Racial profiling, policing and immigration control

On 29 and 30 November 2023, PICUM jointly organised with Equinox a legal seminar on racial profiling, policing and migration control, bringing together advocates, community organisers and legal practitioners working on racial justice, migrant justice, prison abolition and related movements. This blog shares some highlights of our discussions.

“Migration frameworks all over the world are mechanisms through which racial subordination is achieved.”

These words from former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Tendayi Achiume, who opened our legal seminar, were a  reminder of how migration and racism are deeply interlinked.

Across Europe, policing and immigration enforcement are increasingly interconnected, disproportionately harming communities of colour. The growing use of technology and AI as a tool for border management compounds existing discriminatory practices against people with an irregular migration status and communities of colour. Racialised communities on either side of border crossings and within our communities bear the brunt of these trends.

Racism and migration in the EU

Moderated by Emmanuel Achiri, European Network Against Racism

We heard from Karin de Vries, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Utrecht University, about how racism plays a critical role in the EU migration policy. This includes visa policy, conditions for long term residence, state discretion in treating people with different countries of origin differently, and the very inequality underlying many of the choices, opportunities and experiences of migration. Alyna Smith, Deputy Director at PICUM, further highlighted how race and racism are embedded in the very language of EU laws about “deterrence” and the “fight against irregular migration”, in criminalisation frameworks, in counter-smuggling measures that tend to make crossings and journeys more dangerous for people.

Alyna Smith, PICUM; Eleftherios Eleftheriou, DG HOME, European Commission; Emmanuel Achiri, European Network Against Racism; Karin de Vries, Utrecht University.

Vida Beresneviciute, Equality Project Officer at the Fundamental Rights Agency, shared key findings from the Agency’s recent research on the discrimination experience of black people in Europe. Racial discrimination increased in key areas of life, with 45% of respondents reporting racial discrimination in 2022 – marking a significant increase from 39% in 2016. Police stops continue to be particularly problematic, as 58% of them are characterised as racial profiling by people who experienced them.

The EU equality frameworks largely fail to address these realities, and the various manifestations of racism more broadly. For instance, the 2000 Racial Equality Directive does not apply to law enforcement. The 2020 Anti-Racism Action Plan, quickly adopted in response to the murder of George Floyd in the US and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests across the world, fails to address racism in EU migration policies. In fact, within days of adoping the Anti-Racism Action Plan the European Commission released a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’ that further criminalises and targets undocumented people, leading to discrimination, violence against migrants and racialised people, whether at the borders or already living in the EU.

Blurring the line between criminal law and immigration law

Moderated by Laurence Meyer, Digital Freedom Fund, and Laure Baudrihaye, Independent expert

On the contrary, many EU migration policies, including recent and ongoing reforms, perpetuate systemic racism through measures that blur the lines between immigration and criminal law.

Ulrich Stege, a lawyer collaborating with the Italian Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), illustrated key trends in this conflation between immigration and criminal law – denoted as “crimmigration”. These include the use of administrative detention for security-related purposes, the use of criminal law as a deterrent against migration, the criminalisation of irregular entry and of solidarity with people in an irregular situation, as well as the use of technology to enhance immigration enforcement. On this latter point, Chloë Berthelemy, Senior Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), discussed the expansion of the Eurodac database to collect more personal data of asylum seekers, including children, and cooperation between Frontex and Europol in collecting and sharing personal data.

Chloe Berthelemy, European Digital Rights; Laurence Meyer, Digital Freedom Fund; Silvia Carta, PICUM; Ulrich Stege, International University College of Turin and Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration

Silvia Carta, Advocacy Officer at PICUM, outlined how current EU migration reforms, such as the revision of the Schengen Borders Code and the Migration Pact, would likely lead to more racial profiling as border guards and police are encouraged to stop and search anyone who looks ‘foreign’ to detect people in an irregular situation.

At the national level, such trends and policies are already having dramatic effects on racialised people and people in an irregular situation. In particular, we heard about the criminalisation of people steering boats with migrants in Italy (Sara Traylor, Alarm Phone), violent police operations that led to the murder of a two-year old in Belgium (Selma Benkhelifa, Progress Lawyers), and border control technology in Greece in the form of biometric police gadgets, surveillance systems and social media monitoring apps (Lamprini Gyftokosta, Homodigitalis).

Racial profiling for immigration control across borders and within Europe

Moderated by Adla Shashati, Greek Forum of Migrants

Racial profiling in the name of migration control has long been present at Europe’s borders. As Parvin Abkhoudarestani, a refugee from Iran who experienced multiple violent pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border, said: “Who can move depends on your skin colour, it’s decided by your race. My movement is illegalised”. Laure Palun of French NGO Anafé, discussed how racial profiling in border checks and migration and visa policy in France is leading to pushbacks, refusals of entry, detention of children, police violence, the militarisation of borders with Italy and Spain, and the criminalisation of those who help people in an irregular situation.

Racial profiling has already quickly moved beyond the confines of border crossings and transit hubs into mainstream policing and broader civil administration. Ting Chen, coordinator of Roses d’Acier, a group that provides support to undocumented Chinese sex workers, spoke of the police targeting Chinese women in Paris with repeated identity checks in specific districts.

Monish Bhatia, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, discussed his research on immigration raids in the UK and described them as racist state violence and kidnappings that exist to instill fear among impacted communities. Raids are sometimes triggered by citizens’ calls to the police, which are grounded on racist assumptions as to the potential presence of people in an irregular situation.

Adla Shashati, Greek Forum of Migrants; Laure Palun, Anafé; Ting Chen, Roses D’Acier; Parvin Abkhoudarestani

The way forward – How can we challenge racial profiling in the immigration context?

Moderated by Sarah Chander, European Digital Rights

Different strategies are needed to challenge these trends, and to anchor them in a shared frame of racial and migrant justice. In our last panel, we heard from Jennifer Kamau from International Women Space about the need for Europe to recognise its historical responsibilities around colonialism, conflict, climate change, and ongoing colonialist approaches, which all have an impact on global migration today and driving harmful policies and practices. She also invited everyone to recognise the power of words in shaping reality and to change the way we talk about this reality to fight against systemic oppression.

Saskia Bricmont, Member of the European Parliament, addressed the political struggle in the European Parliament and between EU institutions in resisting harmful migration policies, such as the EU Migration Pact, as well as in promoting fairer trade deals with third countries.

Sarah Chander, co-founder of Equinox, encouraged groups who share transformative goals to connect our different strategies and struggles, from grassroots to political levels. In closing, Alyna Smith invited social change actors to reflect on how we can work across movements, how we are perpetuating structures of oppression through our language and work, and how we can dismantle systemic oppression while reimagining a different world.

Jennifer Kamau – International Women* Space
Sarah Chander, Equinox; MEP Saskia Bricmont

Watch the recordings of the legal seminar on our YouTube channel: