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Port and border security

By Andrew Staniforth


In direct response to the increased post-9/11 terrorist threat from al Qa’ida, the British government appointed Lord Carlile of Berriew CBE QC as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (IRTL) during 2001. In more than nine years as Independent Reviewer, Lord Carlile spent a considerable proportion of his time on ports and border security. This was perhaps a mundane part of the Reviewer’s routine, but its importance struck him very quickly. As he stood behind Special Branch officers at UK airports he realised how many extremely speedy judgements fall upon them, with a complex body of intelligence and law sitting on their shoulders. He also observed the questioning of passengers and stated that:

“I came to understand the intrusion faced by almost always innocent passengers, but the critical importance of the national security framework in which we all travel. In sea ports and on ferries, I became conscious of the porous and fragile nature of our border controls. At huge freight terminals, I saw the opportunities for terrorist and other seriously criminal acts with the potential for irreparable public damage, and the subtlety required to meet those challenges in a proportionate as well as strictly lawful fashion.”

As part of a series of protective measures in 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Lord West, then Minister for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, to conduct a review of UK security specifically focusing upon the protection of strategic infrastructure, stations, ports and airports, and other crowded places. There were three key findings from the review which included;

  • A need for a new ‘risk-based’ strategic framework to reduce vulnerability of crowded places;
  • Focused effort on reducing the vulnerability of the highest risk crowded places by working with private and public sector partners at a local level;
  • New efforts to ‘design in’ counter terrorism security measures are needed, building on good practice from crime prevention.


The recommendations from Lord West’s review were accepted by the Prime Minister and their full implementation continues to be a work in progress for UK port and border security authorities. These security measures quite rightly focused upon the determined threat from contemporary international terrorists wishing to expose and exploit vulnerabilities in border security. Yet there are numerous hazards for ports practitioners to counter which directly impact upon national security, the most pressing being the threats from serious and organized crime. Globally, the United Nations estimates that the most powerful international organized crime syndicates each accumulate in the region of $1.5 billion a year. The international drugs market alone is estimated to be worth £200 billion and the UK’s National Security Strategy also notes that cyber crime has been estimated to cost up to $1 trillion per year globally.

While the laundering of criminal cash and the importation of drugs are key challenges for security forces engaged in the protection of ports and borders, the trafficking of human beings remains a primary concern to government’s and is a serious crime which demeans the value of human life. Human trafficking, the acquisition of people through the use of force, coercion, deception, through debt bondage or other means with the aim of exploiting them. Men, women and children can fall into the hands of traffickers either in their own countries or abroad. Trafficking occurs both across borders and within a country; it is not always visible — exploitative situations are frequently covert and not easily detectable and include the exploitation for prostitution, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or removal of organs. Sadly, children are amongst the most vulnerable victims of this increasingly organised crime. Sometimes they are sold by family members or families are in debt bondage to traffickers and their children are put into forced labour or domestic work where they are vulnerable to sexual or physical abuse. Children may be abducted, or handed over by their parents in the belief that they may have a better life and access to education. Children are also vulnerable to being used in criminal enterprises, working in cannabis farms or pick-pocketing gangs. Some are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who can be preyed upon by those who exploit them to enable others to acquire state benefits. Security forces at ports continue to tackle human trafficking through prevention and disruption mechanisms achieved by dismantling criminal networks, constructing robust prosecution cases, and confiscating assets which are the proceeds of crime.

The diverse range of security challenges encountered at borders requires a dedicated and determined response, however, the passage through ports security screening also provides significant opportunities for authorities to lawfully gather intelligence and evidence. The increasingly commercialised and economically driven focus of ports of entry provides a challenging environment for law enforcement and intelligence agency practitioners to operate and all in authority must never forget that the safety of the travelling public and the wider security of its citizens must continue to take precedence at all times. The development of a strong, united, and resilient border with agencies, businesses, and governments working together shall ensure increased security for all. New threats shall no doubt emerge in future and those intent upon defeating security measures at borders will continue to create new and innovative solutions to carry out their unlawful activities. The protection of UK borders continues to remain our first and last line of national security defence.

Andrew Staniforth, Detective Inspector, North East Counter Terrorism Unit and Senior Research Fellow, Centre of excellence for terrorism, resilience, intelligence and organised crime research (CENTRIC). He is the author of Blackstone’s Handbook of Ports & Border Security with the Police National Legal Database (PNLD) and consultant editors Clive Walker and Stuart Osbourne QPM.

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