Tony Smith: Covid and border control. As a former Head of the UK Border Force, here are my urgent recommendations.

9 Feb

Tony Smith CBE is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

A day rarely goes by without me receiving a call from UK broadcast media asking me for my thoughts on Covid and the UK Border. Why didn’t we close the border last year? Why are we doing it now? How will the Border Force manage it? Can hotel quarantine stop new strains getting in? Do we need vaccination certificates to travel? What about our summer holidays?

The three primary functions of border control are the protection of national security, public policy, and public health.

On security, we conduct thorough multi-agency checks on everybody entering the UK both at point of booking and at point of entry. We are rather good at that.

On policy, the ending of free movement has given us a new Border Operating Model, a new points-based immigration system, and a new UK Border 2025 Strategy – all published in the course of the past year. It will take us time to implement the new systems and processes at the border. We aren’t so good at that yet – but we will get there.

But bottom of our report card is the protection of our national health. On that, we must try harder.

Once upon a time, we had a Port Medical Inspector (PMI) in every port of entry. Immigration Officers (as we were then) could refer any passenger to the PMI if they were perceived to be a health threat. PMIs were empowered to issue us with a form “Port 30” which gave us grounds to refuse leave to enter on medical grounds. New migrants coming to settle in the UK were routinely checked for communicable diseases before a visa was issued.

As passenger numbers grew, PMIs were gradually removed from our ports of entry on grounds of “efficiency”. We stopped checking health credentials as a condition of entry. The greater threat was not the importation of disease; it was of importation of dangerous, harmful, or non-compliant people and goods. Health checks fell off our radar.

Between January and April 2020 Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all systematically introduced strict border controls to mitigate the importation of Covid at their borders. Travel to those countries is now restricted to their own nationals and family members only; and 14-day quarantine at a designated location is mandatory on arrival. These countries have managed to control the spread of the virus much more effectively that has been the case in other countries, including the UK, Europe, and the US.

Although we introduced strict quarantine measures for passengers returning on evacuation flights from Wuhan in January 2020, no measures were introduced for flights or arrivals from other destinations, increasing the risk that the virus would be imported from other countries.

In June we started to ask inbound passengers to complete an on-line passenger locator form (PLF) to “self-certify” quarantine; but enforcement was “light touch” and there was no requirement to undergo a test, either before travel or upon arrival.

My previous recommendation to require airlines, ferry companies and rail companies to check health credentials for all passengers boarding flights, ferries, and trains to the UK (as they do with passports and visas) was finally implemented in January 2021, a year after Covid was first detected in Wuhan.

This new requirement requires the production of a completed PLF, and evidence that a negative Covid test had been taken within 72 hours of travel. Boarding should be denied to anybody unable to meet this requirement – but as yet no compliance framework has been set up between to establish whether or not this has been done. Meanwhile we are seeing all kinds of “test certificates” turning up at our ports in various languages and scripts, some of which are clearly fake.

The new requirements have put an additional strain on the Border Force. Officers must now check PLF and negative test forms as well as passports; interview all passengers to determine travel history and purpose of travel to the UK; and now – where they identify a case of a UK citizen or resident arriving from a “red list” location who must self-isolate – liaise with local authorities and health agencies to enforce mandatory quarantine in nearby hotels.

Although the UK government published its UK Border 2025 Strategy on December 17 2020, this did not focus specifically upon the pandemic. Many of the transformations therein are relevant (for example shifting to upstream intervention) – but it does not specify how this would be done with regard to health checks.

The Government must now develop a Counter Pandemic Border Strategy (CPBS) to manage the second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, drawing upon lessons learned in other countries, as a matter of urgency.

This should include the following factors:

  1. The protection of Public Health is a key requirement of the UK Border, alongside the protection of National Security and Public Policy.
  2. Departments should establish clear lines of effort between them to implement the CPBS.
  3. PMIs and facilities should be reinstalled at UK ports of entry, to work in tandem with the UK Border Force in implementing the strategy.
  4. “In country” pandemic threat levels should be translated into similar response levels at the Border, as they are for national security.
  5. The Government should work with international carriers and organisations to develop a new form of health pass which would meet internationally approved standards and would certify the health status of all international travellers at point of booking and check-in, in the same way as it does for passport and visa data.
  6. The Home Office should conduct an urgent review on pre boarding / pre-clearance capabilities with international carriers to ensure they comply with requirements to check health credentials prior to boarding, building upon the existing international liaison officer (ILO) network at key source and transit airports.
  7. The Government should establish a cross Departmental Project Team to implement mandatory quarantine requirements for passengers arriving at UK ports of entry including tests for symptoms, safe and secure transport to designated locations, and in-country enforcement.
  8. The Government should conduct an urgent review of exit checks to ensure a co-ordinated response between UK Border Force, local police and carrying companies on requirements to check outbound travellers for permission to travel, and how this will be enforced in practice.
  9. The Home Office should establish a national critical incident command and control infrastructure which can be stood up at short notice to respond to current and emerging health threat levels at the UK Border. This should include regular tests and exercises.

The UK Border Force is the envy of many countries around the world. And we will get through Brexit, in the end.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic raises significant new challenges for the UK Border. As we begin to turn the tide on this virus, it will be important for us to learn lessons on how to make better use of border controls to protect public health. On this, we must try harder.

Tony Smith: Expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme is one way we can improve our border security

12 Aug

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

On July 3 I wrote in these pages that in order to turn the tide on migrant boats entering UK waters illegally we would need a new agreement with France, which would enable us to return the migrants safely and securely immediately whence they came.

This week immigration minister Chris Philp is seeking precisely that with his French counterpart. Meanwhile numbers have continued to rise with over 4,000 now having made the journey this year, and new intake records being broken almost every week.

As a former practitioner with over 45 years’ experience in the immigration and borders business I have been inundated with requests for media interviews. Why do they come? How do they come? How can we stop them? Why don’t we let them in? Why don’t we let more in?

In my time in the Immigration Service (and the UK Border Force, which it later became) I was criticised from both ends of the political spectrum for working in the field of immigration and border control.

Many a taxi driver said to me (hopefully in jest) that it was “all my fault” that we were overwhelmed by immigrants. Others (less so in jest) saw me as having some kind of character flaw for being so nasty to innocent people, by denying them entry or by making it hard for them to enter and stay illegally in the UK.

In my many media appearances on this topic over the past few weeks I have appeared with several commentators from across the political spectrum – some wanting complete border closures: others wanting the complete abolition of borders.

I was Director of Ports of Entry in the Blair years. In 2002 we saw a record intake of over 80,000 asylum seekers. The vast majority were coming across the English Channel on ferries, trains, or concealed in vehicles. Since then we have concluded several bilateral agreements with France to enhance immigration controls on those routes. This was a top priority for that government, just as it is for this one.

By 2005 we had reduced asylum intake to 25,000. It went lower still before creeping up again in recent years, to around 35,000 last year. Even then the Home Office never really recovered from the 2002 crisis. The Department was criticised year on year for “failing to get a grip” of the asylum backlog, despite a three-fold increase in resources and a massive spend on asylum accommodation and infrastructure across the country.

Asylum applications are notoriously difficult to assess; the easy option is to grant asylum (or at least exceptional leave to remain). Even when refused, the route to removal is a tortuous one riddled with endless appeals, judicial interventions and – even then – non-compliance with the documentation and reporting processes.

According to UNHCR there are now 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2019. 26 million are outside their country of origin in places like Turkey (1.6m) Pakistan (1.5m) Lebanon (1.15m). Hundreds of thousands are in other countries close to unstable states, such as Iran and Ethiopia.

Meanwhile despite pleas from UNHCR, the Western World has consistently reduced its contribution to refugee resettlement schemes. In 2019 countries previously renowned for a more generous approach to refugee resettlement reduced the numbers to a trickle – 21,000 in the USA, 9,000 in Canada, 3,000 in Australia. In the EU the UK took 5,774 refugees through resettlement routes – more than any other EU country.

Yet we hear of far more “generous” approaches to asylum in other countries. The fact is the number of asylum applications in mainland EU countries far exceeds their political will to accept refugees. They have no choice, because the external EU border is porous and a great many irregular migrants have managed to penetrate it. Once there, many want to choose which EU country they would like to live in. Encouraged by the borderless Schengen zone, many will drift North and lodge asylum applications in those countries they see as more attractive (eg Germany, Scandinavia, France).

Because the UK is not (and never was) in the Schengen zone the final hurdle is the English Channel, and how to penetrate that. Given enforcement measures by successive governments of all colours they have found it evermore difficult to do so – at least until they discovered this latest loophole of getting out onto the waters and getting “rescued” by a British vessel.

I have heard many commentators argue that it is lawful for asylum seekers to cross borders without papers or permission, to make their claims. In fact, the correct terminology is “irregular” rather than “illegal” migration; but it cannot be right that International Conventions can effectively trump border controls altogether as people seek new lives in other countries. Not least because this fuels international organised crime and human smuggling chains who will continue to prey on vulnerable people by exploiting “irregular” routes.

Many of those in Calais have already been refused permission to stay in an EU country; but as far as they are concerned that is only the start of the process, not the end of it. Those who argue for major UK resettlement offices in France miss the point.

First, if there is hope that by getting into France you have a greater chance of getting into the UK, then more will come to France. Hardly desirable from their point of view, given their own asylum backlogs. Second, we already know that many won’t take no for an answer; and while they remain in France, they will continue to try to penetrate the UK Border by irregular means including this one.

There is certainly a global debate to be had about legal resettlement routes. The frustration of the UNHCR and refugee lobby is palpable. By refusing to open legitimate resettlement programmes for those displaced in source and transit countries, the Western world is simply encouraging irregular migration across multiple borders.

As the transition period comes to an end and we depart the Dublin Convention, we must firstly negotiate safe third country agreements with our neighbours to stop irregular migration and asylum shopping. Anything less is clear evidence that we have lost control of our borders; something we know is unacceptable to most people living here already.

Assuming we are able to do so, the UK could then show the way for the rest of the world to encourage the proper resettlement of some of the 26 million refugees who are already displaced around the world by expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme.

However, it would be impossible for any government to do so without first demonstrating very clearly to the public that this is “controlled” migration to people who are genuinely deserving of protection; and not “uncontrolled” or “irregular” migration to the UK, over which we have no control.

First and foremost, we must stop the boats and “take back control”. Anything less will continue to undermine public confidence in our border controls and play directly into the hands of the smugglers.

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.

Tony Smith: Turning the tide on migrant boats

3 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, and Chairman of the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

Rarely a day goes by without news of more migrants crossing the English Channel from France to claim asylum. What began as a trickle two years ago has now become a stream. Over 1800 came across in 2019. Over 160 arrived in a single day on 3rd June. At current rates, the 2020 figure will double last year’s total; it could even go higher still. Yet only around six per cent are returned to France.

Those who said that these waters were too difficult to navigate in unseaworthy vessels have been proved wrong. We have seen arrivals in all forms of makeshift craft, even inflatables and canoes. So how do we turn the tide, and stem these illegal flows?

This is a complex problem. There are significant challenges raised by international law including 1951 Refugee Convention, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (COLAS), and the Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR).

Following media reports that French vessels were “escorting” migrant boats into British waters in May, Priti Patel announced that she would change international law to close the Channel loophole; but any change in international law needs international agreement.

Article 98 of UNCLOS encourages neighbouring states to establish regional arrangements for search and rescue at sea. Examples include joint patrol vessels, or the placement of officials from one jurisdiction on board the vessel of another.

So there is no reason in international law why the British and French governments could not introduce joint SAR patrols. They would have to meet the requirements on international law; but – crucially – refugees and asylum seekers can be taken to any place where there is no risk of their life or freedom being threatened in accordance with Article 33(1) of the Refugee Convention, on the principle of “non refoulement”.

So subject to mutual agreement, we could establish an integrated UK/French border patrol to rescue migrants at sea and bring them to a place of safety; and as both countries are signatories to the 1951 Convention, that could be to a port on either side, and not necessarily to the country whose vessel happens to rescue them.

Of course, this needs a political agreement with France. Some may say this is not achievable. Maybe not. But in 2002, the total UK asylum intake figure rose to over 100,000, with the vast majority arriving from France. To stem the flows, the UK and France agreed a bilateral Treaty (Le Touquet) in to establish “juxtaposed controls” whereby officers would conduct passport inspections prior to boarding ferries.

As these inspections were “extra territorial”, asylum claims were excluded. This led to a far harsher reduction of asylum claims from France than the numbers we see on the migrant boats today. In my experience, successive French governments have been prepared to work with UK border enforcement agencies to disrupt and deter irregular migration on the cross-channel routes. They don’t like human smugglers any more than we do. This suggests that there is scope for further bilateral agreement to counteract the maritime threat.

Although France is a “safe third country”, the current Dublin Convention trumps safe third country rules. To return as asylum seeker to another member state, the receiving state has to prove that an asylum claim had already been made in the other state.

Given that nearly all migrants are undocumented on arrival, this evidence is rarely available – and accounts to a great extent for the very low returns rate. As the UK departs the EU, it will no longer be party to the Dublin Convention. A new “safe third” agreement is needed.

There will always be migrants in France who want to come to the UK. Some may have legitimate reasons for doing so – for example, those with family connections here. To meet this demand, the UK could offer a legitimate migratory route to the UK for specific categories of persons via our offices in France; thereby reducing the incentive for illegitimate routes and simultaneously disrupting the smuggling supply chains.

I hope that the Government’s current strategy to encourage better enforcement in France pays off. It is certainly having an impact. But if we believe that this could escalate into a crisis like the one we saw back in 2002, we will need a more fundamental and radical approach to tackling the problem.

That means reaching a new international agreement France on joint patrols, search and rescue, and safe returns whilst simultaneously exploring alternative legitimate offshore processing routes for those with a genuine case to enter. Then – and only then – will we finally be able to turn the tide on migrant boats and defeat the maritime threat to our borders.