As the debates around the future of Ireland’s border post-Brexit continues, migrant rights campaigner Luke Butterly tells us how that, for migrants and people of colour, the border is already here.
Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was announced – and more so since it was decided – commentators have raised the question of what the effect of Brexit will be on Ireland’s borders. Various scenarios are put forward, and government ministers across Ireland and Britain have all stressed that there should be no ‘return to the borders of the past’. However, these conversations by and large repeat a common misunderstanding about Ireland: for some, there already is a border.
Since the early 2000s, there have been spot immigration checks for those travelling between North and South. I often take the bus between Belfast and Dublin, and have witnessed the checks many times. All British and Irish citizens have the right to cross the border without documentation, but in practice only some of us can, knowing we carry it in our face and in our accents. Others do not have that luxury. For them, the modus operandi of these checks is racial profiling – if you do not ‘look Irish/British’ (using outdated notions of what this means) then you face being questioned, and potentially escorted off. (Among others, the NI Human Rights Commission has raised the issue of racial profiling, for example in their 2009 ‘Our Hidden Borders’ report)
If there are to be no (further) cross border checks, then the assumption is that immigration checks will be conducted in Britain for all those arriving from Ireland. However, as with north-south travel, there already are immigration checks between Britain and Ireland (for example, at the ferry ports). Here again, BME British/Irish, and other legal residents, can be stopped and questioned.
At our only detention centre, in Larne, you will meet many people who prove the former point that ‘free movement’ is also a limited one. Asylum seekers, for example, who have the right to travel around the UK, but can be detained at a ferry ports due to local authorities ignorance of the law or racism. There are also people who live (legally) in the south and have travelled to the north, believing that the ‘free movement’ equally applied to them.
In accordance with the general draconian and Kafkaesque approach of the Home Office, people in this situation are not returned to the imaginary border, or even Dublin (still less than a 3 hour drive from Larne). Instead, they are forced to spend a few nights in this detention centre before being moved to another in London, only then to be deported to Dublin by air. In addition to the ‘hostile environment’ approach by Theresa May to migrants, this only makes sense when we know that there is profit to be made from this protracted journey, as most aspects of this route (for example, the detention centres) are contracted out to private companies.
While the terms of any – additional – border checks post-Brexit are yet to be agreed upon, it is vital to centre in this conversation and struggle those who will be the most affected.
(One way you can support those affected by immigration controls is volunteering with the Larne House Volunteer Group. They are an independent and volunteer run Belfast-based group, who provide visits and other support to people detained in northern Ireland. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved or go here for more information).