'Tip of the iceberg' - Expert fears more illegal immigrants landed on Suffolk coast
PUBLISHED: 17:35 05 December 2019 | UPDATED: 08:02 06 December 2019
A major immigration raid near the Suffolk coast has sparked renewed calls for stronger border protection.
Security experts say the Border Force-led operation in Blythburgh on Wednesday night has again exposed the region's vulnerability to smugglers - and is likely just the "tip of the iceberg".
Officers arrested 14 men in the raid, which followed reports of a group of people seen leaving a boat at Southwold Harbour at around 6pm. A witness told of "chaotic" scenes with around 12 police cars, a helicopter and representatives of the Border Force and coastguard.
MORE: 14 men arrested after suspected illegal immigrants detained in Blythburgh
The raid is the latest in a series of incidents along the region's coast to have given rise to border security concerns - including the tragedy in October when the bodies of 39 people were found in a lorry container in Grays in Essex.
Duncan Weaver, module leader in crime, terrorism and global security at Easton and Otley College, said that while there was a focus on protecting major ports in the region such as Felixstowe, Harwich and Tilbury, the more remote stretches of coastline were "porous".
"It's almost like a wound has opened on the UK border," he added. "We have security operatives from Border Force, police and coastguard but they can't be everywhere at once.
"What happened on Wednesday night in Blythburgh is worrying and shocking, particularly in light of the tragedy at Grays, but it served to highlight the need for authorities to work effectively in tackling this problem."
Dr Weaver said he had been researching the issue and believed cases where suspects where apprehended were just the "tip of the iceberg".
He said many of the victims of people smuggling ended up in modern slavery, including forced labour in cannabis farms.
"The theme throughout is real suffering affecting real people who have been sold a dream that's not come true," he added.
Geoff Mann, station manager at Pakefield Coastwatch, agreed that there were major difficulties keeping watch on the coastline.
"After Pakefield, the next nearest Coastwatch station down the coast is in Felixstowe, so we've got the whole coastline including Southwold, Aldeburgh and Dunwich, where there are no observations going on day or night," he added.
"There are various points along the coast where even in daylight, it's possible for vessels to come ashore unnoticed."
Mr Mann said most vessels off the coast in north Suffolk would have come from Holland, travelling around 100 miles across the North Sea.
"We frequently see Dutch vessels coming across, heading to places like Southwold or Yarmouth, but there's really no way of telling whether there's anything untoward," he added. "There's really no chance of picking them up unless you have people manning stations along the coast day and night."
Mr Mann said he had heard of plans to introduce more Border Force officers - and agreed the investment was needed, particularly if Brexit goes ahead, as he expected an increase in the number of people trying to enter the country illegally.
The Home Office confirmed it had already recruited around 900 officers this year to prepare for Brexit and boost "operational resilience". The numbers include 300 officers who have joined a new 'Readiness Task Force', which is available to deploy across the UK to deal with emerging issues and peaks in demand.
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The Home Office said the operation on Wednesday night saw 14 Albanian men arrested and taken into custody suspected of having entered the illegally, and two other men arrested on suspicion of assisting illegal immigration.
Roderick Orr-Ewing, chairman of Blythburgh Parish Council, said people in the village had been aware of coastal security for some time "but this was the first real sense we've had of it actually impinging on our lives".
"I'm glad to see they didn't come ashore up the river as that would have felt very close to us."
Mr Orr-Ewing added that the council would likely seek advice from police on how to best to deal with the situation.
What happens to people arrested on suspicion of entering the country illegally?
The Home Office said suspects would be dealt with according to Immigration Rules - which can vary depending on people's circumstances.
A spokesman said people arrested on suspicion of illegal immigration were rarely charged with a crime and instead tended to be dealt with "administratively".
People who claimed asylum would likely be taken to an immigration retention centre while their case was determined.
For lengthy cases people would not be detained - but would be expected to check in regularly with officials.
People not claiming asylum would be returned to their home country.