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The Disappeared

category national | racism & migration related issues | news report author Wednesday March 18, 2009 10:57author by Chris Gilligan Report this post to the editors

Operation Gull is a joint operation between the police in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the UK Borders and Immigration Agency (BIA). Under the guise of Operation Gull the police and BIA have been blatantly racially profiling visitors to Northern Ireland, and a large number of, most black African, people have been detained and deported as part of Operation Gull. Chris Gilligan provides an eye-witness account of Operation Gull in action.

You have probably heard of countries where people are taken away by shadowy figures, men who appear to be state officials, but who do not wear uniforms. Countries where attempts to find out who has taken them, and where they are being held, meet with blank responses. You perhaps think that these kinds of things do not happen any more, but they do. And they happen in a country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know, because I have witnessed it happen. Twice.

Last Saturday evening (14th March 2009) I went to the Stena ferry terminal in Belfast to take a ferry home to Scotland. I had spent the previous night in Belfast. The new Belfast. The one where there has been a peace process for more than a decade now. The one where police checks under the Prevention of Terrorism Act are no longer routine as you board the ferry leaving Northern Ireland. As I was standing at the check-in desk I noticed that a group of men in dark suits were stopping people on their way to the departure lounge. All were waved on very quickly. All except one.

The men in dark suits would not let a black African woman proceed. I presume she was asked for some means of identification because she produced what looked, from a few metres away, like a driver’s license. The men in dark suits did not seem to be satisfied with this. Which is odd, because a driver’s license is a valid form of ID for travel within the UK. She then produced another document which, from where I was standing, looked like a passport with a green cover. The men in dark suits still did not seem to be satisfied. The woman then produced a piece of paper. I missed what happened next because it was my turn at the check-in desk. After I had been checked-in the men in dark suits were still talking to the woman. I expected the men to ask me for ID, but only one of them took his attention away from the woman to check me, and all he asked was ‘Where are you going to?’. To which I said ‘Scotland’. He seemed satisfied with this blatantly obvious, and very unspecific, answer because all he said was ‘Ok, go on’. As I went up the escalator to the departure lounge the men in dark suits were still talking to the woman.

As I waited in the departure lounge I kept an eye out for the woman, but she never appeared. The call for boarding was announced and still she did not appear. I went on the ship and waited at the boarding gate. Still she did not appear. The ramp lifted, the doors closed, the ferry shunted away from the docks. There was no sign of the woman. I walked around the ship and scanned the faces of passengers, but there was no sign of the woman. I sat down and got my mobile out and phoned friends in Belfast and asked them to try to find out what happened to the woman.

Over the weekend and on Monday my friends tried to find out what had happened to her. A lawyer friend of mine was informed by the police that Operation Gull is in operation from the 14th to the 18th of March inclusive, and the woman may have been detained as a suspected illegal immigrant. (Operation Gull is a joint operation between the police in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the UK Borders and Immigration Agency (BIA)). She was also told that any person detained as part of Operation Gull could be held in any police station, anywhere in Northern Ireland. She tried to find where the woman had been taken. The police asked her what the woman’s name was, but we don’t know what her name is. My friend was told that without a name they would not be able to verify if they had the woman in custody. The woman has disappeared. She is in custody. Somewhere. But no-one can tell us where.

She is not the only one who has been taken away by men in grey suits. In the last five years an undisclosed number of people have been detained while trying to leave or enter Northern Ireland through other parts of the UK. Some of these cases have come to public attention because the people detained were legally permitted to be in the country, and had people who were able to fight their case. Frank Kakopa from Warrington made the mistake of travelling with black skin and a Zimbabweean accent. Although he had the correct travel documents, which he had checked with immigration on the phone prior to travel, he was separated from his wife and children by the men in dark suits and held for several hours at Belfast City Airport. After hours of questioning and after having his mugshot taken he was told that he was an illegal immigrant and security guards attempted to handcuff him. He told Irish Times journalist Susan McKay : ‘It was so humiliating. They were chaining people up like animals. I refused to be handcuffed. I said I was not going to walk past my children in chains. My daughter was screaming. I couldn’t look at her … I was struggling to control myself’. He was taken to Maghaberry Prison where he was strip searched and denied any contact with his family for more than 24 hours. His wife managed to fly back to Warrington and get his passport. And with her persistence, and the intervention of Mr Kakopa’s employer, he was later released.

He is not the only one. Another African man was taken away in full view of his wife and child when they arrived in Belfast port on the ferry in June 2007. He was handcuffed and transferred to Dungavel Detention Centre, in Scotland, where he was held for 10 days. Last June Coventry University student Jamiu Omikunle was another victim of the men in dark suits. He was arrested in Belfast and detained at Dungavel for nine days, throughout his ordeal he was panicking and confused and fearful and lonely. These three cases have come to public attention because the BIA confessed to having made a mistake, after being challenged in the courts. They were all ‘lucky’ enough to have friends or family members who were able to challenge their detention and get them released. Other less fortunate people have been deported.

Near the end of last year I witnessed another African woman being detained at the ferry terminal in Belfast. On that occasion I also contacted friends and tried to find out where she was being held. We contacted the police and made other enquiries. We have not been able to trace her whereabouts. She has been disappeared.

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author by mickpublication date Wed Mar 18, 2009 11:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I've seen similar things a few times now. I was on the bus from Belfast to Dublin and the bus was stopped by a van with tinted windows, men in suits got on the bus and started inspecting peoples passports, i told them to go fuck themselves that i wasn't in Nazi Germany and i wasn't showing them any identification papers, anyways they grabbed one black lad and his two big bags and put him into the van and drove off. This happened again a few weeks later but something strange happened a few minutes afterwards, the bus driver got off the bus in Dundalk and another one hopped on...

author by lulupublication date Wed Mar 18, 2009 12:52author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Asylum-seekers are obliged to enter illegally, since there's no legal way for them to come into the UK, so they are 'illegal' from the start. The UK Gov't warns of the horrors of Mugabe's Zimbabwe, but is happy to return people there to face persecution & death.

author by Concerned observerpublication date Thu Mar 19, 2009 21:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Asylum seekers do not enter a country illegally. Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in any other country under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so one cannot be an illegal asylum seeker!

Sadly this right is denied in many cases. But by deterring asylum seekers, officials are failing to protect those most at risk.

author by simon oneillpublication date Fri Mar 20, 2009 09:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Asylum seekers are obliged to seek asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. While awaiting to have their asylum applications determined they are legally resident in that country and are entitled to humanitarian assistance (In practice this means maintenance, shelter, and basic services). They are not entitled to work. Nor are they entitled to their liberty. Nor are they entitled to access to the general welfare system on the same basis as nationals. However, most countries do not detain asylum seekers generally. Some allow them to work while awaiting decision on their applications. Most western nations (including Ireland) allow them access the health and education services on the same basis as nationals or legal immigrants.

Where the application is successful the asylum seeker is entitled to indefinite residency in the receiving country.

Where the asylum application is unsuccessful the former asylum seeker become an illegal immigrant and may be deported forthwith.

Sometimes persons whose asylum applications are rejected are nonethe less allowed remain as an executive concession. In such circumstances, conditions may be imposed on the asylum seeker. One common condition in Ireland and elsewhere is that if they are to exercise their wish for family reunion it must be in a country where all the members of the family are entitled to reside.

Where a person is not entitled to asylum under the rules of international law they may still be granted "subsidiary protection" where they can establish that there is a real risk they would suffer harm if deported to their home country.

Persons granted subsidiary protection are legally in the same position as persons whose asylum claims have failed but have been allowed remain by executive decision.

I trust this clarifies matters.

author by Johnpublication date Sun Mar 29, 2009 13:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I have seen things like this before when travelling across borders and it makes me extremely uncomfortable, not least because my own fear has up to now prevented me from intervening, which of course is what the people doing the stopping and questioning rely on. This makes me complicit. I don't like this and I wonder how many others feel the same way?
I want to live in a culture where actions like this are totally unacceptable and cannot be carried out because they will be met with consistent collective opposition.
How could we begin to bring this situation about?
Perhaps we can use the fear that we feel around such situations as a guide. I think that the spreading of fear by authority is a calculated and conscious tactic by fearful people to keep us under control and it works to the extent that many people don't even notice it any more, they just blank out the fear generating event - "nothing to do with me". This goes to the root of so many issues.
I've seen it around armed Garda response vehicles suddenly appearing in our cities without question by the majority of folk, around communities being victimised when they refuse to go along with corporate and state plans and of course in vulnerable people being lifted at borders. The spreading of fear by fearful people
Naming this dynamic and consciously choosing not to go along with it might be a way out of this. This would take courage and love and self respect and a willingness and ability to propagate a different quality of emotion and to stand by others who make such moves......

author by auithorpublication date Sun Mar 29, 2009 14:41author address author phone Report this post to the editors

can someone check the legality of these searches within borders?
If they can do this to illegal immigrants and get away with it soon they can detain anyone they suspect of having done something minor wrong like being in front of an English barrack when you are Irish so you could be detained for fear of you being an ira spy or something. Or they could detain you because they think you might have outstanding parking tickets with a private company or have not paid something. Or they could detain you for looking indecent because you did not dress according to the usual standards eg you have a mullet in 2009 and they suspect you therefore must be homeless or tossed out of your home. It would take days for them to find out you are genuine and you could lose your job because you did not show up during this time.
I suspect you of not being a good citizen, you are now being detained until further notice. You do not have the right to inform anyone. Come quietly or we will taze you and force you. (If you are a goodlookin chick you might dissapear for that reason and will simply appear to have gone missing, get it? there is no public file of you being detained, they can do anything with you and dispose of your remains and no one would ever know.)

author by Anonpublication date Mon Mar 30, 2009 18:59author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Belfast is known and proved route for human traffickers into the Republic.

author by eyesightpublication date Mon Mar 30, 2009 22:14author address author phone Report this post to the editors

anon did you read the article at all? Is there something wrong with your eyesight? The man witnessed the woman taken by the 'suits' when travelling to scotland not the other way. Your remark makes no sense.

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