Statewatch article: RefNo# 2297
UK: Ports review: privatising control? (feature)
Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 1 (January-February 1998)
The interim report of the Immigration Service Ports Comprehensive Study suggests more selective, targeted immigration control of non-EEA nationals at ports, together with much more reliance on pre-entry controls, charging for services, and a wider involvement of the private sector. The restricted report went to immigration ministers at the end of September, to be considered along with the comprehensive reviews in other immigration and asylum fields.

The review of the cost-effectiveness of port procedures was set up shortly after the Labour government took office, and was particularly encouraged to look at the possibilities brought about by the new technology, the potential for close cooperation with carriers (airlines and shipping companies), the scope of carrier sanctions and ideas such as charging for services. The study plan sets out a background of a 44% increase in arrivals in five years, to 74 million, with a projected increase to 85 million by the year 2000. There are 50 ports and airports in the UK with immigration officers, and 500 without, excluding the many small airfields where private aircraft land. The plan characterises the 15,000 1997 port applications for asylum as "abuse of the asylum process" and the thrust of the report is about how to reduce that number.

The language of the interim report, too, is familiar; there are "threats" to the immigration control, "abuse", the need for "deterrence and prevention" of entry of passengers who are "not genuine". The report does not explain what a bogus passenger is: someone who really does not want to travel? The number of removals of failed asylum-seekers is not, apparently, keeping pace with the number of arrivals. A significant number of "inadmissible" passengers (why inadmissible is not explained), many undocumented, pose an unspecified "threat to immigration control".

How to control more passengers for the same amount of money, thus reducing the unit cost of control from its current 58p per passenger? One answer is to end controls on embarkation. This "adds nothing to immigration control" while consuming 8% of Immigration Services budget. Another suggestion is to shift the focus from on-entry to pre-entry control. This would involve far better liaison and coordination between immigration service ports staff and Foreign Office entry clearance officers, so as to alert all sides to "inadmissible" passengers and those "likely to abuse controls". It would also involve far greater use of intelligence for targeting and profiling suspected "abusers". The "risk assessed approach" which has been developed for intra-EEA traffic at the small ports would be the model for all immigration control in the future.

The five airline liaison officers currently in place have cost 575,000 but have prevented the arrival of 450 asylum-seekers, who would have cost the country an estimated 9 million at 20,000 each. How they prevented their arrival is not spelled out, but it is likely that they advised carriers not to sell them tickets because their papers were not in order. The interim report, far from castigating the way these officers have prevented numbers of people asserting internationally protected rights to asylum, recommends investing in 20 officer teams based abroad, for considerably greater reduction in the numbers of those seeking to use (or in their eyes abuse) the asylum procedure.

With these pre-entry controls in place, the way would be clear to abolish the current system, which involves every non-EEA national seeing an immigration officer. This would be replaced by an automated gate system to expedite "genuine" passengers (IBM's Fastgate process, used at Schipol, is singled out for mention, as are biometric profiling systems), combined with a far more selective, targeted control of "problem" passengers. There would be closer links with customs' drug liaison officers, and a multi-agency approach to organised illegal entry, coordinated through th

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