Organised Crime and the UK Border: Tackling Criminal Innovation at the Frontline

Evolving threat: criminals are exploiting UK border vulnerabilities in increasingly sophisticated ways. Image: Leoboudv / Flickr

This is the 10th in a series of articles analysing the top 10 serious and organised crime threats to the UK and how they have evolved over a decade. This article considers the evolving threat at the border, as a key point of both vulnerability and opportunity in the UK’s response to organised criminality.

Effective circumvention of the UK border is vital to the operations of all those looking to move people and commodities in and out of the country illegally. It is thus central to a range of threats originating abroad, from drugs to firearms and organised immigration crime. Beyond this, penetration of the UK’s virtual border is key to technologically enabled criminal operations targeting citizens and institutions from abroad without face-to-face contact.

Events in the past 10 years have had a substantial impact on the threat and response at the border. Most prominent are Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, with the wider digitalisation of port operations and expansion of e-commerce also playing a role. Amid these changes, the rising threat posed by crimes with an overseas dimension points to offenders navigating the UK’s borders with ease. Beyond major ports and airports, this involves abuse of general maritime (defined by Border Force as non-scheduled, un-canalised and non-commercial maritime traffic), general aviation (aircraft not running to specific, published schedules), roll-on roll-off services (Eurotunnel and ferry), post and fast parcel.

A Complex Border Landscape

A critical tension exists in efforts to tackle organised crime at the border. This lies in the fact that border facilities – often part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – exist to facilitate legitimate trade and sustain the UK economy, while also being abused for illegal trade.

Today, the UK ports industry handles almost 500 million tonnes of freight and over 60 million passenger journeys annually. As Europe’s second largest port sector, processing over 95% of the UK’s international trade, the sheer volume of traffic challenges law enforcement’s capacity to intercept all but a fraction of suspicious consignments. This applies across other parts of the border system; an expansion in overall parcel volumes, for example, has made detection of illicit goods entering the UK by post ever-more challenging.

A key trend over the decade has been one of rapid adaptability and use of more sophisticated methods to circumvent the border. Perhaps most prominent in this regard have been shifts in the nature of organised immigration crime. Earlier in the decade, the most common methods involved clandestine entry from near Europe, travel via air passenger routes, and use of fake or fraudulently obtained documents. In terms of entry from Northern Europe, the main targets have historically been juxtaposed border controls (involving immigration checks on key cross-Channel crossings on the European mainland), traditionally involving concealment in lorries or other vehicles crossing the Channel.

This threat picture has evolved with a shift toward higher-risk methods of entry, including refrigerated HGVs and general maritime. Notably, use of small boats has risen steeply: just 299 individuals were detected using small-boat crossings in 2018, climbing sharply to 28,526 in 2021 and 45,774 in 2022. While numbers dropped in 2023 to 29,437, this remains the second highest ever annual total. Irregular entry via this method remains a significant risk to life.

In terms of drugs, firearms and other physical commodities, a mix of methods continues to be used to breach the UK border. Often, illicit goods are smuggled into legitimate shipments, hidden among multiple legal consignments. In the case of high-value trafficking – such as multi-tonne drugs consignments – a range of common enablers are used, most crucially corrupt insiders structurally embedded within port facilities and logistics. Indeed, with UK ports and airports representing high-risk pinch points in the journey of illicit goods to beneficiaries, criminals are incentivised to invest heavily in their infiltration.

Multiple cases have illustrated these efforts, from the targeting and corrupting of individuals from Border Force officers to cruise ship workers, hauliers, couriers and airline baggage handlers. The range of personnel targeted speaks to the diversity of public and private sector actors with access to port information and infrastructure. Of relevance here are the changes witnessed over two decades in the form of deregulation and privatisation of a UK port sector now comprising 181 private, 171 municipal and 75 trust ports. A high proportion of tonnage handled is concentrated in a small number of ports, most of which are privately operated.

Key events over the decade have impacted border penetration attempts. In 2020–21, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global supply chains and travel patterns saw a widespread adaptation of trafficking modalities. In some cases, this saw greater abuse of general maritime; in others, post and fast parcel services have been more widely exploited. Across the board, the agility shown has continued post-pandemic: while some operations have reverted to traditional routes and methods, others have sustained innovations developed under government-enforced travel restrictions.

With the rise in small-boat crossings, immigration has remained high on the political agenda, fuelling commitments to harden the country’s border

The pandemic also impacted the insider threat, as fluctuating trade volumes only increased the value of corrupt assets. In June 2021, as restrictions on movements of people and goods were relaxed and staff returned to work, the National Crime Agency (NCA) highlighted the risk of criminal exploitation of furloughed port and airport workers. Since then, pressure on border staffing and demand for airport personnel may have offered opportunities for corrupt associates to apply for key posts, with the rising cost-of-living crisis likely making staff more vulnerable to corruption attempts.

Meanwhile, Brexit has seen criminals look to exploit new border vulnerabilities. This has come as the UK has lost the same level of access to pre-Brexit data-sharing arrangements with EU counterparts. Notably, leaving the Customs Union while maintaining free right of movement with the Republic of Ireland has raised concerns around criminal exploitation of this route into the UK. In parallel, counterfeit passports have been detected more frequently as some of the most commonly exploited documents – European Economic Area and Swiss national ID cards – have ceased to be recognised.

A final trend worth noting is the growing digitalisation of port operations, which has created both challenges and opportunities for criminals. Although likely to have reduced the options for corrupt insiders to manipulate border processes in key locations, such shifts can also create vulnerabilities, for example around the new recruitment needed to support digitalisation. The EU’s experience is worth noting, with Europol flagging a rise in incidents involving breached and manipulated IT systems, including misappropriation of container reference codes to facilitate large-scale drug trafficking.

A Unique Intervention Point?

The past decade has played host to much rhetoric around the UK border. In line with the memorable Brexit catchphrase ‘taking back control of our borders’, key politicians have spent years insisting that the UK would be ‘even safer’ after leaving Europe. Meanwhile, with the rise in small-boat crossings, immigration has remained high on the political agenda. This has fuelled commitments to harden the country’s border – including as one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s five priorities in 2023.

In terms of the strategic approach taken, the 2025 UK Border Strategy sets out a vision to develop the ‘world’s most effective border’. Published in 2020, it describes a future border that ‘detects, deters and disrupts serious and organised crime’ – by improving the detection of threats before they reach the border, reducing vulnerabilities at the border and in territorial waters, improving the UK border’s reputation for integrity, and reducing flows of illicit and mis-declared commodities.

The 10-year drugs plan ‘From Harm to Hope’ subsequently committed to bring agencies together to create a ‘ring of steel’ around key ports (although with little detail provided, perhaps understandably for operational security reasons). Most recently, the 2023 Serious and Organised Crime Strategy included strengthening the border as one of its five key lines of action. Albeit briefly (over just 2.5 pages), it outlined commitments from strengthening Border Force capabilities to trialling new multi-agency approaches to targeting interventions, and enhancing data analytics and detection capabilities to identify high-threat movements of goods and people.

In terms of the insider threat, the 2017 Anti-Corruption Strategy set out the need to reduce vulnerability at borders as one of four critical sectors (alongside prisons, policing and defence). The strategy ended in 2022, with the government committing to ‘enhance our response to corruption at the border and the threat posed by corrupt insiders through the new Anti-Corruption Strategy’.

Notably, however, no such new strategy has emerged, despite ministers trailing a launch in 2023. The UK has also been without an Anti-Corruption Champion since the previous incumbent resigned in 2022. The same year, the UK dropped to its lowest ever position in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, painting a bleak picture of the government’s response to corruption across the board.

Over 10 years, it is clear that key threats have endured and criminals have continued to exploit border vulnerabilities, often in more sophisticated ways

On the ground, the frontline border response involves agencies from Border Force to the NCA, Immigration Enforcement, Home Office Intelligence, UK Visas and Immigration and HM Passport Office. A key focus has been on common enablers: among other actions, this has involved work with key sectors – such as the haulage industry – on how to spot signs of people smuggling, secure vehicles and report suspicious behaviour. Further focus has also been placed on criminal capabilities at the border, including use of tracking devices such as Apple AirTags to mark illicit consignments.

Importantly, law-enforcement focus has also been placed on Safety and Security Declarations to analyse the potential risk caused by goods crossing the border and enhance the effectiveness of targeting. These will be required for EU imports from October 2024.

Some signs of positive performance exist. These include a reduction in small-boat crossings by a third in 2023 (despite remaining the second highest total on record). Meanwhile, seizures of Class A drugs by Border Force and police increased from 32,856 in 2013/14 to 37,113 in the year to March 2022 (despite cannabis seizures declining over this period). This reflects a strengthened law-enforcement focus on the higher-harm aspects of the drugs threat.

Yet extensive criticism of the UK’s approach has also appeared, including in reports by former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Neal. These have painted a picture of Border Force officers ‘often distracted from their core operational activity’ and facing a ‘lack of basic communication equipment’. Another report on airport e-passport gates judged that ‘protection of the border is neither effective nor efficient’, with officers described as ‘distracted’ by other duties.

Overall, over 10 years, it is clear that key threats have endured and criminals have continued to exploit border vulnerabilities, often in more sophisticated ways. This has occurred despite the potential advantages touted of a UK outside of the Single Market and Customs Union, able to impose additional checks at the border.

Looking Ahead

In the years ahead, digitalisation of UK port operations is set to continue, bringing about a new generation of ‘smart ports’. The adoption of 5G represents the next step, bringing enhanced data handling capabilities and improvements to commodity and information flows. ‘Smart containers’ – fitted with devices enabling real-time tracking and monitoring – are also proliferating; set to account for 25% of the global container fleet by 2026, their use will enhance law enforcement’s visibility of global container movements.

Such technological advances are likely to trigger further criminal innovation at the border. In some cases, criminals are likely to adapt to minimise risk, opting for ‘unsmart’ routes and facilities. In others, they may directly target the vulnerabilities emerging from technological advances; their efforts to do so must be mitigated, with security gaps identified and closed.

Other key trends are likely to be of relevance moving forward. Notably, further criminal adaptations will likely occur as the UK continues to test the balance between ensuring security and creating a more attractive border for business purposes. With the game leaning increasingly toward the latter, this could create further vulnerabilities. Touted as a means to boost economic growth, the reintroduction of freeports – with simplified customs arrangements – offers one high-profile example. The evolving risks around misuse of such measures must be monitored carefully moving forward.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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10 Years; 10 Threats

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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