Chris Hobbs is a retired Met police officer who worked extensively at border controls in both the UK and Jamaica.
If control of our borders and a curb on immigration into the UK was the tipping point in deciding the result of referendum, those who cast their vote on that basis may well be surprised at the likely post-Brexit reality whether there is a deal or not. – This, in spite of government statements supposedly ending freedom of movement.
On the front line, facing this reality, are a UK Border Force created by Theresa May in the aftermath of the pre-London Olympics chaos at airport passport controls.
It’s a border force that currently is in crisis as is so clearly illustrated in successive Home Office staff surveys which many officers refuse to complete as they believe it is a waste of time as no remedial action is taken.
Morale or lack of it, is clearly a huge issue while the survey shows there is little trust in Home Office senior managers and ministers by rank and file officers on the front line.
Chickens, in respect of cuts to the border force, are now coming home to roost as the Home Office is now frantically attempting to recruit additional permanent officers to cope with the aftermath of Brexit.
The problems of retention and high levels of sickness are likely to persist and this will lead to an increasing dependency of temporary staff or ‘seasonals’ who have just two week’s training.
It is also worth noting that it takes two years for a comprehensively trained UKBF officer to become fully competent.
To add insult to injury, front-line, full- time Border Force officers have just learnt to their chagrin, that dozens more ‘seasonals’ are currently being recruited by the Home Office at rates of pay which will top those of the most experienced fully trained border force officer.
The current shambles at our borders.
The unpalatable fact is that the UK’s borders, even before Brexit, are in a shambolic state. Reports by John Vine and David Bolt, the past and present Chief Inspectors of borders and Immigration, are frequently damning and both have complained that these critical reports are often withheld by the Home Secretary until they can be effectively ’buried’ amidst other bad news.
Theresa May was criticised for this tactic by the Home Affairs Select Committee when Home Secretary while her successor, Amber Rudd opted to release five separate reports on the same day.
The movement of migrants across the channel has highlighted one obvious weakness in our border ‘defences’ while, according to Messrs Vine and Bolt, much of coastline and coastal ports are vulnerable as are small airports. It remains to be seen how effective the recent agreement between Sajid Javid and his French counterpart will be in terms of returning cross-channel asylum seekers to France.
UKBF officers at Heathrow and other airports complain that the Home Office priority is queues, with officers frequently being taken away from customs controls as soon as passenger queues build up. Queues and a lack of experienced full-time officers can mean that those on duty feel compelled to ‘land’ (admit) passengers even though they may be less than satisfied with their reasons for requiring entry.
Little wonder then, that despite the occasional ‘big seizure,’ such is the shambles at our borders that the UK is awash with drugs as is illustrated by eels in the Thames becoming ‘hyperactive’ due to the quantity of cocaine in the water!!!
Freedom of movement will continue post-Brexit
For many Brexiteers, the issue of ‘freedom of movement’ in respect of EU nationals was a major factor in voting ‘leave.’ Thus, those who voted for Brexit would have expected UKBF officers, after March 29th (or whenever it would happen now ) to treat EU nationals in the same way as non-EU nationals. In other words that they would be examined by UKBF officers at passport control in order to establish whether they had a legitimate reason to enter the UK.
That, however, is not going to happen and there can be no doubt that many leading Brexiteers, notably former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, would have been only too well aware during the referendum campaign, that the imposition of firmer controls was a non-starter.
Well before the referendum, seasoned border force officers calculated that to examine, even briefly, the passport of each arriving EU national, would cause a logjam of queueing passengers which would stretch all the way back to the airport gates. Passengers would then be kept on aircraft, aircraft would be held on taxi ways and substantial delays and cancellations to arriving and departing flights would occur.
EU nationals, it has therefore been decided, will be able to continue to pass through passport controls using the ‘anonymous’ eGates. There will be no check to see if each EU passenger is entitled to work or have residency here or whether they are coming to the UK as a genuine visitor. Thus, those who arrive intending to work illegally or engage in criminality will have ‘freedom of movement’ to do so without ‘passing under the eyes’ of UK law enforcement simply by using eGates.
Thankfully, in response, the EU have decided that UK nationals will not need tourist/visit visas for trips to EU countries. It would have been surprising if visas had become a requirement as they are normally imposed on ‘high risk’ nations in respect of potential illicit migration, security factors or a combination of the two.
However, the issue of whether UK nationals will still be questioned upon arrival in an EU country or whether they will be able to pass through passport controls reserved for EU nationals as opposed to much longer queues for non-EU nationals, remains to be seen.
Another linked post-Brexit issue relates to the French juxtaposed passport controls in the UK and the attitude of the French police who staff those controls. Any meticulous examination of passports or other paperwork would cause chaos to departing passengers especially at Dover.
This state of affairs in respect of EU nationals arriving at UK passport controls and being able to pass speedily through, will have to continue after any transition period regardless of UK employment restrictions on EU nationals, the issue of work visas and similar impositions. What we will have at our borders is the equivalent of an honesty box.
Meanwhile, ominously, French customs officers have taken industrial action demanding additional pay for the increased work they will be undertaking after Brexit in relation to UK bound lorries, trucks and air freight.
It will also be interesting to see whether French President Macron will attempt to alleviate his domestic problems by taking a tough stance his own borders in relation to UK bound traffic.
Losing access to crucial national security databases
The Home Office will point out that these days, passenger details will be ‘bounced off’ a succession of databases including the UK’s Police National Computer and the EU’s Schengen2 database. The latter however isn’t perfect; it won’t contain details of every dangerous EU criminal but it is nevertheless an invaluable tool.
A ‘no deal’ or indeed even ‘a deal’ exit from the EU could well result in UK law enforcement being denied access to Schengen 2 and other vital European law enforcement databases. As the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs Council point out, this would be disastrous for UK law enforcement as would any limitation on the UK’s current full membership of Europol.
Thus, given the government policy of allowing EU nationals to enter the UK as they do now, the fact that their details might not be ‘bounced off’ the Schengen database, as at present, would dramatically weaken our border controls. It would, for example, make it much easier for dangerous criminals, including terrorists, fleeing justice in Europe to enter the UK.
Also, at risk would be the European arrest warrant which means that British criminals fleeing justice to another EU country can be speedily extradited back to the UK.
A number of EU criminals deported from the UK, find it easy to return as they simply obtain ‘genuine’ passports in their own country using another’s identity. Only by being directly examined by a UKBF officer is there any chance of these potentially dangerous individuals being detected.
The government may have realised, belatedly, that EU nationals are crucial to keep the NHS and other services performing effectively. Certainly, where I live in west London, the benefits of hard working east European arrivals far outweighs any negative aspects. ‘Incomers’ have taken the trouble to learn the language, have strong family units, a visible, cheerful work ethic and indeed if all were ‘beamed up’ we indigenous souls would certainly struggle.
The idea, however, that future EU workers can come and work for limited periods of time before returning to their own countries will have Home Office Immigration enforcement officers shaking their heads in despair.
They are faced, like their UKBF cousins, with appalling high-level Home Office management, as is illustrated in the ongoing Windrush scandal. There are, depending on which set of figures are to be believed, somewhere between 500,000 and one million persons in the UK illegally. Front line enforcement officers would prefer to focus on those here illegally who are involved in serious, harmful criminality. Will they really be expected to chase those EU nationals working in low paid jobs who have overstayed the limits of their visa? The whole process is likely to become an unenforceable, bureaucratic nightmare.
More holes than a Swiss cheese.
Brexit, however will weaken our borders in other ways. According to UKBF officers, in order to reduce queues several nations will be given ‘favoured’ status. Hundreds of thousands of Americans travel to the UK each year and most receive perfunctory scrutiny by UKBF officers.
However, each year around 1,600 US nationals are refused entry at passport control and returned back across the Atlantic. These 1,600 include criminals amongst whom are potential child abusers, political extremists, those with mental health issues and those intending to overstay. In future all US nationals will be permitted to by-pass UKBF officers and use eGates thus the UK will almost certainly have 1,600 individuals entering the UK who will be detrimental to our national interest.
Australians are another favoured nation who will be able to use eGates and again, significant numbers are refused entry by UKBF officers each year. They too will be ‘home and dry’ by virtue of being able to able use eGates as will citizens from several other countries.
Lucy Moreton, the general secretary of the ISU which represents many UK Border force officers was quoted by the Guardian as predicting longer queues at eGates for British nationals and a weakening of UK borders.
The issue of migrants/refugees crossing the channel is small rubber boats is regarded as somewhat of a distraction by border force officers. The will point out that the numbers are just several hundred strong, yet their real concern features non-EU nationals who enter the UK as visitors, either with a visa or not and who do not return within their allotted time.
Whilst Migration Watch are regarded by some as a right wing think tank, their ‘number crunching’ using Home Office figures suggests that the net number of those entering the UK legally and remaining illegally is around 60,000 a year.
The National Crime Agency have voiced their concern as to the damage caused to the UK by foreign criminal networks; Chilean gangs have been recently involved in violent home invasions, Columbian networks specialise in theft including ‘dipping’ (pickpocketing) while Albanian organised crime groups, in addition to human trafficking, are taking over cocaine distribution in many parts of the UK by forging partnerships with local gangs. All will have passed through UK border controls.
Chaos at our airports and seaports as the result of Brexit will be manna from heaven for foreign criminals whether they are from within or outside the EU.
The simple fact is that our border controls have more holes than a Swiss cheese and that these holes are likely to increase in both number and size whenever Brexit becomes a reality (and if it becomes a reality) unless the issues referred to above are addressed.