“Mr Speaker, last Thursday evening, Border Force officers at the port of Harwich detected and intercepted 68 migrants who were seeking to enter the UK illegally and clandestinely. The discovery came after four lorries were selected for examination and searching through Border Force’s normal operating procedures. Among the 68 migrants found 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 continue to be under investigation by law enforcement bodies, including the National Crime Agency.
Of the 68 people found, 35 were Afghans, 22 were Chinese, 10 were Vietnamese and one was 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.
If we can show that those who are claiming asylum have also claimed in another EU member state, we will seek to remove them under the Dublin regulation. This regulation has allowed us to remove 12,000 asylum seekers from the UK since it came into force in 2003.
However, it relies on member states fulfilling their obligations systematically to identify and fingerprint migrants apprehended at the EU border. Unfortunately, we know that some member states are still not fulfilling these obligations, which is a matter that we continue to raise with them at the highest levels. This Government are clear that the EU’s approach to migratory flows must include proper management of the external border, the prompt return of those who are not in genuine need of protection and action to tackle the efforts of smugglers and traffickers who profit from human misery.
I am aware that my honourable friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex visited the port on Friday, which is in his constituency. I would like to echo and endorse his complimentary words about the work of Border Force. Border Force conducts rigorous checks on lorries and other vehicles as they arrive at UK ports of entry on a targeted basis, as was the case at Harwich on Thursday evening. Such checks are undertaken by skilled officers, who have the expertise to identify individuals who are often well-hidden in vehicles, and involve the use of state-of-the-art scanning and X-ray technology. Thursday night’s incident at Harwich comes on the back of a number of other excellent results by the Border Force team at that port. Among other successful operations in recent months, the Border Force team has made some significant seizures, including 15 kilograms of heroin in December, 17 kilograms of cocaine in May and 2.9 million cigarettes in March.
With regards to the specific problem of clandestine immigrants, Border Force concentrates a significant amount of resource 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. Our approach is dynamic and intelligence led. Border Force is able to, and does, move its resources around on the basis of threat to ensure that 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 for the work that it does to protect the UK’s borders. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.
The people found at Harwich are victims of criminal gangs, just like those found on boats in the Mediterranean. What action are the Government taking to ensure that there is a more concerted UK and EU drive to seek to stop this trade in human beings at its source? To secure our borders, what percentage of lorries and containers are now routinely checked at UK ports of entry? John Vine, the former inspector of borders, stated at the weekend that good intelligence and experienced staff were critical but that a lot of experienced staff were leaving and not being replaced. Is that true? Finally, can the Minister say whether or not Border Force funding is ring-fenced from the Home Office funding cut that was announced by the Government last week?
My Lords, I will take the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in turn.
The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that it is one thing to try to tackle these problems when they arrive in the UK but far more productive to focus that effort in areas and countries where there is insecurity. That is part of the reason why so much of the work of DfID and the Foreign Office in places such as Syria is about trying to intervene to provide stability and security in those areas so that people do not undertake the perilous journey, in the case of the Mediterranean, or become victims of the criminal gangs that we have talked about.
The second thing that we can do in that regard is to strengthen the laws in relation to this. With a large degree of cross-party support in the last Parliament, we introduced the Modern Slavery Act, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and the Serious Crime Act, all of which were aimed at trying to disrupt activity and increase the penalties for those concerned.
The noble Lord asked some specific points about the operations and the percentage of checks that are carried out. This work is very much intelligence led. Border Force works very closely with the National Crime Agency and it will pass on intelligence to particular ports for the screening of vehicles. The actual percentage may change from port to port on the basis of intelligence that is received at that point. We can also take some confidence—without for one second being complacent—from the performance of Border Force in areas such as Harwich for the examples that I gave earlier.
There is a three-pronged approach: the first is tackling the issue upstream; the second is the greater use of technology; and the third is greater use of intelligence. We must also strengthen the legal framework to ensure that those people who engage in this pernicious activity of trafficking people across countries get the punishment that they deserve.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Does he agree that proper management of the EU’s external border is the key to solving these issues, and that the UK is in a far better position within the EU to influence member states than it would be if it were outside the European Union? The Minister also mentioned the Dublin regulation and the fact that more than 12,000 illegal immigrants who claimed asylum initially in other EU states had been deported from the UK as a result of that regulation. Will he tell the House whether that regulation would still apply if the UK were no longer a member of the European Union?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that the work of FRONTEX in securing the borders of Europe is vital. We believe that it could be doing a better job, but we are co-operating with the agency at the present time—I believe that members of the police, the National Crime Agency and Border Force are working very closely with FRONTEX. One of the areas in which we would like to see it perform better is in taking fingerprint data as soon as people come into the European Union area. That would help in tracking them down.
The noble Lord is correct to say that this is a growing European problem. We are seeing a significant increase in the numbers of migrants coming into the EU—around 600,000. It is a European problem, but it goes beyond Europe’s borders. We are sure that our partnership in working together with other European countries—as we have done in this case with the Dutch, and as we are doing with the juxtaposed controls with the French—is an integral element of being able to tackle this going forward.
The Minister referred to European instruments and my noble friend took up that theme, but I want to ask about carriers’ liability, which is also the subject of an EU legal instrument. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I heard John Vine, a former borders inspector at the weekend saying that there had been no sanctions on hauliers or confiscation of vehicles where they were found to have been carrying irregular migrants—he implied that there had been none at all. Is that the case, and, if so, why? Why have there not been any sanctions for breach of carrier liability legislation?
We have to work closely with the hauliers. In March, my honourable friend the Immigration Minister met with the hauliers to discuss what part they can play in this, because that is certainly in their interests. I can say that the four vehicles found to be carrying these illegal migrants through Harwich have been seized, and there will be ongoing legal discussions because the case has to be proved in the courts, as the noble Baroness would expect. Of course, there are many other areas where I can point to seizures which have taken place, and I will certainly write to her on the specific number. I should say that a major part of the Serious Crime Act is about strengthening the powers of the courts so that they are able to seize the assets of those engaged in people trafficking—if that is the case in this particular instance—whether the assets be lorries or boats in the Mediterranean, so that they cannot actually continue with their evil trade.
My Lords, first, I wish to declare an interest as a member of the board of the Harwich Haven Authority.
Does the noble Lord agree that the early finding of such people is not just a matter of politics but of humanitarian decency, because the impact on those who are not found in such conditions is catastrophic? Can he assure the House that proper attention is being paid to the rest of the ports community and not just to the Border Force, because it is the wider ports community which is more likely to have the first inkling that something is not right? Perhaps they need a bit more help in understanding what they should be looking for and how we can help to prevent these catastrophes turning into a humanitarian disaster.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right. There is an extremely good relationship in this regard between Border Force and many port authorities—in fact, virtually all the ports of entry that I have ever looked at. The closeness of that relationship is absolutely vital to the sharing of information because intelligence and co-operation are critical to maintaining the integrity of our borders and the reputation and security of our port facilities.
My Lords, we have seen disturbing reports recently that some of the boats crossing the Mediterranean have contained not only migrants. On occasion there is evidence that some of those on board have come from the so-called Islamic State and are trying to penetrate parts of Europe. Can the Minister tell us whether there is anything to suggest that any of the people on the boat which has just arrived come from either the so-called Islamic State organisation or, indeed, any other terrorist organisation?
It is probably too early to say on that. Investigations will need to take place and a number of the people have applied for asylum. However, the noble Baroness has raised a very important point: this is not just about stemming what might be the trafficking of people, as evil as that is, but also about reducing the risks to our borders of the much more insidious threat of terrorism. We need to ensure that we are geared up for that.
In that regard, I want to pay tribute to the work of HMS “Bulwark” in the Mediterranean. Some 1,909 migrants have been rescued from the sea, and that is something which we can all be proud of in this country. We are ensuring that people are being rescued from their desperate situations, while at same time seeing no contradiction in having a robust attitude to maintaining the integrity of our borders.