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This guest post from Chris Gilligan is based on a presentation he gave at SDV's 2019 AGM.

The Irish border has been a contentious issue throughout the Brexit negotiations. The problem of the Irish border has puzzled and frustrated many MPs at Westminster, particularly English Leave supporting MPs. The Irish border issue has exposed the ignorance that most people in Britain (i.e. the United Kingdom minus Northern Ireland) have, regarding Northern Ireland.

The Withdrawal Agreement (2.0), that Boris Johnson negotiated with the EU, secured a guarantee of an ‘open’ border on the island of Ireland, by establishing customs checks at Irish Sea crossings.

The whole discussion on the Irish border has revealed something else, which is less often commented on: the anti-human nature of the concern about the Irish border. This anti-human nature can be seen in the fact that there has been more concern about the freedom of movement of goods, (including cattle, sheep and milk), than there has been about human freedom.

Ignorance about Northern Ireland has continued to characterise discussion about the Irish border, not just from MPs and the general public, but also from Brexit experts, who you would expect to know better. Take the example of Professor Anand Menon, the director of The UK in a Changing Europe, the principal academic institute in the UK for research on UK-EU relations. In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, conducted shortly after Boris Johnson’s deal was announced, he was asked a question about immigration and the Irish border.

Interviewer: ‘How do we control EU migration? If a would-be migrant flies to Dublin and takes a train through the open border, surely they could then jump on a boat to Stranraer? Where will passports be checked under this deal?’

Anand Menon: ‘They won’t. I mean this was always one of the things about the special situation of Ireland. We have on the island of Ireland, this thing called the Common Travel Area, that means people can go to and fro. And it will be a hole in our border system. There’s no obvious way of doing it. The police have muted various forms of, essentially, profiling. Which they have kind of done, in the past, when security and sectarian violence were issues. But the caller is absolutely right, it is going to be hard to police that border.’


BBC Radio Scotland interview, 18th October, Starts at about 2 mins 20 secs

Prof Menon’s response gives the impression that there are no immigration controls, on the island of Ireland, or on the Irish Sea. Prof Menon should come and visit people detained in Dungavel, some of whom are living proof of those immigration controls.

Prof Menon mischaracterises the situation in various different ways. The Irish borders, the land border and the one on the Irish Sea, are not ‘holes’ that people can simply breeze through, without any checks. The Common Travel Area, does not allow people to freely ‘go to and fro’. Profiling of travellers was not confined to the era of the Troubles.

Dispelling the myths

Immigration checks, by Border Agency officials and by the police, are routine at Belfast’s two airports and at the Belfast-Cairnryan and Larne Cairnryan ferry ports, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. In 2011, the Border Agency established a detention facility at Larne, near the town’s ferry terminal. Immigration checks are also commonplace for travellers moving between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, particularly on the cross-border buses. For more than a decade the UK Border Agency, the Scottish and Northern Irish police forces and the Irish police (Gardi), have been involved in joint immigration controls activities, known as Operation Gull.

The Common Travel Area only applies to UK and Irish citizens, not to all people. In the event of the UK leaving the EU, Irish citizens will be the only EU citizens who have an automatic right of free movement across the Irish border. A post-Brexit Ireland is likely to see the UK government stepping up immigration controls on the Irish border and on the Irish Sea.

Operation Gull has involved the racial profiling of travellers crossing the border on the island of Ireland and the border on the Irish Sea. In the event of the UK leaving the EU, this racial profiling is likely to be extended to also include EU citizens, particularly those from eastern Europe. In fact, there is already evidence of a clamp down on EU migrants, before the UK has even left the EU.

EU migrants and Dungavel

Volunteers working with Scottish Detainee Visitors have noticed that, in recent years, they have been visiting EU citizens detained at Dungavel. This is a new phenomenon. Before 2014, visitors rarely ever encountered any EU citizens in Dungavel.  The UK Home Office’s own figures, on immigration detention, show that detention of EU citizens at Dungavel, or anywhere else in the UK’s detention estate, was very rare prior to 2014. The numbers have increased dramatically since then.

The Home Office records people entering immigration detention by first centre of detention. But some people may be detained in several different detention centres, so the figures don’t necessary reflect the actual numbers in any given centre within the year. They do, however, give an indication of the numbers detained in Dungavel. From these figures, we can also calculate the proportion of people detained there who were originally from other parts of the EU, or parts of the world.

In 2009 fifteen EU citizens’ were taken to Dungavel, as their first encounter with immigration detention. These fifteen represented less than 1% of the 1,661 people whose first experience of immigration detention was incarceration behind the high fences and razor wire of Dungavel. 2014 was the first year in which the proportion of EU citizens rose above 2% detained there. In that year there were 118 people from the EU detained (10% of 1,296 brought to Dungavel). In 2016, the year of the Brexit Referendum, this almost doubled, to 223. Last year, 2018, it had risen to 321. The majority of these EU citizens, who have been deprived of their freedom indefinitely, are from eastern Europe (123 out of 144 in 2015, or 85%; 523 out of 550 in 2016, or 95%).

In 2016 the number of EU citizens who were detained at Dungavel (18% of all the people brought to this place on desolate Scottish moors, miles from any town) exceeded those from Africa, and in 2017 they equalled the numbers from the whole of the vast continent of Asia (see graph). Each of these people is a living human being, who confides their hopes and fears in the volunteer visitors, who come to provide them with human contact from the outside world.

People entering detention in Dungavel by continent of origin (percentage of all arrivals at Dungavel)

The dehumanisation of immigrants

East Europeans are, like Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, being racialised in Brexit Britain. Despite the contribution that they make to society in the UK – as carers, as farm labourers, as dentists, as neighbours and as loved ones – they are being treated as lesser human beings. Once we deny the humanity of others – whether they are born in Africa, in Asia or in Europe – we are denying part of our own humanity. And, as long as we go along with the idea that the movement of goods is more important than the movement of people, we are colluding in our own dehumanisation. People the world over are human beings, they only become immigrants because of lines on the globe, drawn by people in power. Turning people from whole human beings into ‘immigrants’, makes them into a category, makes them detainable and deportable. The struggle to create a truly human society requires that we challenge these dehumanisations.

Chris Gilligan is the author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti Racism. He has been a volunteer visitor for SDV and an SDV board member. A selection of his writings on Brexit can be accessed here, here, and here.

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