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.

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