Campaign against criminalising immigrants:  a call to Belfast students

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has recognised the realities of migrants' lives in his call for migration not to be criminalised.

Thomas Hammerberg says:

“…many migrants cannot claim refugee status, even if their enforced return would amount to personal tragedy and/or economic disaster. Many have not managed to regularize their presence in their new country and live underground, constantly fearing to be caught by the police and sent away. A number have lived in the host country for long periods and may have children at school.”

The Commissioner, in his recent Viewpoint piece, is not calling for open borders and he accepts that immigration offences may exist so long as they are administrative (part of the civil law) instead of criminal (part of the criminal law). Despite some personal disappointment at this lack of radicalism, I read with interest as the Commissioner makes some powerful arguments against the criminalisation of migrants:

“I am now aware of proposals to criminalize attempts to enter a country or to stay there without a permit. This may be popular among xenophobes but would be a retrogressive step…Categorizing irregular migrants as “criminals” under national law would entail their pre-trial and post-conviction detention…”

In UK law, there have long been offences of 'unlawful entry' on the statute books.  However, a new Bill looks set to extend the criminalisation of migration and proposes that would-be refugees are first placed in a criminal context when they arrive, where they would need to invoke a 'refugee defence'.

At the same time, as my colleague, Patrick, has noted, ID cards are first being compulsorily introduced for immigrant students.  Because there's no Border Agency office here, those students required to obtain a card under this scheme will usually have to travel to Scotland or England for their 'biometric capture' interview.  Anyone can anticipate that the likely effect of this is an outcry by student bodies at the extra hassle.  It is more than likely the UK Border Agency will take advantage of this to justify the opening of a permanent Enforcement Office in Northern Ireland - a project for which they have so far not managed to obtain public support or planning permission. 

A permanent Enforcement Office here, to replace the temporary one located in Templepatrick Police Station, would mean more enforcement action against immigrants here by immigration officers whose powers increasingly mirror those of the police.  More detention, removal, criminalisation….

People in Belfast have shown in recent anti-deportation campaigns that they do not want would-be refugees to be forcibly detained and removed from the UK.  The Refugee Action Group is against the opening of the Enforcement Office in Belfast and we are readying ourselves for a big campaign against the “refugee defence” in the new Immigration Bill.  We believe in sanctuary not detention and welcome not criminalisation.

If you would like to join RAG in our campaign, please come to our next meeting on Friday 10 October at 10.00 AM at NIACRO.   Those from Amnesty student groups would be particularly welcome, as it is important we work together.

Further details from Anna on (028) 9024 4401 or at www.refugeeactiongroup.com – and also on Facebook.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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