East Anglia coast is ‘wide open’ to smugglers and criminal gangs
- Credit: Archant
Experts say the rescue of 18 migrants from the Channel earlier this week – and reports of a suspected people trafficking ring attempting to reach Sea Palling in Norfolk – has exposed weaknesses in the UK's borders, particularly along more isolated stretches of coastline.
Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore said it had reinforced his concerns the county was 'wide open' to criminals and called for defences to be tightened urgently.
'I think the coast here in Suffolk is particularly vulnerable,' he added.
'We have 31 ports and marinas and it's all too easy for organised crime groups to practise their ill deeds here.
'It's not just illegal immigrants – it's arms, drugs and potentially terrorists, too.'
Mr Passmore said he had raised concerns with Suffolk police and is urging agencies across the region to work together on border crime.
His counterpart in Norfolk, Lorne Green, said the county's constabulary had a 'very close relationship' with Border Force and was 'well placed to deal with anything that could arise'.
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The Home Office, which is responsible for protecting the nation's borders, introduced new powers to tackle people earlier this week.
But, with just three Border Force cutters patrolling 11,000 miles of coastline at any one time, senior security figures claim the nation's maritime defences are over-stretched.
A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published in January also found the Border Force's knowledge of maritime threats was 'generally poor and needed to be improved'.
More isolated stretches of coastline are of particular concern.
A National Crime Agency briefing from April said: 'We know that as well as the main cross-channel ports, criminals are increasingly seeking to target less busy ones – from Tilbury to Purfleet up to Hull on the east coast.'
Ipswich Crown Court heard in October 2014 that a criminal gang had attempted to smuggle Eastern European people ashore at Orford on a number of occasions. People smuggling was then made a safer neighbourhood team priority for the village.
Chris Hobbs, a former Metropolitan Police Special Branch officer who worked in border control, said the problems had been widely discussed but previously ignored by the Home Office.
'Now, all of a sudden they are playing catch-up when they should have been ahead of the game,' he added.
'It was pretty obvious when Calais and Dunkirk started to tighten up that these people would start looking for other routes.
'They will target wherever they think they will succeed.
'One of the things about Suffolk is that it doesn't have a police marine unit, so you are very much relying on the three customs cutters that are in operation at any one time.'
Mr Hobbs also said Border Force had grown too reliant on volunteers to keep watch.
Earlier this year, Coastwatch volunteers in Pakefield, near Lowestoft, said they were the only teams keeping a regular eye on the coast between their station and Felixstowe.
'The Border Force are here less and less now – they work mainly on information gathering,' said station controller Phil Humphrey.
However, James White, representative of Felixstowe Ferry Fishermen's Association, said the coast was better protected.
'There's plenty of Border Force patrols – you see them all the time,' he added.
And Suffolk Refugee Support, which helps asylum seekers, said it had not come across anyone who had been smuggled into the county via its coastline.
'However, while there are virtually no legal routes to reach the UK to claim asylum, we continue to be concerned that refugees who might have compelling reasons to seek safety in this country are forced into the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers,' a spokesman added.
Suffolk police said it responded to any reports of suspicious activity on the coast and urged people to call 999 if they saw anything.
Home Office introduces new measures to boost border security
New powers targeting smugglers came into force earlier this week – just days after details of extra investment in strengthening border security were announced.
Border Force officers can now stop, board, divert and detain vessels and arrest anyone they suspect of breaking immigration law.
Extra patrol vessels are also set to be introduced, helping to intercept attempts to smuggle dangerous weapons, drugs and migrants into the country.
The Home Office said the first vessels will be in place 'in the coming months', adding to the protection already offered by the Border Force cutters and Royal Navy vessels.
Three 'maritime co-ordination hubs' will also be created to tackle coastal threats by building greater partnership between law enforcement and maritime partners, improving intelligence and creating a more flexible response team.
It is hoped the hubs will allow Border Force to increase its presence at smaller ports and to deploy officers quickly across the coastline where they are required.
Immigration minister James Brokenshire, said: 'Our investments and improvements over the past six years have left us with one of the most secure borders in the world. But we know we must go further and continue to adapt and react to the challenges we face.
'That's why we will be establishing a series of operational hubs, procuring additional boats and introducing new powers to make the UK's coastline even more secure from criminals looking to smuggle guns and drugs or facilitate illegal entry into the country.'