Harwich port sees huge rise in people smuggling while in Felixstowe it’s drugs, tobacco and 3,600 stun-guns
PUBLISHED: 16:27 13 July 2017 | UPDATED: 08:25 14 July 2017
More “clandestine arrivals” were detected at a north Essex port last year than any other on the east coast – amid increasing reports of people smuggling and concerns smaller marinas were going unprotected.
Harwich recorded 150 smuggled migrants in 2015/16, according to an inspection report, while the overall figure for the six largest eastern ports showed a near doubling in the number of migrants detained year on year.
Figures for Felixstowe showed few immigrant arrivals. However its port seizures in April and May 2016 included four tons of tobacco, 2.5 million cigarettes, 40 kilos of cannabis and 3,600 stun guns.
The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Bolt, who wrote the report into east coast ports, said while Border Force was “stretched in some instances too thinly” it was “generally efficient and effective” at major seaports.
Coverage at small ports, however, was said to be “poor” – with nearly half of those surveyed having gone a year without a visit from Border Force officials.
The report warned it could lead to “missed opportunities” in intelligence gathering and “no visible deterrent” to prevent smuggling of immigrants or contraband through these ports.
This newspaper has reported previously on concerns that isolated stretches of Suffolk’s coastline had become a “smuggler’s paradise”. Orford and Bawdsey have both been involved in recent people smuggling cases.
This week, a court heard how a Romanian criminal who was deported five years ago had managed to return to Britain 13 times before being arrested for stealing an 81-year-old woman’s purse in an Ipswich car park.
Border Force said in response to the report it was recruiting more field intelligence officers to visit smaller ports.
The agency has a 24-hour presence at both Harwich and Felixstowe, where officers were said to be dealing “appropriately” with arrivals.
The biggest threat of people smuggling is said to be on ferries, particularly from the Hook of Holland and Zeebrugge in Belgium, with tourist crossings regarded by Border Force as a target for migrants.
The report found Border Force was making “good use” of intelligence to assess the threat and risk of clandestine entry.
However it highlighted “inconsistencies” in working practices. While Border Force searched passenger vehicles arriving at Hull from the Hook of Holland, it carried out none on those arriving in Harwich.
Officers told inspectors Harwich relied on checks by the Dutch authorities, but the report warned they were “not a guarantee”.
It said clandestine entries took various forms including some who paid “criminal facilitators” to be smuggled into the country.
On Thursday, a man who tried to smuggle 22 illegal immigrants through Harwich hidden behind washing machines was jailed for three years and eight months.
While the report said Border Force staff were generally coping with growing pressures, officers had also raised concerns about the loss of experienced staff and how this had affected its capabilities.
Several “backlogs” at Felixstowe were mentioned as examples of this. In one case, a consignment of perishable goods was left waiting more than three months to be searched. It meant the load was in an “advanced stage of decomposition” and required a specialist contractor to be paid to examine it.
Mr Bolt said he made a number of recommendations to the Home Office and had since received responses that gave confidence Border Force was implementing the necessary improvements.
The Home Office said it was pleased the report found Border Force operations at major seaports “efficient and effective” but accepted that improvements can be made and agreed to take forward its recommendations.
A spokesman said Border Force was already improving its presence at smaller ports by doubling its fleet of coastal patrol vessels and increasing the focus of its field intelligence officers.
“Additionally, we have set up the Maritime Information Bureau to ensure our operations are targeted based on the threat facing our coastline, keeping communities safe,” the spokesman added.
“With over 11,000 miles of coastline, it is crucial that Border Force uses intelligence to prioritise its resources.
“We are also working, including through the organised immigration crime task force and with international partners, to target gangs involved in smuggling people and illicit goods before they arrive on our shores.”