On Assignment
Lifting the Lid: What a Crackdown on Immigration Offenders Looks Like
Behind the scenes of an enforcement operation to keep Singapore safe from immigration offenders.

The knocks on the door were firm, but there was no response. After a while, the knocks became louder and faster. Then, in a raised voice, an officer ordered that the door be opened. 

In most cases, someone would’ve opened the door. But in instances when their persistence was continuously met with silence, the officers had to resort to using breaching tools to open the door.

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An ICA officer attempting to open a door held together by a rubber tie. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

Enforcement operations like this don’t fit stereotypical ideas of what Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers do, mainly because their work is often performed without much fanfare.

To learn more about what goes on during such operations, I shadowed officers on an inland enforcement raid targeting immigration offenders in Geylang.

The Beginning: Planning and Preparation
It was 2:30am, and the first order of business was a briefing at the ICA Building at Kallang Road. I learnt that the operation was targeted at a four-storey building which was mainly occupied by foreign tenants. The officers had studied the building in detail, days before the raid, to ensure that they’d leave no stone unturned when securing the building which had concealed doors and rooms. 

Apart from walkie-talkies, handcuffs and torchlights, the officers were armed with a nightstick and a firearm. Breaching tools were also on hand to break into locked rooms – every nook and cranny of the building was to be inspected.

A Cat and Mouse Game
After the briefing, we followed one team in an unmarked van and made our way to the location in Geylang.  

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Inside the van. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui
 
Though quiet, the atmosphere was tense, with officers listening intently to their headsets for instructions. While we waited, another team secured the exit points of the building and retrieved the keys from the landlord. Stakeouts like these can last for hours, because it’s all about striking at the right time.

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The front of the building appeared to be a typical provision shop you’d see anywhere around Singapore – but at the back of the store was a staircase leading up to the rooms. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

Then, almost an hour after we had arrived, an officer from another team gave the greenlight for the raid to begin. 

Deter, Deny and Detect

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Highly trained ICA officers dressed in plainclothes during the raid. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

There were around 15 to 20 rooms on each floor. The officers split themselves into groups and meticulously checked every floor. They worked swiftly, knocking on the doors, asking for identification from occupants and verifying their identities. Most of the occupants were cooperative, despite looking a little disoriented after being jolted from their sleep, and seemed to understand what the officers were there for. 

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Officers using ICA’s Mobile Automated Verification and Identification System, which allows for on-site fingerprint and facial screening. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair
 
The officers made sure that every person and room was accounted for, making very little commotion during the process, even when breaching tools had to be used to break into certain rooms.

But then we came to a concealed room with a locked door. I inched closer to it and a rancid odour hit me like a brick. I winced and took a step back, allowing the officers to do their work. There was some concern that it could be a dead body, but it turned out to be an abandoned room full of garbage and pests – conditions so filthy that it was rendered uninhabitable. 

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The concealed room. PHOTO: Muhamad Khair

Curbing Immigration Offenders
This was only one of over 100 inland operations that the ICA conducts every month to weed out immigration offenders in Singapore. 

The risks faced by the officers is all too real. Apart from operating in sordid environments, officers also put their safety at stake, especially when they cross paths with aggressive suspects who’ll do anything to escape the law.

According to the ICA’s 2017 Annual Report, the total number of immigration offenders arrested last year decreased by 8%, from 1,278 in 2016 to 1,176 in 2017. Of these, the number of illegal immigrants arrested dropped by 14.3%, and the number of overstayers arrested fell by 6.7% over the same period.

These dwindling numbers can be attributed to the ICA’s multi-pronged approach to “Deter, Deny and Detect” immigration offenders, through strict laws, stringent border checks and inland enforcement operations. Collaboration with agencies such as the Singapore Police Force and the Ministry of Manpower has also been key.

I left that night with a greater understanding of how the ICA and its officers are curbing immigration offenders in Singapore. While we sleep, they’re hard at work, and this is how Singapore is kept safe and secure.

  1. by Muhamad Khair
  2. 14 December 2018
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