While having a shower one morning, Maria*, who was living in temporary accommodation in London at the time, heard a banging on the door. Before she was fully dressed, immigration officials entered Maria’s flat and told her she was being detained.
Maria was going through the process of gaining official recognition as a survivor of trafficking, which should have provided protection against immigration enforcement. She already had legal representation for her trafficking case and managed to convince the officers to let her call her lawyer. While Maria’s lawyer eventually persuaded the officers not to detain her, many of the people subject to the tens of thousands of ‘immigration enforcement visits’ every year across the UK are not able to prevent such apparent abuse of power.
A Huck investigation has found that while tens of thousands of immigration raids take place every year, an average of just one in ten appear to be authorised by warrant. This suggests legal guidance may be being disregarded, and raids are used as a “fishing” exercise, rather than based on intelligence, according to experts.
In response to a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, the Home Office revealed that Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) teams carried out an estimated 60,599 enforcement visits between 2017 and 2021. The department refused to provide data on the number of warrants ICE teams obtained to gain entry for the raids, saying that this is not centrally recorded and not obtainable.
However, the Ministry of Justice responded to a separate FoI revealing that 6,484 warrants had been granted by courts and tribunals for the purpose of immigration enforcement in the same period. These are the only authorities that issue such warrants.
This means that on average over the four years, nine out of 10 enforcement visits were carried out without a warrant. The discrepancy was sharpest in 2017, when 1,007 warrants were issued while17,717 raids took place, meaning around 95 per cent of all raids carried out that year were done so without a warrant. The total number of raids fell to 5,263 in 2020, and 6,223 in 2021, possibly due to the coronavirus lockdowns. A higher proportion were conducted with warrants – 823 and 792 respectively – or between 12 and 16 per cent of raids in those two years.
Last night when we tried to resist an immigration raid the cops turned against us, brutally manhandling us. This is NOT okay.
— Lewisham Anti-Raids (@Lewisham_AR) April 21, 2022
The Immigration Act 1971 provides Home Office staff with the power to enter business premises and make arrests without a warrant, although guidance says that when other powers of entry are used – such as authorisation by an Assistant Director of Immigration Enforcement – officers must explain why obtaining a warrant was not appropriate. According to a report by the Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, “[Home Office] guidance stated that staff should always consider applying for a search warrant at a Magistrates’ Court before seeking to apply to an Assistant Director.”
Authorisation can be sought where there is a high risk the person being sought would abscond. ICE teams can also enter business premises without a warrant if the occupant has given their permission, but enforcement teams are not required to record this permission, and critics have warned that occupants are often not aware of their right to refuse entry. The Home Office also maintains that the majority of enforcement visits are carried out in public places, where obtaining a warrant is unnecessary though they provided no figures to verify this claim.
Fizza Qureshi, CEO of the charity Migrants’ Rights Network, said the figures showed that raids “are usually ‘fishing expeditions’, and are not intelligence-led as we are led to believe”.
The last time the Home Office surveyed the use of raids without a warrant was in autumn 2013, when an inspection found that a third of immigration raids were conducted with warrants. The inspection found that power of entry without a warrant was misused in two thirds of other cases. The report, published in 2014, detailed “widespread non-compliance” by officials using other powers to authorise raids, who were “failing to properly justify use of this power and ignoring the requirement to set out why search warrants were not sought in the first instance”.
“In many instances, the case for ‘swift action’ to counter the threat of immigration offenders absconding was simply not made, despite this being a condition set out in the guidance,” the Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, wrote.
Qureshi told Huck: “The majority of these raids target Black and minoritised community business owners, who are preyed upon because they are unaware of their rights to refuse entry, and not always financially able to legally challenge these illegal raids. The whole premise of raiding businesses and homes for immigration purposes must be stopped immediately. All they do is frighten local communities, and threaten the local social fabric by making migrant communities feel unsafe and unwelcome.”
Huck’s investigation also established which parts of the UK were subject to the highest rates of immigration raids. London as a whole had the most raids, with an estimated 11,024 between 2017 and 2021. This puts the total number of raids at 18 per cent of the total for that period, despite the city representing only around 13 per cent of the UK’s population.
The singular postcode with the highest number of raids by far was in Belfast. ICE carried out 2,838 enforcement visits between 2017 and 2021 in the area around the port and George Best airport.
The next highest number was 874 raids or enforcement actions in a Dumfries and Galloway postcode in Scotland which includes a port connected to Belfast by ferry. Immigration rules prevent passport checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A spokesperson for End Deportations Belfast told Huck this showed “a clear case of overreach based on ethnic and racial profiling by the UK Home Office with very little intel backing up their operations”. According to the 2011 census, 3.6 per cent of Belfast’s population came from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to 13 per cent in the UK overall.
The vast majority of the 20 postcodes with the highest number of visits (which represent 19 per cent of all visits but less than one per cent of UK postcodes) could be found in diverse inner city areas. 13 of these were in east or south east London, with others found in Glasgow’s Southside and Manchester’s Cheetham Hill.
Notable exceptions include postcodes which cover Holyhead, a major port providing ferry services between mainland Britain and Dublin, and Gatwick airport. Postcodes including other airports and ports, including much larger facilities at Heathrow, did not feature.
Raids by ICE teams declined during the pandemic, although they still continued during coronavirus lockdowns. Resistance to immigration raids has become increasingly high profile over the past few years, organised through grassroots campaign groups such as the anti-raids network.
In April 2021, Glasgow’s No Evictions Network raised the alarm over a raid on Kenmure Street, drawing hundreds of people to block the path of an Immigration Enforcement van, eventually forcing them to release two detainees after an eight-hour standoff.
— Eileen ReidBoulter (@ReidEileen1) May 13, 2021
Huck recently reported on an immigration raid carried out against staff at the Happy Eater takeaway in New Cross, South London. Members of the local community, working with the Lewisham anti-raids network, gathered to monitor the raid, which was conducted without a warrant, and were confronted by police. Some activists were handcuffed, and an employee of the takeaway was detained but later released.
Mary Atkinson, Campaigns Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told Huck: “All of us should feel safe in our workplaces and homes, regardless of where we were born. But these figures show that this government are relentlessly pursuing workers – and the fact that the vast majority of these raids take place without a warrant should concern us all. This groundless targeting of particular businesses and nationalities should be called out for what it is: racism.”
Other forms of enforcement visits that would not require a warrant include those taken in collaboration with businesses, such as when the Byron Burger chain coordinated with ICE to facilitate the detention of 35 of its own employees. Huck’s figures suggest that controversial cooperation between employers and ICE may account for a high proportion of raids.
The findings also confirm anecdotal reports from activists that more opportunistic raids, which do not require power of entry because they are in public spaces, are also commonplace.
On 14 May, protesters gathered to support delivery drivers in Dalston, North London, who have been subject to enforcement action by police, and were met with violence. The police maintain that the operation that triggered the protest was not an immigration raid, although one courier was arrested (and de-arrested) on immigration offences.
Shocking footage of the police repeatedly punching a protester in the head after an immigration raid in #Dalston this evening. How do the @metpoliceuk justify this awful violence? pic.twitter.com/B4eMAeYRVf
— Charlotte Middlehurst (@charmiddle) May 14, 2022
According to the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) which advocates for the rights of gig-economy workers such as couriers, this work force is a particular target of police harassment, in part due to their precarious employment. Alex Marshall, President of the IWGB, said: “Food delivery apps have completely failed to facilitate access to restaurants for couriers, denying them the adequate support and parking solutions this majority-BAME workforce needs to work safely. Because of this, couriers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic providing a vital service for our community, and who may be paid as little as £2/hr, are subject to constant harassment by law enforcement simply for doing their jobs.”
One courier working with IWGB said: “I am afraid to go to work because I am treated like a criminal. When we are victims of crime, such as vehicle theft or workplace violence, the police ignore us. But when we are trying to earn an honest living, we are harassed just for picking up orders and doing our jobs. It is very scary seeing the recent police violence towards riders and members of the public standing up for our rights.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “The Government is tackling illegal immigration and the harm it causes by removing those with no right to be in the UK.
“We continue to work with law enforcement agencies to tackle illegal migration in all its forms. Our Nationality and Borders Act will fix the broken system; making it fair to those in genuine need and firm on those who seek to abuse it.”
The Home Office did not comment directly on Huck’s findings. In one response to FoI requests, the department said it was unable to establish whether or not records of warrants for enforcement visits were kept. The response will do little to dissuade the view of activists and legal experts that police and Home Office officials are effectively given free rein to enforce the Hostile Environment, in a way that is designed to intimidate migrant communities.
“The growing resistance to raids like these shows that instead of hostility, most of us want a world where everyone has the right to safe work, and where communities can thrive and grow together,” Atkinson said. “To build towards that, we need this government to stop targeting workers, to stop sowing division in our communities, and to end the Hostile Environment.”
*Name changed to protect identity
Follow Jack Barton on Twitter.