British citizens were stopped by immigration enforcement teams more than any other nationality over the past two years in nine major UK cities, figures obtained by VICE World News show.
The official figures, obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws as part of an investigation with the Bristol Cable, cast doubt on official claims that such immigration enforcement operations are intelligence led.
The Home Office does not currently record data on ethnicity when conducting immigration stops, but campaigners and MPs said the figures raise fresh concerns about racial profiling.
In many of the major UK cities where data was obtained, including Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff, British citizens accounted for over one in five of the total stops. In Leeds and Nottingham, it was one in four.
The figures, which cover the period between January of 2019 and September of 2020, come less than a month after Britain's top equality watchdog found that the government’s “hostile environment” immigration policies broke equalities law, and called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to take “meaningful action.”
MPs and equality groups have called on the Home Office to start to record data on ethnicity.
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP for Streatham in London, said: "The first step towards addressing any problem is actually accepting that it exists. This data should be an impetus for the government to start collecting ethnicity data for its immigration stop and checks and other hostile environment policies.
"Sadly, the problem goes deeper than this. It's not just that the Home Office is failing to prevent racial profiling, it's that its whole immigration system is premised on racial profiling.”
British citizens were the most stopped in nine of the biggest UK cities, Leeds (27.6%); Nottingham (25.3%); Cardiff (23.6%); Manchester (23.6%); Glasgow (22.8%); Sheffield (20.3%); Newcastle (17.1%); Liverpool (15.9%); and London (14.3%).
Additional data shows that British and Bangladeshi nationals were jointly the most stopped in Bristol (14%), while in Birmingham, British people were the second highest (19%) after Indian nationals.
Across the 11 cities, Britons were stopped over 3,000 times, out of a total of 19,000 stops involving all nationalities.
In response to this story, the Home Office said that immigration enforcement operations include visits and stops, and “play a critical role in detecting and deterring immigration abuse and reducing the harm caused by illegal immigration, such as modern slavery, people trafficking and smuggling”.
A spokesperson said that all operational activity is intelligence led, and that immigration enforcement agents do not carry out “random” visits or stops.
Home Office guidance on in-country public operations notes that key indicators which help officers identify or eliminate someone for enquiry may include gender, age and appearance, but “must never be based on racial stereotypes”.
Concerns around racial profiling during immigration enforcement operations, which the Home Office has always denied, go back to at least 2013. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wrote to the Home Office that year regarding concerns over racial profiling during operations at public transport hubs.
Previous investigations by the Bristol Cable and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which first showed the extent of such checks over the period January 2012 to November 2018, led to worries from legal experts and parliamentarians about potential racial profiling.
The new figures suggest “the Home Office hasn’t learnt from previous immigration enforcement operations where concerns over racial profiling were raised”, Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield told VICE World News.
“It’s vital that the Home Office get their house in order, and use proper intelligence to carry out their work. Immigration enforcement must be based on evidence and not the ‘hostile environment’,” he said.
Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, called the new figures “deeply troubling” and said the “Home Office needs to urgently review its practices”.
“Tragedies such as the Windrush scandal underpin the need for trust in the Home Office to be rebuilt within our minority communities, however as this data shows, British citizens are still being stopped and questioned in immigration enforcement operations,” she said.
The EHRC has now said that the Home Office should collect race data to help it understand the impact of its immigration policies and meet its equality obligations.
Last month, a report from the EHRC concluded that the Home Office broke equalities law when it introduced its hostile environment immigration measures.
A spokesperson for the EHRC said the suggestion that racial profiling could be occurring during immigration enforcement checks was “concerning”, but that it would need more information to determine whether British people who are recorded as being encountered by immigration enforcement have been victims of racial profiling.
Unlike the Home Office, police forces carrying out stop and search operations do collect ethnicity data. Official figures for 2019-20 show that Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people in England and Wales.
In response to a question on whether the Home Office should be collecting ethnicity data during these immigration enforcement stops, the EHRC said “Collecting race data would help the Home Office understand the impact of its immigration policies. It should collect and use this data wherever possible, and in line with data protection safeguards, to make sure it can meet its obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty.”
The figures also show that a small number of British nationals were arrested during the stops. The Home Office said this could happen if someone committed a criminal offence such as obstructing an immigration officer. They may also be arrested if they show “an adverse reaction to an immigration presence” by attempting to flee, but will be de-arrested as soon as their nationality is established.
In 2019 and 2020, the average rate of arrest after a stop for all non-British nationalities averaged only 20% across the UK. The Home Office said in response: “All our operational activity is intelligence-led.”
Across the UK, Romanian, Pakistani or Indian nationals were consistently the most commonly stopped nationality each year after Britons. Arrest rates varied significantly, although were generally less than 50%.
Various reports have cast doubt on the intelligence used in immigration enforcement operations. Previous reports from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) have found that over two-thirds of immigration raids on workplaces found no illegal workers, while another found that over two-thirds of enforcement intelligence relies on allegations made by the general public.
Across the UK, EU nationals counted for almost 23% of all stops in this period. Romanian nationals were by far the most stopped, counting for a third of the EU total.
Romanian nationals were most stopped non-British nationality in London.
Mihai Călin Bica, from the Roma Support Group in London, said he is concerned about what effect the new Home Office rules to criminalise and deport migrant rough sleepers will have on Roma communities, many of whom are Romanian nationals.
Most Roma who sleep rough in London are originally from Romania, Bica said, and while the Home Office does not record whether or not someone is Roma during a stop, the high number of Romanian nationals targeted may mean that Roma are therefore being targeted.
Immigration Enforcement, the directorate within the Home Office responsible for enforcing immigration law in-country, operated a similar policy of detaining and deporting EU rough sleepers, until it was ruled unlawful in late 2017.
“Obviously we can’t say that this was particularly targeting Roma, because it was a policy addressing all EU people sleeping rough. But it had impacted more [of] those from the Roma communities, because of the high number of Roma sleeping rough in London.”
Given the reintroduction of the policy, Bica said he was “concerned that the process of immigration enforcement approaching Roma sleeping rough and taking action against them, will obviously increase considerably”.
Responding to the new figures, Liberty said they “provide yet more evidence that the hostile environment should end for good”.
The hostile environment inevitably leads to racial profiling and structural discrimination because “the system is racist to its core”, Jun Pang, Liberty’s policy and campaigns officer, said.
“This isn’t the only way the hostile environment embeds discrimination in society – it also continues to block migrants from accessing vital public services like the NHS every day, while subjecting them to continual fear of raids, detention and deportation.”