When we talk about the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA), most people will think about "checkpoints", "passports", and clearing immigration.
But ICA officers’ duties of safeguarding our borders go beyond the checkpoints.
I followed ICA on an operation to catch a rare glimpse of their Ops Officers at work.
The raid was conducted at a dormitory behind a huge gantry gate in the northwestern part of Singapore.
According to the dormitory's official website, the dormitory is a compound complete with amenities, with 10 residential blocks, each consisting of 13 floors each.
When we stepped out of the van after we passed the entrance, it was a different vibe altogether.
I’m no longer surrounded by high-rise buildings anymore, and I was only made aware of the “target” after getting out of the van.
The workers living in the dormitory were just going about their night as usual.
Migrant workers living in Singapore can be attractive targets for crime syndicates who exploit their vulnerability as they are far from home.
Immigration offenders may turn to illegal activities to sustain their overstay in Singapore. Therefore, enforcement efforts are necessary to detect and deter them.
Authorities “showing their presence” through routine checks or such raids serve as a strong deterrence against illegal harbouring to keep Singapore safe and secure.
Officers split into various teams so that they could check through the blocks thoroughly.
Each team consists of officers from ICA, Singapore Customs, and Singapore Police Force tasked to look out for different offences that are under their respective purview.
For ICA, their focus is to ensure all workers possess valid immigration statuses and to detect overstayers, if any.
The plan was simple. All the officers had to do was check the rooms.
At least, that's what I thought. In actual fact, there were many things to do.
These include checking the validity of work permits, searching nooks and crannies for the presence of contraband or prohibited items, and engaging the occupants to explain the necessity of what they are doing.
They also had to ensure order within the room and cooperation from the occupants.
While such routine checks were often not "dramatic", incidents can occur.
How the raid went
While waiting for the validity of a migrant worker's work permit to be verified in the system, an ICA officer started chatting with him, asking him questions, which included whether the latter was married or not.
This chat, which seemed “casual”, was important for profiling the migrant worker.
I asked him why he chose that particular migrant worker to converse with, the officer explained that he thought he looked suspicious.
He elaborated that it was a hunch he had after many years of experience.
And the officer was not wrong.
The atmosphere took a turn when another officer came along and said it was the worker’s turn to open his locker for checks.
The migrant worker suddenly “did not understand English” and kept trying to “call a friend”.
The worker was actually trying to get a friend’s help to open another locker so that officers could check that locker instead.
From his evasive behaviour and his expression, even I could tell something was wrong.
With that, the officers insisted the worker open his own locker.
Things became intense when the migrant worker was adamant about not opening it, and a dormitory supervisor came up with a huge lock cutter.
The tension in the room was eventually defused by an ICA officer who managed to find the key to the locker under the worker's mattress.
The officers found contraband cigarettes in the migrant worker’s locker, and he was subsequently hauled away.
In such raids, officers may find offensive weapons that are not allowed in the dormitories, such as knives as well.
The operation continued like clockwork for the next few hours as the officers systematically went through each room.
Towards the end of the operation, an ICA officer explained that they usually don't find immigration offenders, such as overstayers, in dormitories like this, as residents would need to apply for entry cards to enter the dormitory (based on the validity of their work permit).
Then news came from the walkie-talkie that another team found overstayers — a total of five.
The case was not a straightforward one, though.
The migrant workers claimed they did not overstay intentionally, and they claimed their company didn't extend their work permit because they missed the deadline or decided not to do so.
The overstayers were then brought back to ICA Headquarters and handed over to Investigation Officers from ICA’s Enforcement Division, who will conduct further investigations and follow up with relevant authorities like MOM accordingly.
There are more than 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore.
As such, when it comes to migrant workers in Singapore, part of ICA’s enforcement work is to conduct rigorous and regular enforcement checks to ensure that these workers have entered Singapore legally and do not overstay.
If you had assumed ICA officers to be just stamping passports at the checkpoints, now you know — safeguarding borders is more dynamic and challenging than you think.
Watch more here:This sponsored article brought to you by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority has deepened the writer’s understanding of Singapore.
Top photo by Mothership/Kerr Puay Hian, and image screenshots via Mothership video