More than 60% of EU citizens stopped and questioned at ports by British border officials post-Brexit are from Romania, figures have shown, raising questions from lawyers about possible racial profiling.
Data issued by the government shows that in the first six months of the year 7,249 people were stopped either at ferry ports or on Eurotunnel and Eurostar vehicle and train services.
The figures represent a fivefold increase on the same period in 2020 when free movement between EU member states remained in place for all who were legitimately seeking work in another country.
The stoppages are broken into two categories: those at UK ports including the likes of Portsmouth, Dover, Harwich and Holyhead, and what are known as “juxtaposed controls” conducted on French sites where British officials operate, including Gare du Nord for Eurostar, Coquelles for Eurotunnel and the ferry ports of Calais and Dunkirk.
Of those stopped in the first six months of 2021, 4,482 were from Romania, dwarfing the figures for neighbouring Bulgaria, from which 600 nationals were stopped, and the 400 questioned from Poland.
Nationals from northern European countries were barely hit by the new immigration controls, with just five Danish people stopped, 59 from Belgium and 144 from France challenged by border officials.
The law firm Bates Wells, which analysed the figures, said while the data could reflect disproportionately higher numbers of Romanians trying to enter the country after free movement had ended, they raised questions about possible racial profiling at the border.
“It’s legitimate to make general checks with a view to controlling illegal immigration but these latest figures beg the question of where there is an underlying agenda.
“These types of stops can be traumatising, and there is a risk immigration officers may be targeting innocent people. Racial profiling is discriminatory and it needs to be nipped in the bud if it’s happening,” said Chetal Patel, an immigration lawyer and partner at Bates Wells.
The data, released on Gov.uk, does not offer a breakdown of the nationalities returning or coming to the UK for the first time in 2021 or give numbers for arrivals via airports.
Explanatory notes say “not all individuals will have been detained in a holiding room” and “some of those refused will subsequently be granted entry to the UK, others granted entry with immigration bail conditions, while others will be refused entry.”
One explanation could be lack of awareness or confusion over the change in the rules on 1 January. Another possible reason for the high numbers of Romanians being stopped could be people who had settled or pre-settled status to remain in the UK returning after Christmas, Easter or lockdown absences.
As of 30 June, Home Office data shows Romanians were the second-largest category of applicants with 1.067 million from the country. Although 1.09 million Polish nationals applied for the settlement scheme, the data shows much lower stop figures.
While visas are not necessary for visits up to 90 days, or for those who were already living in the country with pre-settled or settled status, border officials were accused of being heavy-handed earlier this year after it emerged they were detaining EU citizens making short trips to visit friends, family or partners.
The Guardian reported in May that EU citizens were being sent to immigration removal centres and held in airport detention rooms.
“There is clearly work to do in educating people on what to expect, so that they won’t be caught out,” said Patel.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.