The shocking discovery of the bodies of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex raises profoundly troubling questions. Faced with such a tragedy, we have a duty to stop and take stock of the situation on the UK borders and of the broader issue of illegal migration.
Why did these individuals expose themselves to such danger? And what could be done to prevent these situations in the future?
The truth is that, over the past 10 years, austerity has diminished the resources available to UK Border Force. This has been a particular problem as political and public pressure have encouraged the authorities to devote extra attention to Calais and Dover, while other routes into the country have been neglected.
Typically, organised crime is the catalyst for illegal migration. The gangs have wide tentacles, including agents in source countries as far afield as the Indian subcontinent, sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and China. These people prey on the vulnerable, painting a false picture of the UK as a land of milk and honey, with opportunities for employment and a way out of poverty.
In the past, Border Force had mobile teams that travelled to smaller ports and airports. Intelligence operatives were on friendly terms with harbour masters and airport managers, building a network of informed sources capable of assisting the authorities by reporting suspicious behaviour.
I believe that the funding currently allocated does not allow for that approach to be taken, especially as Dover has sucked in resources.
Yet those small ports and airports present a greater risk now than ever. The increased security and technology at Calais has forced the organised crime gangs responsible for people trafficking to diversify their approach, using small vessels and alternative ports. Invariably, this increases the risks for the migrants and the rewards for the criminals, as they then charge more.
A focus must be placed on other UK ports, with intelligence resources deployed to identify the risks and the new routes that trafficking gangs are now using.
Analysis of manifestos, routes taken, observation and other sources can identify the criminal exploitation of ports. Felixstowe, Purfleet (where the Essex container is believed to have entered the country) and others have a considerable flow of traffic. Randomly stopping and searching containers can only play a minor part.
We should not underestimate the groups behind this. Typically, organised crime is the catalyst for illegal migration. The gangs have wide tentacles, including agents in source countries as far afield as the Indian subcontinent, sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and China.
These people prey on the vulnerable, painting a false picture of the UK as a land of milk and honey, with opportunities for employment and a way out of poverty.
Families pool resources, often selling all their goods to fund a (usually) male family member to travel to the UK in the hope that others can follow later. The organised crime gangs are paid up to pounds 10,000 for the journey, helping migrants travel to northern France and then organising the final trip across the Channel.
Every stage of this is enormously hazardous and the reality for migrants who do reach the UK is a long way from the promises of the traffickers. They often end up sleeping on the streets, living in “beds in sheds” or forced into modern slavery, doing unpaid work on behalf of gang masters.
The criminals responsible for this evil trade have little consideration for the plight of their customers. Tragedies, such as the deaths discovered in Essex or those that have occurred as a result of small dinghies sinking in the English Channel over the past year, are seen by them as an acceptable risk.
By operating across borders, the gangs can evade the attention of local law enforcement. Tackling them requires better international cooperation, and for law enforcement agencies to work together. It would also help if the French and Belgian governments worked harder to return illegal migrants to their country of origin rather than allowing them to move from one illegal camp to another.
The needless deaths caused by illegal migration cannot always be prevented, no matter the lengths to which immigration and law enforcement agencies go.
The volume and complexity of the ports makes intervention hugely difficult. Sadly, while trafficking remains a lucrative, relatively low-risk industry, it will continue. Nevertheless there is plenty more that we can — and must — do to stop it.
—The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
David Wood was deputy chief executive of the UK Border Agency