Independent Watchdog Reveals Channel Migrants Dangle Children Overboard Unless Unauthorised Entry Is Allowed


  • Report on illegal entries by the Independent Borders Watchdog is devastating for the government
  • Government missed chance to prevent surge in Channel migrants due to failure to take ‘more decisive action’ earlier on (p.6).
  • Border Force crew believe they are being used as ‘taxi service‘ by illegal immigrants as Channel crossings reach record levels (p.73)
  • Report reveals that some migrants dangle children overboard unless illegal entry is allowed (pp.77-78).
  • Government has ‘neither capacity nor capabilities‘ to get grip on ‘unsustainable’ situation (p.2)
  • Out-of-touch officials describe rocketing illegal Channel crossings as hallmark of “success” (p.7 – What planet are they on?)
  • Clandestine entry threat is ‘serious and persistent’ (p.6) yet measures to stop illegal entry in the back of lorries ‘misfiring at every point‘ as hidden arrivals shot up by a third (p.8)
  • Illegal entry is “most common method of entry for asylum seekers” (p.12) yet many are released on bail (despite not being properly identified), so are able to immediately disappear into the community.

Discouraging and preventing migrants from making attempts to enter the UK illegally, including via hidden means, has been a key objective for successive UK governments. The public expect the border to be effectively protected and enforced.

However, a recent report by the independent Borders Watchdog (otherwise known as the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, or ICIBI) suggests the government is failing at this task.

The report – which looks specifically at the topic of illegal entry by those sneaking in hidden in the back of lorries, containers and small boats – truly warrants the description of ‘devastating’.

It documents a litany of mismanagement and poor practice by the government in its response to these growing challenges.

The ICIBI also points to huge gaps in an enforcement regime – the most worrying of which may be a worsening inability to properly identify and keep track of people who have illegally entered the country.

It will make difficult reading for a government which was elected a year ago on the back of a promise to ensure that ‘the British people are always in control‘ when it comes to immigration. This doesn’t much feel like control to us.

Key points are summarised below but to read the report in full, click here.

  1. Illegal entries rose by a significant margin in the most recent calendar year while the Home Office missed the opportunity – despite ample warning – to stop illegal Channel crossings when they first started to rise. In the ICIBI’s withering verdict, the Home Office has ‘neither the capacity nor the capabilities‘ to get a grip on this abysmal state of affairs. Ouch!
  2. The ICIBI reveals a situation in which illegal immigrants have been, especially since 2018, ‘escorted into the UK‘ by Border Force personnel and others. Instead of failing to plan in 2019, the Home Office seems to have planned to fail, coming to an agreement with France in that year that those encountered would be taken to “a port of safety” – which, if the boat was found to be in UK waters (or indeed if deliberately shepherded into UK waters by a French vessel, as the government admits some boats have been), would mean the craft being taken to a British port, where the occupants could claim asylum (98% did in the first half of 2020). In the context of an overly liberal interpretation of international maritime law, Border Force crews voiced concerns that migrants view them as a ‘taxi service’ to bring them in illegally. Other senior BF staff said government action to increase visible activity in the Channel without actually stopping the crossings risked failing to deter people from setting off. It was also revealed that the practice of simply granting bail to illegal immigrants almost immediately after arrival means many are able to disappear into the community. The ICIBI adds that staff at the Kent Asylum Intake Unit are ‘unable to run fingerprints through the Home Office system’. This, in combination with the fact that Channel migrants by and large destroy documents prior to arriving, means that there is little likelihood that the authorities have any real clue who people are – and crucially of whether they do or do not pose a security risk, or have a criminal record which might be relevant to their asylum claim – before they are granted bail. This is grossly negligent.
  3. Savage cuts to Border Force and enforcement, a failure to train and pay our hardworking and dedicated border staff properly and, crucially, a lack of clear and resolute leadership from politicians and senior civil servants on the task of ensuring proper control have led to plunging morale and worsening value for money for taxpayers. A range of metrics now indicate that the direction travel is wrong. But do the government have the will to fix it?

Here are some of the most salient takeaways from the report (divided into the 3 themes mentioned above):

1. Illegal entries from Northern Europe increased by a significant amount during 2019 – both in the back of lorries and in small boats – and the Home Office missed the chance to stop Channel crossings from rocketing to the all-time record level of 8,600 that we have seen in 2020 (for more on the arrival numbers, visit our Channel Tracking Station).

  • Possibly the most damaging finding of the report is the following (found on p.6): ‘The surge in small boats in late 2018 was not foreseen and it is at least arguable that had it been, and had more decisive action been taken earlier to demonstrate that these attempts would not succeed, the small boats route may not have become established in the minds of many migrants and facilitators as an effective method of illegal entry, as the evidence would suggest is now the case. By the beginning of 2019, it was already much harder to stop this threat from growing, and by the beginning of 2020 it appeared to be too late.’ This is all-the-more problematic for the Home Office since Home Secretary Sajid Javid admitted that the surge in migrants illegally crossing the Channel was becoming a serious problem as early as December 2018. So why was action not taken which would have prevented this situation from reaching the record proportions we now see every other day. Has the government learned any lessons which would imply they are now going to be able to make a dent in such crossings before the onset of good weather again next year leads to an even bigger surge?
  • The ICIBI says that the ‘numbers of attempts and of migrants encountered at each point are undeniably high, and it is clear that the clandestine entry threat is serious, persistent and adept at responding to checks and opportunities’.
  • Although the government blamed the rise in Channel crossings on securitisation of the juxtaposed controls [NGOs have also made such a claim before a Parliamentary committee] the number of migrants encountered in the UK having snuck in the back of lorries increased in 2019 by a third over the previous year, and organised smuggling of large groups concealed in road transport continue.
  • In 2018, more than 7,500 migrants were encountered in the UK having entered concealed in a vehicle. In two-thirds of cases, the vehicle involved was never identified. In 2019, there were over 10,000 encounters, with the vehicle identified in just over a quarter of cases.
  • The issues of lorry drops and small boats both ‘demonstrate how difficult, costly and progressively less effective efforts to combat clandestine entry are once the primary border controls have been breached or circumvented.
  • In one of the most damning paragraphs, the ICIBI says – ‘It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has neither the capacity nor the capabilities, in particular in respect of criminal investigation and prosecution, required to manage this threat more effectively.
  • The ICIBI highlights the deluded and out-of-touch attitude of senior bureaucrats, who actually pointed to the rise in illegal Channel crossings as a hallmark of the government’s ‘success’ in increasing security elsewhere. What degree of logical gymnastics does it require in order to believe that a rocketing level of illegal immigrants breaking into the UK after travelling from safe countries is an indication of success?
  • In fact, the ICIBI calls the present situation ‘unsustainable‘ adding that ‘there is no real choice if the improvements in operational capacity and capabilities needed to reduce organised immigration crime are going to be achieved’.

2. Even some Home Office staff are concerned that the government’s approach is failing

  • Some boat crews on BF’s tiny fleet of just five cutters and Coastal Patrol Vessels deployed in the English Channel expressed very understandable concerns they’re being used as a ‘taxi service’ by illegal immigrants.
  • In the same section, the ICIBI notes: “[Senior Border Force managers] questioned whether the Border Force response had had any deterrent effect on small boats and that vessels patrolling the Channel, even if there were many more of them, would not make a difference as this was not an effective way of controlling this method of illegal immigration.”
  • The ICIBI also describes the processes for dealing with migrants who sneak into the UK in the back of lorries as ‘a system that is misfiring at each point’.
  • The report should also help to underline what a huge mistake it has been for the government to cutback on detention facilities and spending over the past few years. The government spent £40 million (21%) less on detention in 2019-20 than in 2015-16 and the detention estate has been reduced by 40% since 2015 (NAO, 2020, p. 37). The ICIBI revealed that many illegal Channel arrivals are simply granted bail nearly immediately being initially processed through Tug Haven and the Kent Intake Unit in Dover. According to BF managers, the ICIBI reports, this had led to absconding. Staff noted that once granted bail, ‘“a large number” failed to comply with their reporting restrictions and became absconders. They believed this explained the low number of returns and felt that more use could be made of detention for small boats migrants who were considered to be removable’.
  • Another part of the report revealed that migrants are often released instead of being detained after interviews, given fast food while they wait for a taxi, and are then allowed to disappear instead of being monitored in case they need to be removed. In the ICIBI’s words: “Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) officers expressed some concerns about what happened to migrants who were not detained after interview. Inspectors were told that taxis were typically used to transport them to their asylum accommodation, but the taxi could take a long time to arrive…. As many police stations did not have any facilities or public waiting areas and were not open 24/7, ICE officers sometimes bought the migrants food from fast-food outlets and asked them to wait at a particular location until the taxi arrived. The next day, ICE team Duty Officer would make enquiries with the taxi firm and Asylum Support colleagues to check that the migrant(s) had been collected and taken to the correct address(es).” With these sort of administrative gaps occurring it is no wonder than in 2016 there were 55,000 absconders, including many failed asylum claimants and illegal entrants.
  • The problem of absconding by those whose identities are unclear should not be downplayed. [A separate recent report, by the Henry Jackson Society, warned that this problem of absconding and a lack of subsequent enforcement action to ensure removal means that a number of foreign terrorists are now free to walk British streets (see media coverage). The report noted that this “collectively represent[s] a serious risk pool in British society”. The report raised concerns that many of the convicted terrorists were able to stay in the UK after being granted asylum. In this context, the problem of absconding, combined with asylum abuse and the failure to remove those who might pose a danger to the public, is an extremely serious one].
  • Finally, concerns were also expressed about instances where the migrant’s age was disputed. Social Services attended the police station to assess age-disputed cases, but the assessments varied greatly in quality from fantastically detailed to woefully inadequate”. This point is especially concerning given that ome Office figures show that over half (or 52%) of asylum seekers whose age was checked after they claimed to be under 18 were found to be adults between Q2 2016 and Q2 2020 (see this piece).

3. Savage cuts to the Border Force and enforcement functions, along with paltry pay, a lack of training and the dearth of leadership and support have helped to seriously undermine the work of hardworking and dedicated staff to secure the UK border.

  • The ICIBI points to the ‘gap between the level of activity and the resources available to tackle it on a sustained basis’.
  • It is deeply concerning that the ICIBI highlights in his report a situation in which Border Force maritime staff beleive they are under-resourced, under-paid and short-staffed. As he notes, ‘crew members told inspectors that they had not been provided with the right equipment to do their jobs, including proper uniforms. This affected morale and retention….. One group said that morale was so bad that “everyone is actively looking for jobs elsewhere”… Crew members told inspectors that they did not have contracts. ‘management” had told them that Border Force “could not afford” to pay overtime.
  • The report also found the Home Office was unable to walk and chew gum at the same time – namely that diverting resources to (ineffectually) tackle small boat crossings was ‘at the expense of other enforcement priorities‘. This follows on from a previous ICIBI finding in 2016 which said that a focus on stopping illegal entries in the back of lorries ‘had been at the expense of other enforcement priorities, such as illegal working and sham marriages’.
  • The ICIBI pointed out that resources of Border Force’s Criminal and Financial Investigations unit were ‘stretched’ by small boat crossings, particularly in the South East and East of England.
  • Meanwhile, the Clandestine Entry Civil Penalties Team – which is tasked with issuing fines to lorry drivers who bring in illegal migrants – was ‘struggling’ and had been hit by major cutbacks when one of its two offices was closed a few years ago. As a result, and due to major IT problems – which meant there was an eight-week period during which no payments could be taken – there had been a ‘dramatic falling off of penalties issued and fines collected’. In fact, an earlier ICIBI report (November 2018) ‘described the system as “broken” and in need of urgent attention’. Whether these issues have been resolved since then remains to be seen.

Other interesting information to emerge from the report includes the following:

  • The number of asylum claims received, which since 2015 has averaged around 30,000 a year, is not a reliable guide to the scale of clandestine entry. Nonetheless, the Home Office told inspectors that, when asylum claims were “data matched” to the various forms of irregular entry, clandestine entry emerged as “the most common method of entry for asylum seekers”.
  • Over the five years to the end of 2018, the largest number of asylum applications has been from Iranian nationals (15,323), followed by Pakistanis (12,583), Eritreans (11,401), Iraqis (10,552), Sudanese (8,969) and Afghans (8,404). In this period, these six nationalities have accounted for 67,232 applications, almost half (46.5%) of the total of 144,467 received.
  • Between 2016 and 2017 there was a significant reduction (from 33,807 to 15,457) in the number of migrants encountered at Calais attempting to pass clandestinely through the juxtaposed controls.The same was broadly true for Coquelles and Dunkirk. The drop may be linked to dismantling of Calais camp in October 2016.
  • Although Iranians were thought to make up most of those crossing in small boats, between 2016 and 2019, Iranians made up less than 4% of the 155,000 migrants detected at the juxtaposed ports attempting to enter the UK clandestinely. Crossings in 2020 have involved a wide range of nationalities and the concern must be that this method of entry will look increasingly attractive to migrants of all nationalities.
  • Although asylum seekers are supposed to claim for protection immediately upon arrival, most claims (87% – or 126,400 out of 144,500, 2014-18) are in-country applications that are often made after the person has been in the UK for a while. Separate figures from 2005 to 2014 suggest that around 30% (or 7,600 out of 25,300 in-country claims per year) are made only after discovery as illegal immigrants by the authorities, although the number may be higher now. The number of in-country claims in 2019 Q1 was the highest since 2016 Q1.
  • The ICIBI makes five recommendations touching on skills, organisation and processes, partnership-working, data and analysis, and staff management.

This is the type of report after which heads should (metaphorically) roll, and which should lead to the end of careers.

Yet, apart from immediately after its release, it has been met with a decidedly muted response from the powers-that-be, including the much of the mainstream media, Parliament and political parties.

This is not surprising. It is also not acceptable.



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