How vulnerable is Suffolk’s coastline to smugglers and terrorists?
06:01 11 January 2016
Concerns raised that Suffolk’s coastline is a “smuggler’s paradise”.
Cuts to border patrols and policing are feared to have left the region’s isolated coastline vulnerable to criminals smuggling drugs, weapons and people into the country, an investigation can today reveal.
Suffolk fishermen and the volunteers keeping watch on the county’s coastline say the authorities responsible for protecting our borders are now spread so thinly they are no longer effective.
Although terrorist attacks such as the Paris massacre together with the deepening Calais migrant crisis may have heightened security concerns nationally, experienced policing figures say the Government’s response has left much of the coastline worse protected than ever.
Chris Hobbs, a former Metropolitan Police Special Branch officer who worked in border control, warned resources had been redeployed to cover the security threat facing major airports leaving coastal defences “almost nonexistent”.
And with efforts focussed on major entry points, Mr Hobbs said isolated regions such as the Suffolk coast were becoming more attractive to smugglers and potentially terrorists.
“The problem is nobody really knows just how vulnerable the Suffolk coast might be,” he added.
“When you cut off one entry point the smugglers look elsewhere and the Border Force is so thinly spread it has little idea about what’s coming in and where.
“You can only guess that if the smugglers are doing their job properly they will be taking advantage of these weak spots.”
The Home Office’s Border Force is the agency responsible for border security working with other law enforcement agencies including Suffolk police.
Both agencies – the Home Office and Suffolk Constabulary – refused Freedom of Information requests seeking details about the scale of smuggling in the county, citing national security risks as their reason.
However an Ipswich Crown Court hearing in October 2014 gave some insight into the problem when it emerged organised criminals had attempted to smuggle Eastern European people into the country, coming ashore at Orford under the cover of darkness.
Oleksander Kozak, one of the three Ukrainians who pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate a breach of the UK’s immigration law, told officers he had done the run from London to Orford on seven previous occasions.
Community concerns that the coastline between Orford and Bawdsey was continuing to be used for people smuggling in the months following saw it listed as a safer neighbourhood team priority for Woodbridge and District between October 2014 and April 2015.
Peter West, who runs river tours from Orford, said the coast was “still as vulnerable as it’s always been”.
“Nothing has been, there’s no regular patrols, the only change is there are now cameras on the quay,” he added.
“It’s the same as any of the rivers really, people can come and get a good few miles inland before they need to get off the boat.”
Kirk Stribling, a fisherman based in Aldeburgh, said the Suffolk coastline a “smuggler’s paradise”.
“There are miles and miles of isolated marshland that no one’s going to patrol,” he added.
“You see boats coming ashore then they disappear and you would never know what they were up to.”
Coastwatch volunteers in Pakefield, near Lowestoft, say they are the only teams keeping a regular watch on the coast between their station and Felixstowe and it would be easy for people to come ashore undetected.
“It’s very vulnerable all along the coastline here,” said station controller Phil Humphrey.
“The Border Force are here less and less now - they work mainly on information gathering.”
Mr Hobbs said the defence of the entire UK coastline, which is around 17,000km, is in the hands of just five customs cutters, decreasing numbers of coastguard vessels and a “paltry number” of police marine units, highlighting the scrapping of Essex Police’s units in 2013.
“If we are going to defend our borders against thousands of migrants including possible terrorist threats then we need to have strong coastal borders and airports – it should not be one at the expense of the other,” he added.
Have you experienced a problem with smuggling where you live? Email email@example.com,uk with your view on the issue.
Border vulnerabilities highlighted in report
The vulnerability of UK borders, including East Anglia is highlighted in the National Crime Agency’s report National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2015.
The report said most organised crimes involve the circumvention of UK border security controls, adding that criminals had continued to exploit vulnerabilities in the system and developed new methods of concealing illegal goods and people.
It said ferry ports in south east England – such as Felixstowe and Harwich – were the common entry point for cocaine from South America and the Caribbean, which is often transported by container and commercial vessels via European hubs, particularly Antwerp and Rotterdam.
What are the authorities doing to protect our coast?
The Home Office said it treated national security as a priority with its Border Force vessels using intelligence to intercept any suspicious crafts travelling to the UK working in closer partnership with law enforcement agencies and the Royal Navy to increase patrols.
“These measures will lead to faster, more co-ordinated responses to inbound threats and more intelligence about illegal goods and people destined for our shores,” a spokesman added, highlighting hi-tech search equipment used to find hidden drugs, weapons, people and contraband.
HM Revenue and Customs said by working with Border Force and other agencies it has more than halved the size of the illicit market in cigarettes since 2000 and the illicit hand-rolling tobacco market by a third.
“Last year HMRC prosecuted 417 people, prevented £746 million revenue losses as a result of investigation of organised crime groups and seized over 1.8 billion cigarettes and 313 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco,” a spokesman added.
“HMRC’s anti-smuggling strategy is effective and we continuously adapt it to changes in criminal behaviours. We recognise that more can be done to tackle tobacco smuggling, which is why we continue to develop and refine the methods we use to combat the ever-changing nature of illicit trade.”
Suffolk Constabulary added that it responds to any report of suspicious activity along the coast and urged potential witnesses to dial 999 to alert the police or coastguard as appropriate.
“We have previously dealt with incidents and work with partner agencies, including national and regional law enforcement, who hold responsibility for dealing with smuggling,” a spokesman added.
Recent seizures and arrests linked with smuggling in East Anglia
- Three drug smugglers who used bogus ambulances to smuggle ecstasy, MDMA and heroin into the UK via the Port of Harwich were jailed for a total of 70 years in December after being caught out by CCTV at a Colchester hotel.
- A Polish lorry driver was jailed for 20 years in December for importing cocaine and heroin within a cargo or Gouda cheese after he was stopped by Border Force and NCA officers at the Port of Harwich in June.
- Customs officers announced in December that illegal cigarettes valued at £12.3m had been seized at the Port of Harwich over an eight week period. Seizures included one million cigarettes in a load of dishwasher; 6.3m cigarettes in a consignment of washing machines; three million cigarettes in a shipment of tortilla chips and one million in a load of potatoes.
- A gang caught red-handed unloading more than three million illegal cigarettes that had been hidden in air condition units were jailed for more than 11 years in May 2015. HMRC officers had the three men under surveillance and made the arrests as the smuggled cigarettes were delivered at industrial units at Brandon in Suffolk.
- An investigation into a suspected £22 million tobacco smuggling, tax evasion and money laundering operation code named Operation Nipper saw six men arrested - four of them from Essex – after searches were carried out at 11 premises in East Anglia, London and the West Midlands in July 2015.
The region’s smuggling history
Colourful tales of the region’s association with smuggling throughout the ages have become part of its folklore.
Rumours that a network of tunnels had been built connecting some of the inns in Lowestoft to transport smuggled goods still circulate today.
Ivan Bunn, a historian and author from Lowestoft, said the story was likely a myth “but they do play quite a big part in the legends and the town’s history”.
At nearby Pakefield there are tales of a parson in the 17th Century being “buried alive” by a group of smugglers whom he had stumbled upon unloading contraband on the beach.
The “Hadleigh Gang”, said to be Suffolk’s most successful group of smugglers were reported to have landed thousands of horse loads of contraband in the mid 18th century.