National Crime Agency photo of an overcrowded small boat used by migrants to cross the Channel earlier this year.

Borders Inspector Questions Whether the U.K. Has the Capacity and Capability to Deal With Migrant Influx

U.K. border and immigration policy and practices have recently come under scrutiny as more and more migrants attempt to access U.K. shores in small, overcrowded vessels, resulting in several deaths in recent weeks.

But has this focus on the Channel detracted from other efforts? An investigation by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration examined the Home Office’s identification and handling of migrants who entered the U.K. concealed in a commercial vehicle, and those migrants seeking to cross the English Channel in ‘small boats’.

“In 2016, when I looked at the Home Office’s response to the sharp increase in encounters with migrants who had entered the U.K. concealed in lorries, I found that while front-line staff had coped well with the extra demands it had been at the expense of other enforcement priorities, to the extent that in some areas little other operational activity had been conducted,” said Chief Inspector David Bolt. 

“In approaching this inspection, a key question was whether the response to the surge in ‘small boats’ was having a similar impact on other parts of the Home Office’s Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System.

“In short, inspectors found that it was. Border Force’s Maritime Command, the General Aviation/General Maritime Team based in Folkestone, Immigration Enforcement’s Criminal and Financial Investigation directorate, and the Joint (BICS and police) Debriefing Team, were all heavily occupied with ‘small boats’, as was U.K. Visas and Immigration (UKVI) Kent (Asylum) Intake Unit. Some staff in these teams, as well as other agencies, expressed concerns about what was being missed as a result.

“The Home Office has contended that the emergence in late-2018 of ‘small boats’ as a favored means of illegal entry was a consequence of the extensive investment over recent years, in collaboration with the French authorities, in strengthening security at and around the ports in northern France. But, while this may have made unaided clandestine entry harder, it is the case that the number of ‘lorry drop’ migrants encountered in the U.K. increased in 2019 by a third over the previous year, and organized smuggling of large groups concealed in road transport continues, often with casual disregard for the risks to the migrants’ health and welfare, as evidenced by the discovery of the bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated trailer at Purfleet, Essex, in October 2019.

“Overall, up until March 2020, there were no signs of the threat of clandestine entry reducing and recent evidence pointed in the other direction. While the Home Office had shown some agility in marshalling and reprioritizing resources in response, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has neither the capacity nor the capabilities, in particular in respect of criminal investigation and prosecution, required to manage this threat more effectively.

“I have made five recommendations. These touch on skills, organization and processes, partnership-working, data and analysis, and staff management. None offers a “quick fix”, nor do they seek to address wider questions of “pull factors” and calls for more legal and safe routes, which were not the focus of this inspection.”

The Inspector recommended that the Home Office carry out a fundamental review of the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System’s criminal investigation and prosecution capabilities and capacity, looking at clandestine entry (incorporating people smuggling, trafficking and modern slavery) and other immigration-related crimes, and revisiting with the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the National Crime Agency, and others if appropriate.

The Home Office partially accepted this recommendation and pointed to an independent review which has recently concluded. The Home Office is considering the recommendations made in the review, and also noted that work is underway to professionalize capabilities. For example, all operational criminal investigators must undertake learning and development in line with the College of Policing accredited Professionalising Investigations Programme. All officers are required to complete a 92-week long program of learning and workplace assessment which is both internally and externally verified. Work is also underway to streamline small boats and lorry drops processes and to reduce hand-offs. This work has been expanded to include all high-risk clandestine methods of entry, and to include all Home Office staff working inside the clandestine threat arena.

The Chief Inspector’s second recommendation was accepted. This calls for the Home Office to review the roles and responsibilities of the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) teams involved in responding to “lorry drops” and “small boats” with a view to reducing the number of “hand offs” and requirements for staff to travel large distances or to be on detached duty from their normal place of work, including by conducting a skills audit and training needs analysis, with the aim of creating efficiencies and greater resilience through more multi-skilling; and considering whether the Midlands Intake Unit should operate in the same way as the Kent Intake Unit in terms of receiving migrants directly from the police, and whether similar facilities are required in any other regions. 

A new senior leadership role – the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander – was created in August 2020 to provide leadership across Home Office commands. This role will also coordinate bodies across government including the police, the National Crime Agency and Joint Maritime Security Centre to work to end the viability of the small boats route as a means of entering the U.K. illegally. 

The Home Office partially accepted the recommendation to work with the National Police Chiefs Council to create joint plans for the monitoring and “policing” of the whole of the U.K. coastline (including ports and harbors) for the smuggling of people and goods and related criminal activities, integrating Border Force/Immigration Enforcement priorities, resources and functions, including intelligence collection, with those of coastal police forces.

In response, the Home Office said this is a complex recommendation which cannot be fully accepted without the agreement of several agencies, Devolved Administrations (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and Police and Crime Commissioners. Border Force will undertake an assessment with key stakeholders of the scope of a joint plan that would be operationally effective in monitoring and policing the coastline, as set out in this recommendation. The Home Office will also relaunch project KRAKEN, a joint project designed to raise the ‘vigilance’ capability among the general maritime community against the threat from general crime at the border, illegal immigration and smuggling. 

The Chief Inspector recommended that the Home Office produce a detailed monthly analysis of clandestine entry attempts detected at the juxtaposed controls and at U.K. ports, and “failures” (vehicles later identified in connection with “lorry drops”), and the factors over which Border Force had control, including staffing levels, targeted vehicles, and search techniques used, (ensuring that the information provided by frontline staff is specific and complete), and use this analysis to identify the resources and tactics required to drive up detections and reduce “lorry drop” numbers.

The Home Office accepted this recommendation and stated that it has recently produced analysis in relation to clandestine activity which partly addresses this recommendation. Border Force will build on this work through the establishment of a dedicated performance team over the course of 2020/21 which will, as part of its remit, work to deliver better management information on lorry drops and clandestines. 

And the Home Office also accepted the fifth and final recommendation – to engage the Cutter and Coastal Patrol Vessel (CPV) crews in an open consultation exercise to review and address any concerns about their terms and conditions, training opportunities and career paths, providing them with as much clarity as possible about future plans for the Maritime Command. In the meantime, the Home Office should ensure that all crew members have the personal equipment they need to perform their duties effectively and safely and that Standard Operating Procedures are comprehensive and updated in line with events.

A review of terms and conditions, to which staff contributed, was completed in early 2020. Based on the outcomes of that, the Home Office says a new set of terms and conditions will be developed for further consultation with staff with an intention to move to implementation in the 2021/22 business year.

Training provision has been reviewed and several new courses are now part of the routine maritime training offer delivered by qualified staff from within the maritime command. Deck and engineering pathways will be in place by the end of 2020 to address the need for clearer career progression.

The Home Office added that since the inspection, crews have additional personal equipment such as new marinized body armour and specialist kit such as dry suits and helmets for boarding teams. 

Bolt said he takes some encouragement from the Home Office’s response, including the appointment of the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander to lead on clandestine entry. He said the response also identifies an extensive body of work that is in hand in the department and with partner agencies. “The latter will require significant ongoing commitment and effort, but the present situation is unsustainable so there is no real choice if the improvements in operational capacity and capabilities needed to reduce organised immigration crime are going to be achieved.”

The U.K. has worked closely with France on several immigration and border programs in recent years. It is not yet known what level of impact Brexit will have on such arrangements, although both parties have expressed a willingness to continue their cooperation.

Read the complete Chief Inspector’s report at the U.K. government library

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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