The Home Office faces investigation by the equalities watchdog over stop-and-check operations condemned by new Labour peer Doreen Lawrence.
The Independent revealed today that officials had conducted a series of “racist and intimidatory” spot checks to search for illegal immigrants in the wake of the Government's “go home or face arrest” campaign.
Officers wearing stab vests conducted random checks near stations in the London suburbs of Walthamstow, Kensal Green, Stratford and Cricklewood over the past three days. Nationwide, more than 130 alleged “immigration offenders” have been arrested including in Durham, Manchester and Somerset.
Speaking this morning Mrs Lawrence said: “Why would you focus mainly on people of colour?
”I'm sure there's illegal immigrants from all countries, but why would you focus that on people of colour, and I think racial profiling is coming into it.“
The mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, asked if the spot-checks were a cause for her to take up in her new role in the House of Lords, replied: ”Definitely so.“
Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said she had received reports from constituents who had been stopped at around 7am yesterday outside the train station by a team of around a dozen Home Office officials.
“I’ve been told they were only stopping people who looked Asian or African and not anyone who was white,” she said. “This kind of fishing expedition in public place is entirely unacceptable. I will not have my constituents treated in such a manner.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is now set to look into what happened, as well as the Government's controversial poster van warning immigrants of the risk of staying in Britain illegally.
A spokesman said: ”The Commission is writing today to the Home Office about these reported operations, confirming that it will be examining the powers used and the justification for them, in order to assess whether unlawful discrimination took place.
“The letter will also ask questions about the extent to which the Home Office complied with its public sector equality duty when planning the recent advertising campaign targeted at illegal migration.”
The Home Office denied that its raids were connected to the “go home” vans. However, officials could provide no evidence of similar “random searches” taking place in the past.
Onlookers described their shock at the operations, with one member of the public saying it was akin to “Nazi Germany”. The Labour MP Barry Gardiner had written to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, demanding an investigation into the checks which he said violated “fundamental freedoms”. The raids come just a few months after Ms May took direct responsibility for immigration from the disbanded UK Border Agency.
“We do not yet live in a society where the police or any other officers of the law are entitled to detain people without reasonable justification and demand their papers,” Mr Gardiner wrote. “The actions of your department would however appear to be hastening us in that direction.”
Witnesses who saw the operations in London claimed the officers stopped only non-white individuals, and in Kensal Green said that when questioned, the immigration officials became aggressive.
Phil O'Shea told the Kilburn Times: “They appeared to be stopping and questioning every non-white person, many of whom were clearly ordinary Kensal Green residents going to work. When I queried what was going on, I was threatened with arrest for obstruction and was told to 'crack on'.”
Another witness, Matthew Kelcher, said: “Even with the confidence of a free-born Englishman who knows he has nothing to hide, I found this whole experience to be extremely intimidating. They said they were doing random checks, but a lot of people who use that station are tourists so I don't know what message that sends out to the world.”
The Home Office said a Ukrainian woman aged 33, an Indian man aged 44 and a 59-year-old Brazilian woman had been detained as part of the checks at Kensal Green. At Walthamstow Central station, immigration officials arrested 14 people after officers questioned people to check if they were in the UK illegally.
Christine Quigley tweeted: “Sounds like UKBA checkpoint today in Walthamstow only stopping minority ethnic people. FYI UKBA - not all British people are white.”
In Stratford, photographs posted on Twitter appeared to show Home Office officials talking to men of Asian origin. The Home Office said a Bangladeshi man had been arrested on suspected immigration offences. In Cricklewood on Tuesday in a joint operation with the Met, more than 60 people were questioned near the railway station. Police said three men were arrested for “immigration matters”, and 27 men received notices requiring them to surrender at Eaton House immigration centre for further investigation.
Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council, said he believed that there was no coincidence between the “go home or face arrest” van and the new random checks in Kensal Green. “I am sure it is probably connected and it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth,” he said. “These so-called spot checks are not only intimidating but they are also racist and divisive. It appears from speaking to people who witnessed what happened in Kensal Green that it was only black and Asian-looking people who were asked to prove their identity. What about the white Australians and New Zealanders who may have overstayed their visas?”