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Data suggests racial profiling in 11 major UK cities.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Bureau Local project – featuring in 10 publications.

Illustration: Jasmine Thompson

Home Office data uncovered by a Bristol Cable investigation suggests that immigration officers have used racial profiling techniques to stop and question over 19,000 British citizens over the past five years.

One in five of the 102,552 spot-checks by immigration officers in 11 of the UK’s major mainland cities* were British citizens, making British citizens the national group most stopped by far.

This is despite the fact that British citizens cannot be immigration offenders, and that Home Office guidance states operations are meant to be carried out on an ‘intelligence-led basis’.

Barristers specialising in human rights from Garden Court Chambers said the data suggests “that rather than immigration officials carrying out checks on an intelligence-led basis, as required, the checks are led by racial profiling”.

They went further to say that “by reason of those individuals being British, by definition, any intelligence relied on to spot-check them must have been wholly flawed”.

Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West and Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, have responded to the data seeking answers from the Home Office along with six other MPs across the country, including calls for an “urgent review” by MPs Stella Creasy and Gill Furniss.

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New evidence: a seven month dispute for the data

The new data obtained by the Bristol Cable, following a seven-month Freedom of Information (FOI) dispute with the Home Office, breaks down the number of nationals stopped by immigration officers in 11 of the UK’s major mainland cities.

The figures provide the first public evidence to challenge the strength of the ‘intelligence’ used by immigration officers and the basis on which British citizens are stopped and checked for crimes they cannot commit.

They were not publicly available when the issue was brought to light four years ago, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wrote to the Home Office concerning possible racial bias of immigration officers. At the time, claims of racial profiling at transport hubs were dismissed by Mark Harper, the then minister of state for immigration, who insisted that the operations were evidence-based.

Pragna Patel of the advocacy group Southall Black Sisters said: “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 said “There is definitely racial profiling going on and we’re increasingly concerned about the intelligence.”

Disproportionate stops

In the 10 major cities in England and Wales, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan nationals make up 11% of the non-British population but accounted for a far greater 38% of stops made by immigration officers among non-British citizens.

By comparison, Irish and Scandinavian nationals make up 6% of the non-British population of these cities but were stopped only once for every 250 checks performed by immigration officers among non-British citizens, a markedly smaller proportion.

The data has also brought to light the weak stop-to-arrest ratio of these ‘intelligence-led’ operations. Of the non-Brits stopped and checked, nearly 70% (70,760) were not subsequently arrested, again raising questions on the evidence used in these checks. Conviction data was not made available.

The Home Office’s guidance states that immigration enforcement must be in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, citing that officers “must be able to demonstrate and record their ‘reasonable suspicion’, supported by their clear rationale, in all cases”.

Other relevant guidance states, “Reasonable suspicion can never be supported on the basis of personal characteristics. It must rely on intelligence or information about, or some specific behaviour by, the person concerned.”

In a joint statement commenting on the Cable’s FOI data, barristers Christopher Williams and Nicola Braganza of Garden Court Chambers said that “the intelligence, to the extent it existed, must have been flawed”.

They added: “The data uncovered by the FOI request gives rise to the serious concern that rather than spot-checks being intelligence-led they appear to be driven by a scattergun approach influenced by speculation and, as a result, creating a real risk of being informed, whether on a conscious or sub-conscious level, by racial and ethnic bias on the part of the immigration officers carrying out the checks.”

A ‘hostile environment’

In 2012, Theresa May, then home secretary, gave an interview to the Telegraph explaining how she would reduce illegal migration. “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” she said.

As part of this policy stance, the public have been empowered to provide reports of suspected illegal immigrants. But the result can be weaknesses in the quality of intelligence used by the Home Office.

Gracie Bradley, advocacy and policy officer for 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 2016 report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), over two-thirds of enforcement intelligence relies on allegations made by the general public. Commenting on the reliance of tip-offs from the general public, an official audit recognised that this is “not the most efficient way for Immigration Enforcement to direct its activity”. A another report by the ICIBI found that 68% of all workplace raids in the five years to 2014 failed to find any illegal migrants.

The Brexit debate will create renewed scrutiny of immigration enforcement following recent reports from the leaked Home Office document that indicate the government’s intention to extend elements of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy to EU citizens. Policies have been introduced that require public sector workers, employers and landlords to determine an individual’s immigration status, along with encouraging members of the public to provide information to Immigration Enforcement. In September, revealed that the Home Office had received 482 tip-offs from MPs between 2014 and 2016.

“This move to in-country immigration enforcement is spreading division, exploitation and destitution across the UK,” Bradley said. “It blocks people from accessing education, healthcare, fair working conditions and shelter at the time they need it most, and it’s a damning indictment of our government.”

MPs Thangam Debbonaire, Kerry McCarthy, Afzal Khan, Tulip Siddiq, Hilary Benn, Gill Furniss, Preet Gill and Stella Creasy have called on the Home Office for explanations.

Calls for safeguarding against racial profiling

Unlike with police stop-and-search powers, the Home Office is not required to collect the ethnicity of those spot-checked. This makes positive identification of racial profiling difficult.

“[Even if] the statistics give rise to a reasonable suspicion of racial profiling on the part of officials, with no breakdown by ethnic minority no firm conclusions can be drawn,” said Frances Webber, a former barrister and vice-chair of the Institute for Race Relations.

Asked whether the data indicated racial profiling, a Home Office spokesperson said that “all Immigration Enforcement activity is intelligence-led and fully compliant with the Equality Act 2010”.

Responding to the latest data, an Equality and Human Rights Commission spokesperson said that it would be “deeply worrying” if immigration officials and the Home Office were not following the law and their own guidance regarding immigration spot-checks, because “there must be reasonable evidence for carrying out inspections”.

The spokesperson added, “If British people are recorded as being encountered by immigration enforcement, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were victims of racial profiling. We would need more information to determine that.”

In their statement to the Cable, barristers Williams and Braganza called on the Home Office to provide explanations for the flawed intelligence process, the failure to collect ethnicity data and to introduce safeguards to prevent and monitor possible racial profiling.

“On [our] analysis what is clear is that if spot-checks are intelligence-led, the intelligence is not working,” they said. “It also begs the question as to what the intelligence comprises – whether it is limited to a tip-off from a member of the public, who may not like the look of his or her neighbour, or extends to more. Without disclosure of the basis for the spot-checks, there is no safeguarding against racial profiling.”

Are you a British Citizen? Have you been stopped by Immigration Enforcement? Get in touch confidentially: / 077 291 240 80

*The 11 cities are:Bristol, London, Birmingham,Cardiff,Glasgow,Leeds,Liverpool,Manchester,Newcastle, Sheffield and Nottingham

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