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Cross-border travellers face 'racial profiling', says human rights group

A group has lodged an equality complaint over cross-border immigration checks.

Migrants’ rights groups south of the border have recorded a surge in complaints about checks.
Migrants’ rights groups south of the border have recorded a surge in complaints about checks.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

A NORTHERN IRELAND human rights group has lodged an equality law complaint over cross-border immigration checks, which it says involve racial profiling.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice says that Translink, which operates buses and trains between Ireland and Northern Ireland, is facilitating discriminatory passport checks on its services.

Despite the common travel area arrangements in place between the UK and Ireland, officers from the Garda National Immigration Bureau carry out passport checks on buses southbound from Newry and Belfast to Dublin.

The group says that “witness and victim testimony indicates that these checks are frequently conducted on the basis of (at times quite blatant) racial profiling”, where passengers that appear Irish are not asked for ID but ethnic minority travellers are.

Under the Immigration Act 2004, journeys within the common travel area are passport-free for British and Irish citizens, but non-nationals are required to produce a passport. A Garda spokesperson emphasised that “the common travel area arrangement is applicable only to Irish and UK citizens”.

In practice, the group points out, “there is no way of telling the difference” between nationals and non-nationals without checking passports. The organisation says that it has evidence that Gardai frequently single out travellers “on the basis of skin colour or other ethnic attributes” when conducting these checks.

Úna Boyd, the Committee on the Administration of Justice’s Immigration Project Coordinator, said “it seems that the hard border already exists for those who are targeted due to factors such as their skin colour or accent”.

TheJournal.ie has spoken to several cross-border commuters who agree that travellers with an Irish accent have no trouble passing the checks even without ID, whereas those perceived as foreign are closely questioned.

Checks are usually only carried out on buses crossing into Louth, and are rare to non-existent on trains or other road crossings.

Although cross-border checks date back many years, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and migrants’ rights groups south of the border have recorded a surge in complaints about checks over the past year or so.

Deputy Director Daniel Holder told TheJournal.ie that checks appeared to have ceased for “a couple of years” before returning with “no explanation” in recent months.

While there is no evidence that the reported increase in checks is connected to Brexit, it comes at a sensitive time.

Boyd said that “the facilitation of passport controls on the island of Ireland also aids in introducing an element of a hard border at a time when a no-deal Brexit seems possible and such a subject is a matter of extreme concern to many people”.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice says that Translink has a legal duty not to facilitate racial discrimination, and to consider whether its decisions comply with its legally binding equality scheme.

The group has lodged a formal complaint with the publicly owned company on behalf of 17 directly affected passengers and may escalate it to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Last year, a black County Down resident complained to the Commission after being stopped by UK immigration officers four times on one return ferry journey between Belfast and Glasgow.

Immigration officers from the UK Home Office also carry out immigration checks within the common travel area, although official guidance says that “Home Office IOs do not have all of their normal powers” on these routes and that “individuals are under no obligation to comply” with questioning.

A Home Office spokespersons said: “There are no immigration controls whatsoever on the Northern Ireland – Ireland land border.”

The group has also written to the Garda Commissioner, the Policing Authority, and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, supported by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

Translink has been approached for comment.

A Garda spokesperson said: “All persons arriving into this jurisdiction are subject to immigration controls; however citizens of Ireland and the UK are entitled to avail of the common travel area agreement, which allows for unrestricted movement by citizens of either jurisdiction across the common border without passport/immigration controls.”

“Citizens of Ireland or the UK may be required to assert their right to travel by producing a relevant document. The common travel area arrangement is applicable ONLY to Irish and UK citizens,” the spokesperson said. 

The common travel area was traditionally a working arrangement between the UK and Irish authorities and is only partly enshrined in law. The two governments have increasingly worked together in recent years to tackle border security. 

The British and Irish governments signed a memorandum of understanding on the arrangements earlier this year, but legal experts have called this a “bronze option” that is much weaker than a legally binding treaty.

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