Organised Immigration Crime in the UK: A Resilient Business Model

This is the ninth 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 trajectory of organised immigration crime – an area that has seen dramatic change in the routes and tactics used.

Over the past decade, multiple international crises have resulted in high levels of forced displacement. In addition to the war in Syria (for years the world’s single-largest driver of displacement), the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and instability in myriad other locations has fuelled movements of large numbers of people.

At the same time, increasing numbers of people are arriving to claim asylum in Europe. In 2015, the number of first-time asylum claimants in the EU surged to more than 1.2 million. After a subsequent dip, there has been another sharp rise since the Covid-19 pandemic – with more than 1 million first-time asylum seekers in the EU in 2023. All this is key to understanding patterns of organised immigration crime directly impacting the UK.

Methods of entry have evolved as demand to reach the UK has increased. In the early part of the past decade, the most common methods included clandestine entry from mainland Europe, travel through air routes, and the use of fake or fraudulently obtained documents. Clandestine attempts to enter the UK have historically involved concealment in lorries or other vehicles crossing the Channel.

This picture has changed significantly as the criminal networks involved have adapted their operations. Most notable has been the shift towards higher-risk methods of entry in response to strengthened security measures. Among other tactics, this has been seen in the use of refrigerated HGVs – with tragic outcomes in the case of the 31 individuals smuggled into the country in a refrigerator lorry trailer found dead in Essex in 2019.

A shift to higher-risk methods has also been seen in the growing use since 2018 of general maritime – defined by Border Force as non-scheduled, un-canalised and non-commercial maritime traffic. Use of small boats in particular has risen dramatically: just 299 individuals were detected using small-boat crossings in 2018, rising steeply to 28,526 in 2021 and 45,774 in 2022. Although numbers dropped in 2023 to 29,437, this remains the second highest yearly total on record.

Irregular entry to the UK via small-boat crossings remains a significant risk to life. Compounding the risk has been a trend towards moving greater numbers in individual vessels. According to the Home Office, the number of people in each boat has grown from an average of 13 in 2020 to 49 in 2023. This shift reflects the growing professionalisation of those deploying this method – and a growing ability to maximise profitability. It may also be an adaptation to enhanced recent enforcement action against small boats.

Indeed, displacement from one method to another is a key feature across this area. The sharp rise in small-boat crossings was itself a response to pressure on other methods – as changing enforcement dynamics and strengthened security measures at Calais, Coquelles and Dunkirk made it harder to access lorries crossing the Channel. The Covid-19 pandemic played a further role in driving this shift, with government-enforced travel restrictions reducing opportunities for the use of commercial flights and other methods of entry.

While beginning in an organic, sporadic manner, today the small boats marketplace is highly organised. Motors and vessels are sourced largely from China and Turkey, taken through Europe, and typically fitted only on the planned date of launch. Increasingly, this approach is enabled by digital technology – another key shift in recent years. Today, widespread use is made of social media to advertise small-boat services to particular target groups, shifting the terrain significantly in terms of access and facilitation.

The small-boat phenomenon has seen immigration remain high on political agendas

Meanwhile, overlaps persist with modern slavery and human trafficking. With a proportion of those transported to the UK feeding demand for slave labour, this has blurred the lines between movement undertaken with and without traveller consent. In one illustration, the National Crime Agency (NCA) points to Albanian organised crime groups’ involvement in the small-boat crossing marketplace, with these groups known to recruit other Albanian nationals by covering crossing fees as a type of debt bondage.

Notably, from the start of 2018 to mid-2023, 9% of the 91,918 individuals arriving by small boat were referred as potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking to the National Referral Mechanism. Most also had asylum claims in place. Where a reasonable grounds decision had been made, 78% were positive; and where there had then been a conclusive grounds decision (conferring recognition as victims of modern slavery), 78% of these were positive too.

A Two-Fold Response

The small-boat phenomenon has seen immigration remain high on political agendas. This has fuelled extensive government rhetoric on the need to ‘stop the boats’, including as one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s five key priorities for 2023. In terms of practical action, the government’s approach has also evolved as the shape of the people smuggling landscape has shifted. The current response can be understood as two-fold.

First, operational cooperation with European counterparts has increased, aimed at intercepting small boats and disrupting the criminal actors responsible. Particularly intense cooperation has taken place with France, via successive deals (and spending arrangements) since 2014 – including the 2018 Treaty of Sandhurst.

These agreements cover a range of areas – for instance, ensuring additional funding for border security measures and for monitoring and interception of small-boat crossings through increased patrols, aerial surveillance and other technologies. They have also enhanced law enforcement coordination, embedding UK officers in French operations and developing a UK–France Joint Intelligence Cell (JIC) between the NCA and French agency OLTIM. Beyond this, agreements have covered support for reception and removal facilities in France, as well as joint communication activities to discourage irregular crossings.

The UK has also sought cooperation with other European and international counterparts (in both source and transit countries) to target people smugglers through data sharing and law enforcement coordination. Examples include the formation of a UK–Albania Joint Migration Taskforce, a deal with Turkey to establish a new operational centre on organised immigration crime, and joint initiatives with Belgium, Bulgaria and Serbia. The UK has also negotiated an arrangement with Frontex covering intelligence sharing, operational cooperation and training.

By all accounts, the UK works effectively with European partners. In the year to 31 March 2023, the NCA succeeded in making 237 disruptions against criminal networks involved in people smuggling to the UK. It also worked through the Europol Operational Task Force (alongside Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany) to target a major smuggling network – making 39 arrests (including three high-value targets) and seizing about 150 boats. Meanwhile, the UK–France JIC has also had results in dismantling the criminal groups involved, as seen in the conviction of six people smugglers in February 2023.

Yet there is limited evidence that these efforts have had a meaningful overall impact on small-boat crossings or the wider people smuggling marketplace. A key challenge relates to the nature of the criminal networks involved, which are highly adaptable and characterised by relatively ‘flat’ hierarchies. This means that when individuals are arrested, others swiftly take their place, with this form of illicit activity highly resilient to law enforcement activity. Similarly, while interceptions may temporarily inhibit irregular crossings, often this serves only to delay repeat attempts.

Many of the measures are expected to impact very small numbers of people and are difficult to operate at scale. This makes the prospect of any deterrent effect highly unlikely

The second core prong to the government’s response has been a series of deterrence measures designed to discourage individuals from attempting to cross the Channel. These have included the establishment of a new criminal offence for people arriving irregularly in the UK, the expansion of enforcement activity targeting individuals engaged in irregular working, and more stringent penalties for employers and landlords who employ and let properties to people in breach of their immigration conditions.

A final deterrence measure can be seen in the (not yet in force) Illegal Migration Act, namely the ‘duty to remove’. This requires the home secretary to make arrangements to remove all irregular arrivals – to their home countries if deemed safe or to a third country such as Rwanda.

There is little evidence that such deterrence measures have had any effect on overall numbers of small-boat arrivals. Despite these measures, numbers have remained in the tens of thousands (albeit falling in 2023 from their 2022 peak). Many of the measures – such as the Rwanda plan – are expected to impact very small numbers of people and are difficult to operate at scale. This makes the prospect of any deterrent effect highly unlikely.

The government argues that its deal with Albania (the December 2022 communiqué) has led to a fall in Albanian small-boat arrivals, following a spike in summer 2022. Yet this obscures the fact that the communiqué is simply a successor to the original UK–Albania returns agreement signed in 2021, with the fall in Albanian arrivals actually preceding the signing of the communiqué. Instead, there is likely to be a more complex set of factors behind the sharp decline in Albanian arrivals – of which many are potentially unconnected to government deals or law enforcement action.

Forward Look

Current trends suggest that organised immigration crime will remain a priority for the government. Small-boat crossings are likely to continue, even if total numbers fluctuate. Such fluctuations are particularly likely given the wider context of continuing global instability and the recent increase in asylum applications received across the EU. In the short to medium term, there is little prospect that the government’s current policy response will end Channel crossings, with smugglers likely to exploit sustained high demand from those looking to come to the UK.

In this context, joint operational working to tackle the criminal networks involved can only go so far alone. Meanwhile, the fixation with deterring arrivals by removing them to Rwanda is a costly, impractical plan with little hope of success.

Instead, a new policy approach is urgently needed. Such an approach should focus on strengthening asylum cooperation with European countries, both by deepening multi-agency investigations into criminal networks and by coordinating the management of asylum claims between the UK and EU. As importantly, it should focus on reforming current legal routes to ensure safe alternative pathways for people seeking asylum, diverting them away from dangerous crossings.

These measures would allow for a more coordinated position across government policy and operations – undermining the criminal business model by both increasing the prospects of arrest and reducing demand for irregular routes.

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

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10 Years; 10 Threats

  • Independent Analysis of the Top 10 Organised Crime Threats to the UK

    Independent Analysis of the Top 10 Organised Crime Threats to the UK

    As the NCA marks its 10-year anniversary, RUSI is using this critical moment to reflect on the trajectory of the threat and the UK’s record in tackling it. This 10-part series traces the evolution of the top 10 serious and organised crime threats since 2013, analysing what this means for the UK’s response as the threat landscape shifts and evolves to 2033.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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Marley Morris

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