EU safety laws could be used to seize the boats used to bring migrant boats before they reach the Channel in a new National Crime Agency plan to stem the flow of asylum seekers being shipped to Britain.
Graeme Biggar, the NCA’s director general, said his agency believed the much larger “flimsy, unseaworthy” vessel now being used by criminal gangs to transport up to 80 migrants at a time were in breach of safety regulations issued by Brussels.
He said that meant the boats – which are being specially manufactured in China and Turkey for the purpose of shipping Channel migrants – could be confiscated as they were moved across Europe to the French coast.
He said that as a result of its recent analysis of the legal position, his agency was now asking EU countries to use the safety regulations to seize the vessels.
He suggested that the new tactic, if successful, could play a significant role in stemming the flow of migrants arriving on small boats.
But he also warned that stopping the small boats would only lead to migrants choosing other routes to enter this country unless the government returned more failed asylum seekers to change the perception that once people arrive they are likely to stay.
Mr Biggar’s comments come as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seeks to deliver his flagship pledge to “stop the small boats” in the wake of a record number of more than 45,000 migrants arriving over the Channel last year. The number of arrivals this year has already passed 20,000, including a record daily total for this year of 872 on Saturday in a sign of the continuing inflow.
The surge in numbers - which the government had hoped to stem by sending migrants to Rwanda before the policy was declared unlawful by the Court of Appeal - has led to criticism from all sides and led to hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on hotel accommodation for small boat arrivals and a record backlog of asylum claims.
The tragic consequences of the people smuggling trade were also highlighted again recently when six Afghan drowned after their overcrowded boat got into difficulty off Calais as they attempted to reach Britain.
The NCA and law enforcers in Europe have arrested a succession of people smugglers in response but Mr Biggar said that targeting the criminal gangs’ supply of boats could prove most effective.
“Their greatest vulnerability is the small boats themselves and the engines that power them so a lot of our effort at the moment is clearly focused on arresting the smugglers, the organisers, but very much on the small boats themselves and the engines,” he said.
“We know broadly where and how they are produced and the routes that they are coming in, so we are working with our international partners right up those routes to try to disrupt it.
“The boats that were being used a year ago were commercial, reasonable boats. The ones that are being used now we think don’t meet EU safety standards .. so this is what we are working with European partners now. We think there is a means for any country in the EU to seize the boats and engines that are most frequently used because they do not meet the marine worthy, seaworthy standards that the Commission would require.
“We are still working through with European partners to see whether everyone agrees, but we think that is the case. It’s early days but if we can show it’s not meeting trading standards, safety standards, and can be seized, that’s great.
“That takes a dangerous bit of kit off the market and will at least slow down and possibly reduce the flow of people coming here unlawfully and reduce the risk of them dying on the way using a really flimsy craft to do it.”
Mr Biggar said that the criminal gangs behind the small boats were “still predominantly Kurdish nationalities .. organising the flow over” and that the surge in arrivals last year was partly down to the use of bigger boats “which enabled the increase in numbers”.
“Previously they were using boats that could take ten or 12 people and they moved up to ones that could take 40, 50 – we’ve seen sometimes 80 people onto these boats, unbelievably dangerous overloading, but also dangerous boats,” he said.
“These are not seaworthy at all, let alone to cross the Channel. They are flimsy structures, cobbled together, largely created for this market…. pretty much designed for this purpose. They are one use, both the boats and the engines, flimsy, not expected to survive very long, and there is the increased risk of the boat sinking, which we have seen.”
He said a “bit of the boats” tended to be made in China, along with the engines which were the “lowest power, lowest capability ones” and that the parts were usually assembled in Turkey before being transported across Europe to reach the Channel on the day or day before of a planned crossing.
“It tends to be put together in Tukey, not literally ready to put in the water, but the kit assembled, and then driven across Europe to Germany or wherever, then stored and then transported on the day or the day before to the coast.
“That then needs to be quite a joined-up effort with government, prosecutors, customs and border officials to try to intercept things and spot them.”
Mr Biggar said that the aim of confiscating vessels would be to raise the cost of crossing via small boats so that it became uneconomic for the gangs involved and no cheaper that “other ways of smuggling. .. be it through HGVs, people flying or coming through the common travel area with Ireland.”
But he warned that unless demand among migrants to come to Britain was reduced, people smuggling would simply shift to other routes.
“We can in the NCA look at arresting the people behind it and going after the equipment to raise the cost of that crossing. What the Home Office and others can look at is how successful it is getting here and into the asylum system, which is where the returns process to countries, be it Albania, Pakistan, or third-party, comes in,” he said.
“If they can change both the reality and the process so that migrants think if they come there is a good chance they won’t stay then that will stop or reduce the flow more materially. Otherwise, if we just manage to make the small boat model uneconomic another method will be found, as is always the way.”