Last Thursday evening, Border Force officers at the port of Harwich detected and intercepted 68 migrants seeking to enter the UK illegally and clandestinely. The discovery came after four lorries were selected for examination and for searching through Border Force’s normal operating procedures. Among the 68 migrants were two pregnant women and 15 children. Seven migrants complained of chest pains and nausea and were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. All four drivers of the lorries involved were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. They have been bailed but remain under investigation by law enforcement bodies, including the National Crime Agency.
Of the 68 people found, 35 were Afghans, 22 Chinese, 10 Vietnamese and one Russian. None of those taken to hospital, including the two pregnant women, was found to have a substantive medical condition of concern. Some of the individuals have claimed asylum, and UK Visas and Immigration is considering their claims, including suitability for the “detained fast track” process. Two of the asylum seekers are unaccompanied minors and have been placed in the care of Essex social services. We have already begun the work to seek the removal of the remaining migrants from the UK, and 15 have already been successfully removed. If we can show that those claiming asylum have also claimed in another EU member state, we will seek to remove them under the Dublin regulations. The Government are clear that the EU’s approach to migratory flows must include the proper management of the external border, the prompt return of those not in genuine need of protection and action to tackle the efforts of the smugglers and traffickers who profit from human misery.
I am aware that my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin visited the port, which is in his constituency, on Friday, and I endorse and echo his positive words about the work of Border Force. It conducts rigorous checks, on a targeted basis, on lorries and other vehicles as they arrive at UK ports of entry, as was the case at Harwich on Thursday evening. Such checks are undertaken by skilled officers who have the expertise to identify individuals often well hidden in vehicles and they involve the use of state-of-the-art scanning and X-ray technology. Thursday night’s incident at Harwich comes on the back of several other good results for the Border Force team at that port. Among other successful operations in recent years, the team has made some significant seizures, including 15 kg of heroin in December, 17 kg of cocaine in May and 2.9 million cigarettes in March.
On the specific problems of clandestine immigrants, Border Force concentrates significant resources at the juxtaposed ports in northern France, where the vast majority of illegal border crossings are attempted. All lorries undergo enhanced screening at these locations, but our approach is flexible and intelligence led. Border
Force can and does move its resources around on the basis of threat to ensure we keep one step ahead of the criminal gangs that exploit vulnerable people and try to circumvent our immigration laws.
The important work that Border Force officers carry out, detecting and intercepting those who attempt to enter the UK illegally, in conjunction with law enforcement agencies in the UK and internationally, is vital in the fight against organised criminal networks engaged in people smuggling. These gangs show a callous disregard for human life and seek to make a profit out of other people’s misery. I commend Border Force for its discovery last week and the work it does day in, day out to protect the UK’s border, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. Can he confirm that this is, in fact, one of the largest discoveries of clandestines ever at a port of entry into the UK? I join him in his praise for Border Force and the effectiveness of its operation. I also join him in underlining what a pitiful sight these individuals were and in remembering that they are the victims of people traffickers as much as they are seeking to exploit the system themselves.
Does the Minister share public concern about the immediate implications of this discovery, which perhaps arise under three main issues? How much does this incident demonstrate the increasing pressures on Border Force and the UK authorities, and do they have adequate manpower and equipment? Harwich international port is able to stop and search only about 6% of the 250,000 commercial vehicles entering the UK at Harwich each year. It does not know and cannot know how many unchecked vehicles might contain undetected clandestines. Seeking out illegal entrants is not its first priority, which is to swipe passports of known passengers and carry out anti-terrorist measures.
Secondly, although Border Force was able to reassure me that it has effective working relationships with its counterparts in Holland and elsewhere across the continent, the UK does not have an agreement with Holland on what is known as—the Minister referred to it—juxtaposed controls, similar to those with France, which enable the UK authorities to operate on the ground at Calais and other French channel ports. Without criticising the Dutch Government in any way, this incident raises the question of whether arrangements at Hook of Holland need to be reviewed?
Thirdly, what signal does this send? Yes, we found these individuals, and I am delighted that the Minister has been able to tell us that 15 of these clandestine migrants have already been deported, but out of the 68, what is the likelihood that many will end up achieving what they wanted and be allowed to stay here? Why do clandestines cross continents of free countries to claim asylum here? While we must honour our obligations under the tightly defined criteria for asylum claims laid down in the 1951 Geneva convention, how much does the way that we adjudicate on the much wider provisions of the European convention on human rights unreasonably inflate asylum claims so that the UK attracts people to claim asylum here rather than elsewhere, and what should be done about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has approached this issue. I know of the direct stance he has taken in visiting the port and ensuring that he represents his constituents effectively. He makes a powerful point about the pitiful sight of those discovered in these four lorries and about how those seeking to exploit migrants really have no care or consideration—even at times as to whether these people will live or die. That is the callous and harsh reality of the organised crime groups to which we are responding. That is also why it is right that we have enforcement activity both in this country, leveraging with the work of the National Crime Agency, and with other European partners.
My hon. Friend highlights his concerns about the immediate aftermath of the detection, and this has certainly been a very significant detection of illicit migrants, although we have worked hard across the whole of the juxtaposed and other port controls, with just over 39,000 detections being made last year. That shows the vigilance and hard work of Border Force—both in country and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend highlights the need to work internationally, which is certainly what we are doing with the Dutch and others, and asks why people are claiming asylum here rather than in other countries. I would point to that fact that, last year, there were 200,000 asylum claims in Germany—much more than the approximately 30,000 we saw in this country—and 81,000 in Sweden and 63,000 in France. A large majority of asylum claimants are thus going to other European countries rather than here. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend on the work that Border Force is undertaking and the work we will continue to do to secure our border, using technology and flexibly deploying our resources in respect of intelligence where we need it, and ensuring that we are doing all we can to secure our border.
First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and Mr Jenkin for raising this important issue here today? It remains one of the most serious humanitarian issues facing not just this Government but Europe as a whole. We must ensure that we maintain, as the Minister wants to do, the integrity of our borders. The people found at Harwich this weekend are as much victims of criminal gangs as those found on boats in the Mediterranean, or indeed at the border in Calais. As the Minister has said, we need concerted UK and EU action to ensure we stop this trade in human beings at source.
We on this side of the House warned in October that the removal of Operation Triton would lead to further pressure on European borders, and the lack of effective action taken in Calais by the French authorities and their failure to identify and to remove correctly those at the French border is leading to attempts at other borders, including those in Holland. The measures taken earlier this year by the Government and European Governments are welcome, and I also pay tribute to the armed forces for their help in the Mediterranean, but some questions remain.
First, will the Minister outline in detail what steps he is taking with our European partners and Europol to establish where the people traffickers are operating from, to follow the money raised by payment to these individuals back to source, and to establish further intelligence-led operations to close down this business? How many prosecutions of people traffickers have taken place in the past 12 months both in the UK and internationally? Will he now arrange an urgent meeting of the EU police forces and Ministers to look at this issue again, and to track, identify and prosecute those involved in this trade? Might we look particularly at the issues of north Africa and the middle east, and the Governments and regimes there, to help stop this trade at source?
Like the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, I briefly want to look at what we are doing in the UK. We need to intensify the checks on vehicles, particularly lorries at UK ports of entry. Can the Minister confirm what percentage of lorries and containers are routinely checked at UK ports of entry, and say whether the figure of 6% for Harwich is accurate? Can he confirm whether the statement of the former inspector of borders, John Vine, at the weekend that
“good intelligence and experienced staff were critical, but a lot of experienced staff were leaving and not being replaced” is true?
Can the Minister confirm whether Border Force funding is ring-fenced from the £30 million Home Office cut announced by the Chancellor last week? A further reduction in funding, even in these hard times, will put pressure on Border Force staff. Will he indicate, if not now then in writing in the Library of the House, how many staff were in post in May 2010 and how many staff are in post now? Does he accept that the pressures on Calais and the work done is Calais are now displacing people to other ports, as we warned last year? Will he look at the issue of the Dublin convention to make sure arrangements are put in place so that those whose first port of entry is not in the UK are dealt with elsewhere?
Finally, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex has asked, will the Minister indicate what steps he is taking to work with the Government of Holland in particular, but also those in Belgium, Spain and Ireland who have direct sea routes to the UK, to put in place stronger mechanisms, as we have in France, to stop the traffickers in mainland Europe?
This is a criminal trade, and the people at Harwich are victims. We need to make sure that the UK Government work hand in hand with our European partners because we need, collectively with the support of the Opposition, to close down this vile trade.
The right hon. Gentleman has asked a series of questions. I may not be able to answer all of them in the time available, but I welcome his constructive approach.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the need to work jointly with other European countries, and I agree. That is why we have a dedicated UK taskforce in Dover which provides real-time intelligence and investigation response to all operations. For example with links to France and Belgium, 32 live investigations and 22 organised crime groups have already been disrupted since February 2014, and the total custodial sentences to date is 148 years. I hope that responds on his question about the body of work.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the work that we have rightly undertaken in Calais with the French authorities—the £12 million joint investment with the French Government to strengthen security at that port.
That is on top of additional investment in screening and other detection equipment, which underlines our strong, practical response.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the number of Border Force officers—there are around 8,000. They are deployed flexibly, by which I mean that is dependent on the intelligence that we see for a particular port at any one time. Therefore, it is not appropriate to give the breakdown or percentages that he seeks, but we rightly take a responsive stance to deal with such issues.
The right hon. Gentleman also highlighted the need to ensure adherence to the Dublin regulations that allow us to return people who may have been able to claim asylum in other countries. We take that responsibility seriously and we continue to press other European countries in that regard.
One of the key things is to ensure that those who arrive in the European Union are properly fingerprinted and that we have the identification of those who come to our shores. More work needs to be done on that and we will continue to press other European countries to fulfil their responsibilities.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the work that the Government have done through the Immigration Act 2014—to put in place clarification of article 8, for example, on the right to a family life, to ensure that it is properly balanced—so that we can seek removal. I am sure that such issues of fundamental and human rights are ones that we shall return to during the course of the Parliament.
Order. Unfortunately, Mr Jenkin, the Minister and the shadow Minister all significantly exceeded their allotted time. I am keen to accommodate the very proper interest of colleagues, and I will try to do so, but I am also conscious—I hope that the House will be sensitive to the fact—of an important Second Reading debate to follow, which is well subscribed and of which I must therefore take proper account.
I fully support what Charles Montgomery and his team have done at the border. They do an excellent job, as does Wagtail UK, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This is fundamentally an EU problem, in terms of not only tackling the human traffickers, but protecting the border. Will the Minister ensure that Frontex is made to do the job that it is supposed to do, which is to protect the external border of the EU so that people such as those caught in the containers are not allowed to be treated in that way?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I fully recognise the importance of this work, of EU action and of the role that Frontex has to play. This is certainly something that the Home Secretary has continued to advance at Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings. Indeed, there were discussions at the G6 last week, when the Home Secretary spoke to a number of her European counterparts. I assure the right hon. Gentleman of the importance that we attach to the work of Frontex and to ensuring that the external border is strengthened.
It is slightly alarming that it is now public knowledge that clandestine migrants have a 94% chance of getting in through Harwich. When the Home Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament visited Calais, we saw all lorries routinely subject to carbon dioxide sensors, motion sensors, sniffer dogs and X-rays. When will similar thoroughness be applied to Harwich, where clearly displacement has happened?
We have those controls juxtaposed at ports where we see the majority of the problem. Clearly we keep under review the way in which we apply our resourcing to particular ports. I do not comment on specific percentages or ways in which resources are deployed. The right thing to do is to look at the intelligence and the threat and to ensure that we are doing our utmost. That is precisely what we are doing.
Reports suggest that the migrants had been stowed for a long time, with many tired and dehydrated. The Minister said that they included two pregnant women and 15 children, and that some were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure but none was found to have a substantial “medical condition of concern.” What assurances can he give that those migrants who remain in the UK have continuing access to appropriate healthcare? What updates can he provide, particularly on the condition of the pregnant women and children reported to have been among their number?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question and welcome her to her place today. I have given the House an update on the medical condition of the children and the others rescued at Harwich. Obviously, continuing medical support will be made available should it be required, but, again, I am pleased to say that no further intervention was needed.
As I hope my hon. Friend will recognise, it would not be appropriate for me to identify or set out alternative routes for others to take. I can say to him that Border Force is vigilant and is always looking at different ways in which those who seek to get to this country may stow away or hide themselves. The real concern is the extent to which people are prepared to put their lives at risk, sometimes in really dangerous conditions. We take that extremely seriously, in terms not simply of trying to identify individuals but of ensuring that they are safeguarded.
The Minister has talked about how some people who have been smuggled are being returned and how the drivers of the lorries have been arrested, but he has not told us what has happened to the organisers of this operation. In preparation for this question, I looked to see how many criminal gangs that are smuggling people into Britain had been prosecuted. The Minister said he is disrupting their operations, but is he going to prosecute any of them?
When the hon. Lady looks back at a previous answer I gave about the work of operation groundbreaker, she will see that prosecutions have been achieved, with a significant number of years’ imprisonment secured against those involved.
As I said in my statement, the National Crime Agency is involved in this area, working with immigration enforcement. The hon. Lady rightly says that this is about going against the trafficking groups—the organised crime groups—and looking overseas to where the facilitation is taking place. This is a pernicious and appalling trade, which is why we are fusing intelligence and working jointly with European partners to go after those responsible for putting people in such dangerous conditions.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the importance of immigration removal centres? The whole House has recognised that the people involved at Harwich were clearly the victims. As Joanna Cherry said, it is important that there is somewhere safe and secure for people to be held and looked after, which is why the IRCs are important.
I recognise and support the need for detention as part of a removals policy, and IRCs play an important role in ensuring that that takes place in a safe manner. Obviously, we are concerned to ensure that detention in an IRC is for the most limited period possible and that appropriate welfare is provided, but it is absolutely right that we have our IRCs to do the job on facilitation and removal.
Given that these were intelligence-led operations, may I return to John Vine’s comments about Border Force? His concerns were that too many staff with long experience have been lost and that although we may have the numbers, these people are not sufficiently experienced. Will the Minister return to the issue to satisfy himself that that is not happening?
The success of Border Force is clear to see, with more than 39,000 attempts to cross the channel illegally having been stopped in 2014-15. Indeed, its successful work last week underpins its activity. We continue to strengthen the security at our border to stop those who have no right to enter the UK, and our highly trained staff in Border Force are doing that precise job.
Helping fragile states is expensive, but helping failed states is even more expensive in terms of blood, treasure and mass migration—often illegal mass migration. Although these clandestines are arguably not from failed states, many more who come to this country are. Does that not underline the importance of the Government’s commitment to the Department for International Development budget, particularly in doing more for conflict prevention and conflict resolution?
My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. Our international and regional development assistance plays a key part in providing long-term solutions to help prevent the flows of people across continents and in confronting and combating the traffickers who are engaged in this pernicious trade. Yes, he is correct, and we certainly do want to see that focus on international development assistance to support our own domestic priorities.
As Mr Jenkin said, only 6% of vehicles are stopped. We know that there is an issue around infrastructure as well as around resources at ports. What conversation is the Minister having with the ferry companies, which often plead commercial pressures as well, to ensure that there is space and willingness to engage with the Border Force to tackle this issue?
As I have already told the House, it is not correct to talk about any specific percentages at any one port given the very flexible way in which resources are directed to meet the threat. But we continue to discuss the matter with the maritime and other sectors. Indeed the round-table discussion that I had with the hauliers in March focused on how we could work with them, the need for greater security and the support they need to help them with their role. We will certainly continue those discussions.
This country should be proud of its record of granting asylum to those who are fleeing persecution and those whose lives would be at risk if they were returned to their countries of origin. This Government have taken significant steps to improve the way we process asylum cases and deal with the backlogs. We now have a six-month service standard for processing straightforward claims. Obviously, we remain vigilant against those who abuse our asylum system and our hospitality, which is why we are following the Dublin regulation and ensuring that those who are coming here not for asylum are processed effectively and removed if they have no right to be here.
I ask the Minister to think quite deeply about this issue. Those poor people who were taken into Harwich are but the tip of an iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are victims of war, oppression, and human rights abuses. Apparently, many of them come from Afghanistan, which we have occupied for the past 14 years. Does he not think that there is a worldwide humanitarian crisis here that we should be addressing to save lives? It is fine to condemn people traffickers—we can all do that—but we must look at the consequences for those desperate and very poor people.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said in relation to a previous question on the use of international and regional development assistance, and I believe very strongly in that. It is an end-to-end approach that we need here. Yes, of course we have the immediate issue that we were confronted with on Thursday of those who have arrived on our shores. Equally we need to look at the external border in dealing with Frontex and some of the other European institutions. But it is also about stopping people from making these journeys. It is not only about confronting the organised crime groups; it is also about regional assistance and development and ensuring that we have solid states so that people do not need to make those perilous journeys.
Caring for trafficked children is putting a great financial strain on local authorities, including Northamptonshire. Are Ministers making additional resources available in this dreadful case to help that process?
Certainly, we recognise that a number of areas around the UK are under significant pressure from migration. That is why the Prime Minister has said that we are examining the creation of a special fund to make money available to those areas of the country that are particularly affected. Certainly, that is something that we are considering further, and we will come back to the House with further information in due course.
Will the Minister set out what co-operation is being undertaken with the Dutch authorities to ensure that checks on lorries take place at the earliest possible opportunity to reduce the risk to migrants? What percentage of checks are taking place in Holland and what investment is planned to ensure that, as has been illustrated in Calais, early intervention reduces the risks?
The relationship with the authorities in the Netherlands is particularly strong and has resulted in a joint action plan that will embed regular data and intelligence sharing between Border Force and its Dutch equivalent. Intelligence is already being shared that is helping to improve Border Force targeting and in the future we plan to run joint operational activities on common threats in the Netherlands to enhance security. The strong joint working that we see already will be enhanced.
Earlier this year, a case was reported of a failed asylum seeker whose application had been refused in 1997 but who, incredibly, was still here in 2015, mainly due to the Human Rights Act. Will the Minister please confirm that all the illegal immigrants found at Harwich will be returned within 18 days, never mind 18 weeks, 18 months or 18 years? If that is not possible because of the
Human Rights Act, it will be yet further evidence of why we urgently need to review our human rights legislation.
It is right that any asylum claims should be appropriately considered, and that is what will happen. As I have already said, the Government have done a great deal to speed up and improve the process of examining those claims. My hon. Friend has a good point about the ability to appeal. We believe that further steps are needed on various different routes, so that appeal rights can be maintained, but out of the country. That is what we have done with foreign national offenders and we want to extend it further into other routes.
Stopping this revolting trade requires action at source and my hon. Friend has spoken about the importance of the use of our international aid budget. What discussions has he had with Foreign Office Ministers about taking concerted action across the globe?
We have joint action on this and the Home Office does not simply work in isolation. We work with the Department for International Development and Ministers from the Foreign Office, so I can certainly assure my hon. and learned Friend that the Government take our responsibilities in combating this issue seriously. That requires work overseas as well as in this country, and Foreign Office Ministers are certainly playing their part.
Given that only 6% of lorries are being searched at major ports such as Harwich, is it not time to recruit more personnel from the increasing reservoir of former police officers and armed forces personnel so that more searches can be undertaken? Is it not now time to make it absolutely clear that this country will not accept fresh asylum claims from those who have travelled through many other safe countries before arriving at our shores?
My hon. Friend has rightly raised the effective use of the Dublin regulation on a number of occasions. We want it to be strengthened further, which is why I made the comment earlier about ensuring that we fingerprint those who arrive within the EU. I have already dealt with how Border Force uses its resources. It is right that it should do that. We certainly remain focused on the clandestine threat as well as on other threats to the UK border and on how we use Border Force resources and technology to meet those threats.
It is quite clear that human traffickers are evil, brutal gangs, but one problem that we came across when I was chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking was that illegal immigrants were coming through the porous eastern borders of the European
Union and travelling across the EU unchallenged, partly because of freedom of movement and partly because there are no border checks. The main reason, however, was that there were no incentives for those countries to intervene and stop those people because they would then become their problem. What discussion has the Minister had with his European Union colleagues to correct this problem?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he did in the last Parliament to highlight the trafficking of human beings. His work was instrumental in shaping the Modern Slavery Act 2015, for example, and ensuring that we take this issue as seriously as possible. We underline those themes, and one of the Home Secretary’s priorities at European Council of Ministers meetings is the need to confront and combat trafficking—that pernicious trade, which is exploitative, has no regard for individuals’ welfare or wellbeing, and sees them transited across countries to make money for people. It is utterly sick, and it is an issue that we shall retain as a priority. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will return to it on future justice and home affairs council meetings, given the importance that we rightly attach to it.