Enhancing UK coastal security: The need to look beyond vessel numbers.

Elmscott, Devon

Rocky Coastline near Elmsott, Devon © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence geograph

On Wednesday 3rd August, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select committee published its latest report, ‘Migration Crisis’ part of which examined coastal security in the United Kingdom (UK). The report is timely and comprehensive, albeit does not offer many fresh insights for those interested in maritime security issues. Within the report the committee argued that the UK has a “worryingly low” (p. 43) number of vessels to patrol the UK coast, with a fleet of just five UK Border Force (UKBF) vessels, of which only three are currently deployed. This figure, and associated committee description, unsurprisingly gained media attention, and I was asked to offer my views on both Wednesday’s BBC Radio Kent drivetime programme and the evening BBC Mark Forrest show. During the interview with Mark Forrest I explained that I disagreed with the use of the phrase ‘worryingly low’ to describe the current number of UKBF vessels. While I do believe that the UK and specifically UKBF would benefit from having more cutters at its disposal, I dislike short, relatively emotive phrases being pulled out and over-emphasised when describing complex security pictures. Such language use risks over-simplifying and squeezing the space for reasoned debate, subsequently making it more difficult for interested parties to analyse security needs and set-out the appropriate and proportionate policy and operational response.


Beyond a concern with language use, the focus on UKBF vessel numbers also represents a problematic approach to evaluating the status of UK coastal security efforts. First, there is the challenge of accessing accurate data. The Home Affairs Select Committee provide (p. 11) a table comparing the number of coastguard and other patrol vessels in European maritime countries. Clearly designed to drill home their argument that the UK is under-resourced in this area, the reader is informed that Italy can draw upon 600 vessels to patrol its 4,722 mile coast. A little disconcerting however is that the committee seem to have utilised Wikipedia as their sole source for a number of the figures in their table, including the Italy figure. A second challenge associated with the focus on vessel numbers is that it encapsulates a rather narrow focus on quantity over capabilities. As readers of this briefing are well aware, vessels vary quite considerably in their capacity, whilst raw fleet numbers do not necessarily correspond with readily deployable assets. A third challenge is that however many vessels you have their value rests quite considerably on the intelligence on which they are being deployed. This is particularly the case when you are policing long coastlines such as in the UK (over 7000 miles) and where no amount of vessels can guarantee the creation of an impenetrable maritime buffer.


It is this focus on intelligence gathering and sharing that is ultimately at the heart of effective coastal security. Put simply the security authorities must embrace a risk management approach to maritime security challenges, utilising assets appropriately; a situation made ever more necessary in an era of shrinking public expenditure as currently witnessed in the UK. Overall the UK has a mature approach to maritime security, clearly encapsulated in the National Strategy for Maritime Security and in the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC), to name just two examples. Operationally, the UKBF can also draw upon information resources well beyond those captured by border force vessels at sea. There are of course areas to improve – as there always is – with the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, highlighting a series of operational weaknesses around the UK’s awareness of General Maritime activities in a recent report. One example of a weakness highlighted by the inspectorate was a failure by UKBF to circulate sufficiently widely Zonal Intelligence Assessments within the agency. (p. 36). Other operational challenges around intelligence gathering are highlighted as being largely outside the control of the UKBF with, for example, the report noting that only approximately 5% of pleasure craft had Automatic Identification System (AIS) fitted (p.31). Such a situation serves as a further reminder of the constraints facing the state as it seeks to gain a fuller picture of activity in the maritime domain. Here, as I will argue in a future briefing, the general public working and living in coastal areas have a valuable and crucial role to play.


Ultimately the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report should be commended for bringing in to the public domain consideration of UK coastal security. Set against the backdrop of national news coverage of two incidents of migrant smuggling by sea across the English Channel, it is unlikely such attention will diminish any time soon. But with this increased attention comes the necessity to ensure the evaluation of current UK provision in relation to coastal security explicitly recognises the complexity of the maritime domain and as such does not over-emphasise isolated statistics such as the number of Border Force vessels.


For those readers with BBC iplayer access, the interviews can be found here (from 1:05:30) and here (from 1:14:00).

Migrants in the English Channel: The need for a realistic and holistic approach to maritime border management.

There has been significant media coverage over the Bank Holiday weekend on the case of 18 Albanian migrants rescued off the coast of Kent as their vessel began sinking. Two men from Kent have since been charged under the Immigration Act, 1971 with conspiring to facilitate the entry of non-European Union (EU) nationals in to the United Kingdom (UK). Amidst the increasingly febrile atmosphere surrounding the United Kingdom’s EU referendum, there is a very real danger that efforts to attain a realistic and sustainable response to this challenge may be hindered.

The Kent case is by no means likely to be a one-off. With nearly 20,000 miles of coastline to police, the likelihood that other vessels with migrants* have landed in the past, and efforts to arrive will be made in the future, is high. Moreover with migrants desperate to embark upon a new life in the UK and very able to learn from means of travel deployed in southern Europe, combined with criminal entities willing to exploit this suffering, few should be surprised at the latest developments. However, it is important to place the challenge witnessed in perspective. We are not about to witness the scale of movement across the English Channel (of for that matter the North or Irish Seas) akin to that being witnessed in the Mediterranean or Aegean. The number of willing migrants is far lower, whilst both the UK and our European allies have far greater means available to respond to the situation from shoreside to shoreside. Hyperbole from politicians and the media will serve only to hinder efforts to respond and risks poisoning debate on the most effective way to manage the UK’s borders and handle migration.

When considering a response it is first worth recognising the most obvious of points – the UK is an island nation. Too often a form of ‘sea blindness’ seems to have taken hold amongst political leaders and the public as a whole whereby there is clear acknowledgement of the UK’s island-status but a failure to appreciate that while seas are both natural buffers and the medium which connects land, they need policing. Moreover, there is a requirement to acknowledge that it is impossible to prevent all vessels embarking upon illicit activities – be that the smuggling of people, drugs or arms – from reaching the UK’s shores. The UK’s major ports of entry are very well policed but if we are seeking coastal impregnability, then we are chasing a mirage. Any efforts to claim otherwise pose a real danger of undermining public trust in our political and security apparatus. With these starting premises acknowledged however it is possible to map out a holistic approach to maritime border management.

  • Underpinning any response needs to be the acknowledgement that prevention is better than cure. The links between development, security and good governance are widely accepted, but not always sufficiently elaborated upon, particularly in the maritime domain. The government must continue to highlight and put in place policies to manage the push and pull factors associated with migration to the UK. Alongside this we must acknowledge our very specific international and moral responsibilities with regards to refugees.
  • If migrants are found at sea or make it to the UK shore then this is likely to be the result of some form of weakness in policing elsewhere. Here then co-operation is crucial – particularly with our European allies – to ensure that information and available assets are shared and infrastructure and legal mechanisms are in place to prevent migrants embarking on these dangerous journeys from mainland Europe in the first place. While major ports of entry are the subject of considerable focus, monitoring general maritime activity (e.g. pleasure craft) is more difficult. The UK’s Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has inspected UK responses to general maritime and general aviation (as seen here).
  • Maritime Domain Awareness is critical to gaining a clearer picture of activity in the waters around the UK. While Coastguard and Royal Navy vessels contribute to this awareness we should not underestimate the information already at the authorities’ disposal. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and for safety reasons at a minimum traffic is carefully monitored. The UK also has its own National Maritime Information Centre where information from multiple sources is shared to help enhance maritime security. While it is always possible to collect more information, the UK is already well disposed in this area.
  • Additional vessels (and aerial support) would clearly help in enhancing awareness, act as a deterrent, and provide the UK with greater search and rescue capacity. Concern over the number of vessels available to the respective authorities is long-standing, with a lack of maritime capacity noted to me over five years ago when conducting PhD research in and around the UK’s coastline. However purchasing and operating more vessels is no panacea. Even if funds were unlimited (and they are clearly not), it is simply impossible to maintain a ‘wall’ of vessels. Moreover, the challenges of operating at sea, the legal responsibilities to protect the lives of those in need, and the political ramifications of any maritime engagement undoubtedly complicates matters further.
  • A holistic response to maritime border management must also utilise the vast human assets available within the broader maritime community – those living, working, and visiting our long coastline. The UK has longstanding initiatives such as Project Kraken and Coast Watch Wales where coastal communities are asked to report suspicious activity. What is required now is a clearer understanding of the strengths, opportunities, and potential pitfalls of such initiatives in helping facilitate a holistic response to maritime border management going forwards. If we accept, as we must, that some vessels will reach land, then knowing what, where, when and how a vessel landed is of crucial importance.
  • Finally the UK must ensure its legal framework and broader infrastructure effectively and humanely manages those migrants who arrive in the UK and punishes those facilitating illicit activities.

The news stories over the Bank Holiday weekend remind us that the UK’s vast and beautiful coastline is an entry point in to the country for those conducting a whole host of illicit activities. Yet it is important to remember the UK’s response to these challenges is, in relative terms, well developed and mature. There remain grounds for improvement as there always is, but hyperbole will do little to aid efforts to attain a realistic and holistic approach to maritime border management.


*In this blog post I use the term ‘migrants’, as many media organisations including the BBC do, as a neutral term encapsulating economic migrants and refugees.

Global Oceans Governance Conference, Den Haag

Hague InstituteLast week I had the great pleasure of serving as one of 12 independent experts at the Hague Institute’s Global Oceans Governance conference. The event, held in The Hague, was co-sponsored by the Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Altogether participants  – academics, policy-makers and practitioners – from over 12 different countries attended the two-day event tasked with contributing towards the Hague Institute’s Global Oceans Governance project. The project has two aims:

  1. To provide actionable policy recommendations for overcoming collective-action dilemmas that stymie governance efforts in the domain of oceans governance.
  2. To identify general lessons for good global governance that can be applied in other domains as well.

The papers presented at the conference were wide-ranging in their focus. Panels examined the Maritime Ecology, Blue Growth, Sustainable Development, Governance Lessons from the fight against Piracy and Holistic Approaches to Global Oceans Security and Governance. I sat on this last panel and presented the first draft of my paper ‘Mapping Maritime Security: a Small Island Developing State perspective?’ alongside colleagues discussing the Arctic and ‘whole-of-government’ responses to Maritime Security respectively.

My paper encapsulated an initial written output in a new research project for me examining the maritime security considerations of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), specifically in relation to port and coastal security and in the context of the challenges posed by maritime crime. This is a project I commenced last summer with a Coventry University pump-prime grant that facilitated a research visit to Mauritius in August 2015.

The project stems from my fascination with the way in which Island states relate to and manage their maritime domain. I am particularly interested in the way those states with fewer resources undertake these processes and how they confidently and effectively build capacity in maritime security. For those interested in the importance and needs of SIDS, I can do little better than direct you to the below illustration, which I re-tweeted a couple of weeks ago.

SIDSMy paper encapsulates a content analysis of the way in which SIDS publicly articulate their maritime security needs within the broader sustainable development agenda. Building on the more comprehensive definition of maritime security that I embrace, I chart the threats which SIDS highlight and seek to note trends over time. Going forwards I will extend this content analysis to determine regional distinctions. The paper’s focus on the public articulation of threats emerges out of a starting premise that it is only with greater clarity over the way in which SIDS conceptualise their maritime security that we can move forwards to better understand maritime security policy and associated security practice relating to these states, alongside the role of SIDS vis-à-vis efforts to improve oceans governance as a whole. I will be writing more about my work on SIDS in an upcoming Maritime Security Briefing, published by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.

Ultimately the conference reminded me of the large number of individuals and organisations with vast knowledge of, and huge commitment to, enhancing our Oceans’ wellbeing. While the topics discussed were wide-ranging, they allowed all the participants to gain new insights, highlight research synergies and recognise best practice. I left the conference ever more convinced that if we are to ensure that the potential of our Oceans is to be sustainably managed for the benefit of as many people as possible then good governance is of central importance.

As we all reflected at the end of the conference on our recommendations for the future I flagged up two words – DIALOGUE and EDUCATION. It will only be with greater and more regular dialogue between different communities, working on different issues, that we will break-down barriers and build workable policies. Here I would like to think Universities, especially those with an interest in applied research such as Coventry University, are well placed to act as a facilitator between academia and practitioners. This is the task that I enjoyed the most during our recent Economic and Social Research Council funded seminar series on the Sustainable Development – Maritime Security relationship.

Moreover, if we are to truly ensure our Oceans function effectively for generations to come we need to expand the educational opportunities for individuals, young and old, to tap in to the energy I witnessed and the kind of ideas I heard at this conference. Education is deeply empowering and the more people that gain knowledge about our Oceans – the threats to them and ways to protect them – then over time we will build an ever larger community who will not only hold political leaders to account, but who will themselves stand ready to get involved to build a brighter future.

If you have any questions or comments on this blog post please get in contact with me either via the comments box or by email.