Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover and Deal.
New threats mean that security in the English Channel is not strong enough and needs to improve. There is a rising threat from people-trafficking by yachts and small boats. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that cross-Channel transports should have increased protection to counter the rising terrorist threat.
There is no doubt that the cross-Channel people-trafficking situation is becoming increasingly serious. Just last week, five Iranians were trafficked to Winchelsea in Sussex. Last month, traffickers were convicted of trafficking Albanians to Dymchurch in Kent. While last November, a man was found running a people trafficking operation from France to Kingsdown near Deal. These are just the ones we know about.
The National Crime Agency says this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. They warn of a growing small craft people-trafficking problem. An extensive people-trafficking trade being run via 200 social media sites has been discovered. Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee reported that the increased security at the main Channel Ports has caused trafficking gangs to seek out alternative trafficking routes.
I have received increasing reports from residents of Dover and Dover villages of small craft landing in local bays and beaches under cover of darkness or the very early morning. The people who land are then spirited away in anonymous vans to an unknown destination.
The responsibility for keeping our waters secure is currently led by Border Force. Yet they seem ill-prepared to counter the growing problem of people-trafficking. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reported earlier this year that levels of knowledge and understanding of the threats and risks posed by general maritime traffic are generally poor. General maritime traffic includes yachts, rigid inflatables, small motor boats and some small commercial vessels. The report discovered that there was no systematic collection of information about any aspect of general maritime. The Inspector also found that Border Force rated its own performance as poor in 26 out of 27 areas.
It is not simply that Border Force seem to have limited understanding of the threats, risks or intelligence about the level of the threat. The UK’s actual defences against people-trafficking by small craft also appear to be extremely limited compared to other maritime nations. As last week’s Home Affairs Select Committee report made clear, the UK has just three vessels to protect 7,723 miles of coastline. Meanwhile Italy has 600 vessels to protect 4,722 miles of coastline. Even Greece has 240 vessels to protect 8,497 miles of coastline. It is therefore puzzling that a number of Royal Naval vessels are apparently on deployment patrolling the borders of Southern European countries who seem to have far more border control vessels than we do.
The Home Affairs Select Committee also found that heightened security at Dover and Calais has had the effect of causing traffickers to seek out alternative routes like trafficking by small craft. Given the increasing problems with small craft people-trafficking, it is surely time to place a greater emphasis on maritime security in the English Channel. A century ago, the World War One Dover Patrol helped to protect the English Channel in time of war. There is now a need for a New Dover Patrol to go to war against the increasing threat posed by cross-Channel people-trafficking and modern slavery. The Government should look at how such a New Dover Patrol could bring together the Coastguard, Border Force ships and Royal Naval units under a single integrated command.
It would be logical for this command to be led by HM Royal Marines, who have detailed expertise in operations of this kind. Their mission should be to intercept any vessels suspected of people-trafficking and modern slavery or smuggling, as well as to be equipped to counter any terrorist attack made on ferries or shipping in the English Channel. Urgent consideration should also be given to recalling relevant Royal Naval units now in the Mediterranean to protect the British coastline and promote maritime security in the English Channel.
France takes the threat of terrorist attacks on ferries very seriously. So should we. Last week, France was reported to be having armed guards accompanying cross-Channel ferries in French waters. It appears that French armed guards are only able to operate in French waters because Britain has not agreed to take part. Britain should join France in having armed guards accompanying ferries. Security arrangements in the Channel Tunnel must also be reviewed.
It’s time to beef up our border protection. To take control and stop the people-traffickers. We cannot be complacent about the threat from ISIS and terrorism. We should join France in having armed guards accompany ferries as well as to ensure that the Channel Tunnel is as secure as we can make it.