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.