Operation Skybreaker: Defending migrant rights

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Supporters of FRFI in north London have been working with the developing campaign against the government’s latest attack on migrants in the capital.  

In a bizarre echo of a recent James Bond movie title, the current initiative is named Operation Skybreaker. Unlike its predecessor Operation Centurion, there was no media fanfare around its implementation and very little information about it is publicly available. Credit is therefore due to the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) charity, which has put the details of Skybreaker into the public domain and has provided information, support and training for those affected by it.

In its latest reorganisation, the Home Office immigration department, previously the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) has been divided into UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and Home Office Immigration Enforcement (HOIE); HOIE is running Operation Skybreaker. In July various community organisations were invited to meetings at the Home Office, as part of the ‘consultation’ on this new pilot immigration operation which is targeting five London boroughs: Brent, Ealing, Greenwich, Newham and Tower Hamlets. They were told that the operation would be in place for the next five months and would target businesses, registry offices and housing services, with the aim of driving people with no permission to stay out of the country.

The operation has four main stages:

  1. Immigration team engagement with community groups, faith leaders, police safer neighbourhood panels and safer neighbourhood boards;
  2. HOIE officers offer ‘support to employers’;
  3. Stopping people accessing services and benefits;
  4. Raids and enforcement including HMRC, police, fire brigade and other agencies.

Operation Centurion, a high profile two-week crackdown on ‘illegal immigration’ in June 2014, is generally regarded as having been a failure, as leaked information allowed activist networks to mobilise and warn people, which helped ensure there were few arrests.

Likewise, the ‘racist vans’ of the earlier Operation Valken in October 2013 were a PR disaster for the government. Mobile billboards informing immigrants that UKBA could arrange their repatriation either the easy way (by their volunteering to be sent back) or the hard way (arrest and deportation) became the butt of repeated pranks, with people calling up asking to be repatriated from the pub to their bed etc.

Skybreaker is therefore intended to have a much more low-key, ‘working with the community’ veneer. According to RAMFEL, the Home Office claims that it has already gone through a consultation process with potentially affected communities, although it refuses to say what this process entailed or even who it included. RAMFEL itself was invited for consultation, but says that this simply entailed being informed that the operation was taking place.

Skybreaker targets employers, faith groups and private landlords. The second stage, following the vague ‘consultation’, involves approaching these targets and asking them to volunteer for a HOIE audit. Companies and groups who do not take up the softly-softly invitation will then be subject to the harder side of the operation and will then be hit with warrants and raids.

Legal defence and support are being organised in the targeted boroughs. Bust cards are being distributed and workshops taking place, to create a network of people armed with legal information with which to defend themselves and others against immigration enforcement officers. Unless such officers have a warrant, you are under no obligation to speak to them; likewise, despite what the officers may tell you, they have no power to enter your home or detain you and they most certainly cannot summarily deport you. Without a warrant the only power they have is to persuade you to comply voluntarily.

Campaigning on the streets about Operation Skybreaker also aims to raise general awareness about these Home Office operations and to challenge the racist myths being touted by all the mainstream political parties in the run-up to a general election in which immigration is going to be a key issue.

The Home Office has also announced another pilot scheme to begin in December in the West Midlands areas of Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, specifically targeting private landlords under the auspices of the Immigration Act 2014. This pilot requires landlords to ensure that prospective tenants have a ‘right to rent’ by checking their immigration status. Landlords who do not carry out checks or who rent to ‘illegal migrants’ will face fines. Most of the checks are to be done on the spot by the landlord; however in some cases, such as where a prospective occupant’s papers are currently held by the Home Office in relation to an immigration application or appeal, landlords are to request a ‘right to rent’ check from the Home Office.

UKVI guidance also states that: ‘Asylum seekers who are awaiting a final determination, or those who face a recognised barrier to leaving the UK, may also be afforded a discretionary right to rent’, suggesting that although these groups are not undocumented, they may also be prevented from renting. The result of all this will undoubtedly be that many landlords simply refuse to rent to migrants, and there is likely to be a further increase in racist practices in the private rental sector.

Britain is an imperialist country and this is integral to its relationship to other countries and to people coming to Britain from them. The RCG believes that this means that all British immigration laws are by definition racist. We do not accept any of the government’s distinctions between legal and illegal migration and we oppose all British immigration controls.

John Byrne

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014