A recent meeting with Met police failed to reassure migrant rights groups and activists that Operation Nexus is not harmful.
Operation Nexus, launched a year ago as a collaboration between the Metropolitan police and the UK Border Agency was designed to clear foreign criminals off the streets of London and send them home. Immigration officers were embedded in dozens of the capital’s custody suites, where suspects are booked in after arrest, and police from eastern Europe were brought in to help.
Little wonder, then, that the capital’s migrant and refugee communities were apprehensive. A number of public relations initiatives were devised to allay fears. A ‘community reference group’ was set up to allow communities to question officers involved in Nexus and provide some accountability. And as part of this exercise, on 12 September, two Met police officers, Dave Watkinson and Nick Hughes, came to the offices of the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN), where they spoke to members of migrant and community groups and answered questions.
Thirty or so people, from MRN, Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), Refugee Forum, Refugee Women’s Network, the IRR and elsewhere, came to listen to the officers and to question them. But what we got was very anodyne. Nexus, we were told, simply does ‘what we should have been doing already’, i.e. checking the immigration status and, in serious cases, the foreign convictions of those held in the Met’s custody suites. If someone in police custody for a minor offence is a foreign national with no right to be in the country, police hand the person over to the Home Office for possible removal. In these circumstances, prosecution is unlikely. If the offence is serious – ‘high harm’ in police jargon – Interpol and foreign criminal record databases will be checked ‘so we know the kind of person we’re dealing with’, and the normal police procedure of referring the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for possible prosecution will be carried out regardless of the suspect’s immigration status.
Asked about the prospects for Nexus becoming permanent or going national, the officers were cagey, claiming that it is very much a force-by-force thing and dependent on local policing priorities and budgets. Even in the Met, not all boroughs have dedicated officers. The West Midlands, Manchester and Scottish police forces were interested. But in London, the aim is for every police officer to be trained to deal with foreign nationals, who make up 28 per cent of those in custody suites.
But, some of the audience wanted to know, what about race discrimination? Were British suspects checked? The officers were at pains to assure their listeners that the checks are non-discriminatory, performed regardless of nationality. And what about recent targeting of irregular migrants through the spate of identity checks at tube stations, the rounding up of homeless migrants for removal, and the Home Office ‘Go Home’ campaign? Nothing to do with us, they said – Nexus operates only in custody suites and has nothing to do with round-ups or vans. ‘We’re not interested in overstayers’, they said – although later this was contradicted by Hughes’ claim that overstaying was a criminal offence anyway.
In their presentation, the officers seemed to want to play down both the extent of the operation and its efficacy. They talked about telephone immigration status checks conducted by phone to the Home Office, but did not explain, as London mayor Boris Johnson had to the London Assembly, that ‘the fingerprints of all offenders arrested for mainstream criminal offences are automatically cross-referenced into UKBA via the Livescan system’. They did refer to Interpol and ACPO Criminal Records Office (ACRO) databases, accessed for foreign convictions, 1,100 of which have been recorded on the police national computer – but their claim that Nexus had led to ‘over forty’ removals since October 2012 seems very modest, particularly when set against immigration minister Mark Harper’s figure of over 700 in response to a parliamentary question about Nexus in July.
Getting hard information out of the officers was next to impossible. From October, Romanian and Polish officers funded by the EU will be on a two-year secondment with the Met. They were to have no powers of arrest, we were assured – but what were they going to do? We weren’t told. Nor could the officers answer questions about the length of time people were held in limbo in the Met’s custody suites while the Home Office and foreign checks were carried out. It took two hours, on average, for Home Office checks – but Interpol and ACRO checks could take from ten days to infinity.
What safeguards were there regarding the accuracy of the information received from abroad, given the risks in some jurisdictions of convictions in absentia, of political dissidents being framed on drugs or sex charges? No answer. What criteria were used for custody sergeants referring suspects lawfully in the UK to the Home Office for possible deportation on conducive grounds? None, apparently. The officers claimed not to have heard of the case of Lincoln Farquharson, deported on allegations of sex offences despite never being convicted, while claiming that all such cases would be referred to the CPS. But their constant references to the suspects in their custody suites as offenders, criminals, people that no one would want in the country, raised the question of whether police understand the point of criminal trials, the formal establishment of guilt or innocence.
Why communities are concerned
Another question the officers consistently avoided, although it was repeatedly asked, was whether they understood communities’ concerns. They complained that attendance at community reference group meetings was very poor. But MRN and RAMFEL spokespersons pointed out that migrant groups who wanted to join had been told the Met did not want any more organisations – raising suspicions of a closed, tame ‘community reference group’ whose composition made it incapable of truly bringing the Met to account. It emerged in the post-meeting discussion that mistrust of police and fears of Nexus by undocumented migrant communities are preventing victims of serious crime from seeking police help.
Nexus might not be responsible for identity checks at tube stations, or for the targeting homeless and destitute undocumented migrants in parks, but what emerged as one of the communities’ biggest concerns is the part it plays in a policing model which has overtones of social cleansing.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Deportation on suspicion’