Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Use of Informants in Immigration Policing



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3 Minutes

Guest post by Sigmund Mohn, PhD candidate at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo. This post is the fifth installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Internal Border Policing organised by Leanne Weber.

By which means are migrants without legal stay detected in Norway? One way that immigration policing has been developing the last decades across the Global North, as explored by Leanne Weber and others, is a type of ‘broadening’ or ‘generalization’ of border controls, even ‘entering into everyday life.’ Not only are immigration officers making immigration checks, but also ordinary police patrol officers, as well of a range civil and private actors, such as landlords.

In my study of the Norwegian National Police Immigration Service (NPIS), I’ve been able to witness immigration policing that also can be said to form a kind of ‘deepening’ or ‘specialization’ of in-country border control. One example of this are the police officers dedicated to detecting illegal residents by the proactive recruitment of informants connected to the (irregular) migrant community. These informants, or informers, could give valuable intelligence on where to look for illegal residents (in general or on certain individuals), as well as ID-information needed to deport them.

Informants in this particular arrangement are persons the police establish a lasting relation with and give guidance to about what kind of information should be sought. This kind of police method isn’t a coercive measure, in the sense that it’s not directly regulated by criminal procedure (or any other law). It has instead been described as a ‘concealed’ and ‘deceptive’ method as the persons targeted aren’t aware of it and the informants aren’t open about their police relations. Instead of regulation by law, the praxis of informant handling is regulated by orders kept secret from the public. As such, it’s a form of policing related to the concept of secret or ‘high’ policing, earlier reserved for national security threats and later organized crime. Thus, as all activity by the police is governed by the principle of proportionality, the use of informants in immigration policing says something about the severity of the issue as seen by government.

In my broader study of the NPIS, I encountered only some limited details about how the informant handlers were actually operating. As the informants are supposed to be voluntary, and officers referred to the arrangement as a mutual relationship, one can ask in what way the police ‘motivates’ informants. I was told that they couldn’t pay informants nor use illegal residents as informants. Still, it’s clear that the informants were often immigrants themselves, and with some kind of stake in the arrangement. From studies of other fields (mainly related to drug trafficking), it’s a well-established fact that most informers themselves are or have been criminally active. In one interview, the practice of police officers giving tasks to informants was likened to a boss giving orders to an employee. But it was also a relationship in which the police officer felt obliged to the informant, such as being available for talks, checking up on them, and making them feel they were taken seriously. The security of the informant was said to be the most important aspect at any time.

More generally, the use of informants raises a whole series of issues, such as concerns about the visibility and accountability of policing, but also questions as to how vulnerable groups and persons are used and made more vulnerable. Additionally, concerns emerge as to how police officers might get tempted to cross the line of the law, as seen last year in the case of the ‘grand old man’ of informant handling in Norwegian police who was arrested and accused of involvement in corruption and the drug trade.

For the immigration field, informant handling is another way the policing of irregular migration crosses into relations with regular immigrants, although in a secretive manner. In addition, it’s worth discussing how such a method evolved from, first, political policing, then via organized crime and the drug trade into more common crime, and now is increasingly normalized in (non-criminal) immigration policing. This last transition was done without any political discussion or formal decision. While it’s evident from my study that this method has been valuable for the ID-investigators working very difficult deportation cases, informants were also used for simpler cases as a means to push for deportation targets set by the government. These issues need to be opened up for public debate, as well as explored more thoroughly from the research field.

Themed Week on Internal Border Policing:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Mohn, S. (2015) The Use of Informants in Immigration Policing. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/informants-immigration-policing/ (Accessed [date]).

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