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Brexit: Nothing to Declare? The Future of UK Border Security

Alexander Babuta
Commentary, 4 December 2017
Illicit Trade, UK, Organised Crime, Europe
The UK Border Force is already over-stretched. So if adequate resources are not in place by the time Brexit comes around in March 2019, this could present many new opportunities for organised crime.

When Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in March to European Council President Donald Tusk to trigger Article 50, she warned that ‘in security terms a failure to reach agreement [on Brexit] would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened’.

The letter was written a week after the Westminster attack of 22 March in which six people were killed and around 50 injured. Subsequent attacks in Manchester, London and the attempted bombing on the London Underground made her statement more pertinent.

With debate focused on the future of the UK’s position within the EU’s counterterrorism structures, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis outlined proposals for a new treaty to legally enshrine cooperation partnerships between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

The government published a ‘future partnership paper’ in September, detailing the specific cooperation arrangements the UK is seeking, based on a mutual commitment to ‘work collaboratively against shared threats’.

Despite record passenger numbers, the Border Force budget has been cut by 9.5% over the past five years, from £617 million in 2012/13 to £558 million in 2015/16

The government stressed the importance of real-time data sharing between law enforcement partners across the EU through systems such as the Second Generation Schengen Information System, which became operational in the UK in April 2015.

However, whatever the shape of the final cooperation and information-sharing agreements between the UK and the EU, a far greater concern lies in adequate resourcing for securing the country’s borders.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics in August show that there were 115.6 million British, European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss arrivals into the UK in the year to June 2017 – the highest number on record, and a 5% increase compared to the previous year.

But despite record passenger numbers, the Border Force budget has been cut by 9.5% over the past five years, from £617 million in 2012/13 to £558 million in 2015/16.

If – as many predict – goods and people are no longer able to move freely between the UK and EEA nations, this will have far-reaching consequences for UK border control, requiring a radical overhaul of existing security and immigration procedures.

A large proportion of Border Force resources will likely be diverted to manage the growing number of arrivals, leaving fewer officers to search baggage, vehicles and cargo, patrol the coastline, and gather intelligence related to potential threats.

The former Director General of Immigration Enforcement, David Wood, warned Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in October that ‘with current resources the challenges of Brexit cannot be met, certainly not smoothly’. He added that it took at least six months to recruit and adequately train new Border Force officers.

Seasonal workers at Gatwick Airport received only basic training, and their managers said they made errors and were less efficient than fully trained staff

Perhaps in anticipation of this, Home Office Permanent Secretary Philip Rutnam conceded that the government was not ruling out tasking the military with policing UK borders should there be a no-deal Brexit.

Border Force is already struggling to cope. Recent inspections have highlighted significant concerns in operational efficiency, particularly with regard to security at east coast seaports. An inspection in July concluded that ‘Border Force has recognised that it must extend the use of technology in order to manage the increasing traffic of people and goods with fewer officers’.

But technology alone cannot fill the gap left by the lack of adequately trained officers. An inspection at London Gatwick Airport found that during the peak summer months in 2016, Border Force employed a number of seasonal workers to manage passenger queues and immigration controls. These workers received only basic training, and their managers said they made errors and were less efficient than fully trained staff.

The security implications of using poorly trained staff to carry out these duties are clear. The National Crime Agency (NCA) predicts that the threats from modern slavery and human trafficking will grow in the coming years, and the UK will continue to be a desirable destination for illegal migrants

And despite the devastating consequences of the 2017 UK terror attacks and the lasting impact these had on public perceptions of security, arguably the most significant security threats facing the UK border derive not from terrorism, but from organised crime.

The NCA estimates that there are 5,866 organised crime groups active in the UK, and that a large proportion of these are involved in cross-border trafficking of illegal commodities, particularly drugs.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction’s findings show that the UK is one of the largest consumer markets for illegal drugs in Europe, with one of the highest rates of drug use and overdose. The UK has also among the largest quantities of heroin and cocaine seizures of any European country.

The reports also show that the UK was one of the top three source countries for ‘darknet’ drug sales, underlining the country’s important role not just as a destination market, but also a key production and supply country.  

The most significant security threats facing the UK border derive not from terrorism, but from organised crime

Illegal firearms also pose a significant threat. The NCA describes firearms supply through European channels as a ‘key concern’, predicting that ‘the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ukraine are likely to create opportunities for firearms traffickers’.

Firearms tend to enter the UK by sea rather than air, via France, Belgium and the Netherlands, through the Channel Tunnel or ferry ports. In this context, the findings of the recent inspection of east coast seaports become even more concerning as there is likely to be an increase in trafficking activity to the UK in the coming years.

With capacity already stretched, it is unclear how Border Force will cope with the disruption that will be caused by changes to immigration and security procedures following Brexit.

One thing is certain, however. If adequate provisions are not made to ensure the UK can maintain secure and efficient borders post-Brexit, there is no doubt that highly agile and resourceful OCGs will be quick to capitalise on the vulnerabilities this will present.

Banner image: Passports please! Border control, such as this one at London Heathrow, will struggle to cope post-Brexit. Courtesy of Border Force


Alexander Babuta

Alexander Babuta was a Research Fellow at RUSI before leaving in February 2021. His research covers a range of areas relating to... read more

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