Analysis: A border security expert explains why ’smashing the gangs’ is so difficult

David Suber
David Suber

Writing in The Conversation, David Suber (UCL Security and Crime Science) explains why the Labour party’s plan to ’smash the gangs’ may be more difficult than it sounds.

As prime minister, Rishi Sunak has been unable to "stop the boats", his pledge on addressing irregular migration. Now, Keir Starmer is pitching an equally memorable slogan: "smash the gangs".

Labour’s  plan  is to take a counter-terrorism approach to people smuggling. Starmer pledged that the UK would become  "hostile territory"  to smuggling gangs with the introduction of a new border security command.

Discussing smugglers as terrorists and part of organised crime is a popular view across the political spectrum. Italian prime minister  Giorgia Meloni  and Rishi Sunak recently  pledged to hunt down  smugglers and traffickers across the world.

This approach is used to justify the  "war on smugglers" , as war was waged on terror or drugs. But every time it has been tried, it effectively becomes a  war on migrants.

One example is the Nationality and Borders Act, passed in 2022. This law made arriving in the UK without proper documentation, and facilitating this entry (smuggling), a  criminal offence.

Today, most of the people being prosecuted for crossing the Channel and facilitating those crossings are not the criminal organisers of journeys in France or Belgium. They are  young, often underage asylum seekers  forced to steer dinghies or agreeing to do so in exchange for a free ride. The same goes for most prosecutions made in other major smuggling destinations like  Italy, Spain and Greece.

Connections between smuggling and other forms of serious organised crime remain largely  unverified. Extensive   shows that most smuggling is run by loose, small-scale and highly replaceable groups, far from the organised crime syndicates involved in international drug trafficking or terrorist networks.

Starmer has pledged to set up a specialised border security command to bring together investigators from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the Crown Prosecution Service and MI5. This doesn’t sound too different from previous attempts to centralise security and intelligence agencies in counter-smuggling efforts.

In 2020, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel launched the  Channel Threat Command , a specialised operational unit whose aim was to make Channel crossings unviable. In April 2022, the unit was brought under the  Ministry of Defence , who handed leadership back to the  Home Office  just a few months later.

Other longstanding interagency  task forces  (such as  ) already exist to fight organised immigration crime. They have been successful at gathering and sharing intelligence with Europol and supporting their European counterparts to coordinate international  arrests.

But  police agencies  know that this approach is firefighting, and has not ended smuggling as a practice. British and French cooperation on small boat crossings also has yet to prove effective.

Starmer has indicated Labour will apply MI5 counter-terrorism approaches to tackle Channel crossings. For years, Italy used its elite  anti-mafia  units to track and dismantle smuggling networks across the Mediterranean. But this did not yield the results they hoped.

They ultimately realised that the most effective way to reduce boat crossings was to fund the  Libyan coast guard’s  pushback operations, despite evidence of  collusion  with smugglers organising the journeys and of  human rights violations.

Smugglers can surely be vile and exploitative. But counter-smuggling  operations  don’t reduce harm to migrants. On the contrary, they displace migration routes to more dangerous regions and  increase demand  for smugglers’ services.

Fixing Britain’s asylum system

Starmer has also pledged to scrap the Rwanda removal policy and address the asylum backlog by speeding up decisions, and removing those with no right to stay to their countries of origin. Ending the  unlawful  and cruel Rwanda policy is a necessary step. But deporting people back to their home country is not as easy as it seems - this is partly why the government reached out to Rwanda in the first place.

A removals policy requires bilateral agreements with migrants’ countries of origin. The agreement signed by the Conservative government with  Albania  in 2022 led to  two and half times  more returns of Albanian nationals in 2023-24 than previous years.

But the top five nationalities of people crossing the Channel on a small boat (according to  2023 data ) were Afghanistan (19%), Iran (12%), Turkey (10%), Eritrea (9%) and Iraq (9%). These are countries with ample evidence of human rights violations.

Home office data shows that the vast majority of people crossing the Channel in 2023 would be  recognised as refugees  if their applications were processed. And in the case of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, the UK has no straightforward diplomatic relations to implement returns in the first place.

Labour maintains they would not return refugees to Syria or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and would focus on removing people who do not qualify for asylum in the UK. But  returning  someone to Pakistan, India or Vietnam requires those countries to agree to such returns.

The governments of most migrant-sending countries are not particularly inclined to facilitate returns because of how unpopular forced returns are domestically, especially to the eyes of communities that rely on  remittances  sent by family members living abroad. Starmer indicated in the first leader debate that he would be open to other third-country processing schemes if they complied with international law.

Immigration is a top  concern  for UK voters, and one that any new administration will have to address. It is remarkable that politicians appear to be insistent on repeating failures, rather than learning from successes.

The current government successfully set up asylum and immigration schemes for people from  Ukraine  and  Hong Kong. No Ukrainian refugee has drowned in the Channel. More than 120,000 people moved from Hong Kong to the UK since 2021 without anyone calling it an  "invasion" .

Creating legal and  safe routes  is possible. These could put smuggling out of business and address the country’s  labour shortages , without risking more lives and insecurity at the border.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 13 June 2024.

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