distorts people’s immigration rights, is without accountability or scrutiny and does the police a huge disservice. This is especially true in London, where it works counterintuitively to the local policing model and at a critical time when the police need the support of and engagement with migrant communities more than ever.

The merging of the police’s role in preventing crime and aiding immigration enforcement also raises a wider debate over why, when and in the eyes of whom the fact of not having the right papers makes an individual ‘criminal’. In this sense, the blurred roles that are emerging in our communities may be part of a more general criminalisation of migrants. Immigration enforcement powers may be framed as administrative rather than punitive but, but as we have seen in the rapid increase in the practice of detaining migrants, the boundary is often blurred for those on the receiving end as well as for the public looking in from the outside.