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Revealed: The dark world of people-smuggling in our region

PUBLISHED: 06:30 06 November 2019 | UPDATED: 09:58 07 November 2019

The number of victims of human trafficking has more than doubled in Norfolk in five years, but how easy is it to smuggle people through our region�s coastline? Picture: John Hocknell/Jamie Honeywood

The number of victims of human trafficking has more than doubled in Norfolk in five years, but how easy is it to smuggle people through our region�s coastline? Picture: John Hocknell/Jamie Honeywood

Archant Norwich Norfolk

The horror of human trafficking has been exposed again with the death of 39 Vietnamese people in a container in Essex. Taz Ali looks at how the dark world of people-smuggling has affected this region.

The bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants were found in a refrigerated trailer attached to a lorry in Essex on October 23. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA ImagesThe bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants were found in a refrigerated trailer attached to a lorry in Essex on October 23. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

How easy it is for migrants to be smuggled into the country through the region's coastline?

"It's an absolute piece of cake," says Frank Lappin, station manager at the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) in Caister.

"Norfolk has lots of beaches and flat countryside."

The problem is more prevalent along the south coast, said Mr Lappin who has worked at the Caister station for four years, but successful attempts in stopping migrants there means that smugglers could creep further north to evade detection.

21 stowaway migrants claiming to be from Albania were taken from a cargo ship in Great Yarmouth in September 2019. Picture: Jamie Honeywood21 stowaway migrants claiming to be from Albania were taken from a cargo ship in Great Yarmouth in September 2019. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Carol Ellero, volunteer at NCI Caister, said the vast sandy beaches of Norfolk's 90-mile coastline makes it easy for smugglers to offload stowaways, especially areas that are not heavily populated.

She said the NCI look out for suspicious activity and, while the problem does not arise often in Norfolk, volunteers occasionally come across vessels not using an automatic identification system (AIS) which broadcasts the position of a ship using a transponder.

But stowaways are not necessarily always found on suspicious vessels.

On September 24, 21 migrants - 19 men and two children from Albania were found by crew members aboard a cargo ship transporting wind turbines five miles off the Great Yarmouth coast.

Dutch authorities caught a suspected people-trafficking ring attempting to smuggle migrants from the Netherlands to Sea Palling in 2016. Picture: MARK BULLIMOREDutch authorities caught a suspected people-trafficking ring attempting to smuggle migrants from the Netherlands to Sea Palling in 2016. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Border Force said its officers were working with the Coastguard, the Great Yarmouth Port Harbour Master and police to resolve the situation.

It is not the first time migrants have been stopped attempting to illegally cross the Norfolk coast.

In 2016, Dutch police found a map of Sea Palling on a boat carrying 26 migrants.

Linda Lawrence, station manager at NCI Cromer, said there were big gaps between the coastwatch stations in Norfolk.

Coastwatch station managers Frank Lappin, of Caister, and Linda Lawrence, of Cromer. Picture: Frank LappinCoastwatch station managers Frank Lappin, of Caister, and Linda Lawrence, of Cromer. Picture: Frank Lappin

"It's really easy to travel overnight," she said. "They could come by ship halfway and then go into small boats."

NCI and Sea Safety Group, which runs Pakefield Coastwatch on the Suffolk coast, are managed by volunteers that are trained to deal with emergencies.

The watchkeepers look out for small vessels that would not be on the Coastguard's radar, which operates from its headquarters in Humber.

If suspicious activity is detected, they alert the Coastguard, Border Force and police.

But problems with recruiting volunteers and lack of suitable premises to run stations along the coast makes it difficult to man the vast Norfolk and Suffolk coastline.

The coastwatch stations are only operational during daylight hours, with the exception of Felixstowe which runs 24 hours a day.

Last year, Border Force officials and Suffolk police seized a vessel and arrested two people following reports people had come off a boat in the Orwell near Ipswich.

In October 2017, three suspected illegal immigrants were detained in Felixstowe after they were seen climbing over a fence at the port.

The Coastwatch station at Felixstowe operates 24 hours a day. Picture: Simon ParkerThe Coastwatch station at Felixstowe operates 24 hours a day. Picture: Simon Parker

"Felixstowe is a huge port and has Border Force presence," said Pakefield Coastwatch station manager Geoff Mann.

But nearly 60 miles of coastline between Pakefield and Felixstowe is completely unmanned.

One such incident between the two stations happened in Orford, around 17 miles north of Felixstowe, where seven suspected illegal immigrants were pulled from a stranded sailing boat in May 2017.

"It's quite a large gap," said Mr Mann. "There is opportunity there, certainly at night time.

Seven suspected illegal immigrants were pulled from a stranded sailing boat at Orford Quay in May 2017.  Picture: Archant LibrarySeven suspected illegal immigrants were pulled from a stranded sailing boat at Orford Quay in May 2017. Picture: Archant Library

"But it's 100 miles across from Holland, it's an extremely dangerous crossing without a proper vessel."

Meanwhile, the number of victims of human trafficking found in Norfolk has more than doubled in the last five years.

Figures from the National Crime Agency (NCA) reveal 21 people were thought to be trafficked in Norfolk in 2018, including two women from China and Hungary who were all referred to police as potential victims of sex-trafficking.

In 2014, there were seven victims of trafficking reported to Norfolk police, compared to 10 in 2015, 16 in 2016 and 26 in 2017.

- 'History repeating itself'

In the early 2000s west Norfolk saw a massive influx of Chinese migrants taking up agricultural and factory work.

In 2004, this newspaper reported that more than 2,000 Chinese migrants arrived in King's Lynn within a year.

Chinese workers strawberry picking in West Norfolk. Picture: John HocknellChinese workers strawberry picking in West Norfolk. Picture: John Hocknell

Some fell into the hands of gangmasters and lived and worked in awful conditions.

It took a house fire to unravel the sinister side of life as an undocumented Chinese worker.

On Sunday, June 2, 2003, a blaze gutted through a three-bedroom house at the Fairstead Estate in King's Lynn.

Authorities found 18 Chinese workers had all been living in the house and the fire was thought to be caused by an overloaded electric circuit.

The burnt-out house on the Fairstead estate in King's Lynn where 18 Chinese people were living in 2003. Photo: John HocknellThe burnt-out house on the Fairstead estate in King's Lynn where 18 Chinese people were living in 2003. Photo: John Hocknell

Stories began to emerge of just how terrible their plight was, with connections made to the 'snakehead' people-smuggling Chinese gang in London and the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 in which 21 Chinese immigrants drowned while picking cockles.

"Fifteen years ago, migrants came to west Norfolk to save money and send it back home," said a spokesman from the West Norfolk and District Chinese Association, who did not want to be named.

He said there had already been an established Chinese community in west Norfolk but the arrival of illegal workers reflected badly on them.

Since then, he said some of the workers were able to claim legal right to remain in the country, and have settled with their families.

He said there were similarities in the desperation felt by the Chinese workers more than a decade ago and the 39 migrants found dead in a shipping container in Essex last month.

"It's history repeating itself," he said. "Immigration like this is not a new thing.

"They make their way through illegal channels and take a lot of risks.

"If you look at their background, where they have come from, obviously they are desperate and want to better themselves.

"People from the other side of the world look at Britain and think they can earn in one week in the UK what they earn in one month in China. It's a very tempting message when they hear that."

Dr Becky Taylor, reader in modern history at the University of East Anglia, said: "The rise of undocumented international migration from the late 1990s, and indeed the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the trailer found in Essex, needs to be understood within the context of Britain's increasingly restrictive immigration regime."

She said the closing down of legal routes of entry to Britain and the difficulty of defining who was a refugee was making it more difficult for people to get into the UK.

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