By Susan McKay (for Irish News)
Discover Northern Ireland. Heartwarming tales, part two. In part one we heard how a Canadian visitor was turned away from the Europa bus centre after inquiring about the bus to Derry.
“No such place,” the person employed to provide help and information replied.
Part one was embarrassing. Part two is outrageous. Frank Kakopa and his wife decided to bring their two children, aged 12 and six, to see the Giant’s Causeway.
It sounded like the ideal weekend break. The family live near Liverpool, so it was just a short flight to Belfast. They hired a car, booked a bed and breakfast and set off early on a summer Saturday morning in 2005.
But they never got to see the Giant’s Causeway, because as soon as they got off the plane in Belfast, Mr Kakopa was arrested and thrown in jail.
Mr Kakopa is black, you see.
That was enough to alert our immigration officials. As other passengers were nodded through with barely a glance, Mr Kakopa was separated from his wife and children and taken away. For the next three hours immigration insisted he was an illegal immigrant chancing his arm at seeking asylum.
Mr Kakopa, who is Zimbabwean, produced the following documents: His UK driving licence. A recent pay slip - he is a structural engineer in Warrington - with his British national insurance number. Utility bills. Bank statements. His credit cards. His children’s passports. The family’s return tickets to Liverpool.
The canny Belfast immigration officials were having none of it.
We’ve seen all this before. You’ll not put one past us, ye-boy-ye.
Mr Kakopa’s upset and incredulous wife rang her husband’s employers in England and explained what was happening.
They rang immigration at Belfast City Airport and explained that this was, indeed, one of their employees.
There were Irish immigration officials at the airport as well and they cleared Mr Kakopa. He had worked in Dublin for several years before moving to Britain.
But the Belfast immigration officials were not to be fooled. Oh no. After failing to extract a confession of illegality from him, they produced handcuffs and told him he was going to Maghaberry jail.
By this stage, Mr Kakopa was extremely distressed. However, he managed to insist that there was no way they were marching him past his children in shackles.
This gets worse. In Maghaberry, he was made to take off all his clothes and he was strip-searched. He was not allowed to make a phone call. He was put into a cell with another prisoner. Ill with stress, he was later moved to the prison hospital.
Meanwhile, back in Belfast, immigration told Mrs Kakopa she could go back to England but since they were holding the children’s passports, she had to ring friends in Dublin and get them to come and take her son and daughter. She flew home and got her husband’s passport and visa.
On the Sunday, Mr Kakopa got to see the prison governor and again asked to make a phone call. The governor refused. Unbelievably, Mr Kakopa was kept in jail for another night.
“It was like my window to the other world was closed in on me,” he said.
On the Monday afternoon, he was released. He had no money or papers, so he was given a prisoner’s pass to show the bus driver to get to Belfast.
When he got back to England, Mr Kakopa went to the Commission for Racial Equality to complain. He was referred to the north’s Equality Commission. Eileen Lavery, its head of enforcement, said yesterday (Monday) that when she heard the details of the case: “My jaw dropped.”
The commission sued the Immigration Service for false imprisonment. The case was settled out of court. Mr Kakopa was given a rather small amount of compensation and the Immigration Service admitted it had illegally detained him and apologised.
It affirmed its commitment to the elimination of racial discrimination.
This was, Mr Kakopa said, “the most horrible experience in my life”.
It was “deplorable that in this day and age incidents like this are allowed to happen”.
He probably doesn’t know that in this day and age, in the part of the UK he and his family chose for a holiday, people who designate themselves loyalists are planning a march and rally against our only ethnic minority elected representative.
Next time someone tells you that our commissions for equality and human rights are just money wasted on political correctness, consider the case of Frank Kakopa. Welcome to Northern Ireland!