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Border Security Command launched to tackle Channel crossings, but academics question chances of success


Home Office says new Command is step change in how Britain tackles organised immigration crime

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The new Labour government put out its first Home Office press release yesterday, with the Home Secretary Yvette Cooper announcing the official launch of the process to set up the new Border Security Command (BSC).

Border signImage credit: UK GovernmentSetting up the Command was a key immigration policy pledge in Labour's election manifesto. The BSC will be tasked with tackling the criminal gangs who organise the small boats crossing the Channel.

Yesterday's announcement by the Home Secretary follows on from the Prime Minister saying on Saturday that the Conservative government's Rwanda policy was now dead, as it was a gimmick that had failed to deter small boats.

While Labour says the BSC will "pursue, disrupt, and arrest" the smuggling gangs, David Suber of University College London (UCL) explained in an article on The Conversation last month how difficult this approach might prove.

Suber is a researcher at UCL working on the intersection between organised crime, people smuggling and border policing. He highlighted how similar previous initiatives by the UK and Italy had failed to end smuggling as a practice. He noted, for example: "Starmer has indicated Labour will apply MI5 counter-terrorism approaches to tackle Channel crossings. For years, Italy used its elite anti-mafia units to track and dismantle smuggling networks across the Mediterranean. But this did not yield the results they hoped."

According to Suber, connections between smuggling and other forms of serious organised crime remain largely unverified, and extensive research has shown that most smuggling is run by loose, small-scale and highly replaceable groups that are very different from the organised crime syndicates involved in international drug trafficking or terrorist networks.

In an article on the same subject published on The Conversation in March 2023, David Suber commented: "Taking a more heavy handed approach to smugglers won't deter people from seeking their services. Italy and Greece have prosecuted thousands of supposed smugglers in the last few years. But there is no evidence that this has effected migrants' decisions to cross the sea. Rather, policies of deterrence against smuggling fuel smuggling itself, forcing routes to become more dangerous, smugglers more organised, and migrants less able to cross borders without their services."

Michael Collyer, Professor of Geography at University of Sussex, made a similar point on The Conversation last week, viewing Keir Starmer's policy of 'smashing the gangs' as being unworkable like the Conservatives' Rwanda policy. Collyer noted that many genuine refugees with no alternative routes are crossing the Channel and he said Labour's approach "repeats the errors of the war on drugs: tackling criminality with shortsighted focus on supply."

Ben Brindle of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford told the Guardian on Saturday: "The gangs are decentralised – there's not some big boss you can smash. The Conservative government was also very hot on enforcement, so it's not a new direction. Labour say they'll do it more effectively but it's not clear how that would happen and what it would look like."

The Home Office says the new Border Security Command will be a step change in how the Britain tackles organised immigration crime. Recruitment for a new Border Security Commander to lead the BSC began yesterday and it is expected that they will take up their post in the coming weeks.

The Home Office press release explained: "Reporting directly to the Home Secretary, the Border Security Commander will provide strategic direction to work across agencies, drawing together the work of the National Crime Agency (NCA), intelligence agencies, police, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force, to better protect our borders and go after the smuggling gangs facilitating small boat crossings.

"Following the Home Secretary's instruction, a core team in the Home Office is establishing the remit, governance and strategic direction of the new command. Early legislation is being prepared to introduce new counter terror style powers and stronger measures to tackle organised immigration crime."

It continued: "The BSC will draw on substantial additional resources, with work to bring in more investigators, experts and analysts to tackle organised immigration crime starting on Monday. A significant number of these will be based across Europe, working with Europol and European police forces to disrupt the activity of the criminal smuggling gangs and ensure those profiting from people smuggling are brought to justice."

Yvette Cooper told the media yesterday that strengthening Britain's border security is her key priority as incoming Home Secretary.