Illegal immigrants are slipping in to Britain through sea ports unmanned by immigration officers, the border agency watchdog signalled yesterday. At Holyhead port in Wales, there is only enough staff to cover one in four shifts even though it is deemed high risk and 26 immigration offenders were caught there in one month alone. Other minor ports in Wales and the South West are not manned at all, raising concerns over border security, a report by John Vine, the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, found.
The lack of security also raises the prospect that potential terrorists could be exploiting the gaps to get into the UK. One anti-immigration campaigner warned the agency had “left of the side door to Britain wide open”.
An inspection of UKBA operations in Wales and the South West found some of the 17 airports and seaports in the region had either limited or no immigration officers.
Holyhead only has enough staff to fill five out of 21 eight-hour shifts even though the agency accepted it was a high risk port for migrants to get in to the country illegally.
Special branch officers, who are based at the port, discovered 26 immigration offenders during last October alone – the equivalent of almost one a day – raising questions over how many were not spotted.
The inspection report said: “Resource constraints severely limited the amount of immigration work that could be carried out at Holyhead and we were concerned that the level of immigration work undertaken is not balanced against the known high risk that is present.
“Staff raised concerns that some of the smaller ports in the region were not staffed and there was a risk that potential immigration offenders were not being detected. “This brings in to question the current level of security of the border.”
The lack of permanent immigration controls was blamed on the fact the minor ports only received passengers from the so-called Common Travel Area, which allows free movement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
However, a failure to check passports or visas at such ports will renew fears that illegal immigrants or criminals can exploit the travel area to avoid border controls.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch UK, said: “This is astonishing. We have heard for years about the huge investment in security at Dover, but it seems that we have left the side door to Britain wide open. “Yet again the public have been systematically misled about the effect of our border controls.”
The report also criticised poor resources around the region which saw some computer systems crash for days at a time while staff from Bristol had to drive to Cardiff to check fingerprints after the scanner was moved.
There are 300 UKBA staff in the Wales and South West region which contains sea or airports at Avonmouth, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Falmouth, Fishguard, Holyhead, Newquay, Pembroke Docks, Plymouth, Poole, Swansea, Newport, Cardiff Docks, Barry and Port Talbot.
Damian Green, the immigration minister said: “The new Government is committed to creating a dedicated Border Police Force to enhance national security, improve immigration controls and crack down on trafficking of people, weapons and drugs. It will also help us in fighting illegal working.
“The UK Border Agency manages security at the border according to the assessed risk. The Agency has already started to address the issues raised by the Inspector’s report and is committed to continuing intelligence-led checks on all people and goods entering the UK via Welsh ports.”
In December last year, Mr Vine warned hundreds of lorry drivers caught smuggling illegal immigrants into Britain are escaping punishment because of backlogs in the immigration system.
Thousands of pounds in fines are outstanding and hundreds of vehicles that should have been seized have not, some dating back seven years, he warned.