UK and Turkey strike new deal to tackle people-smuggling gangs

Up to 90 per cent of small boats used for illegal crossings of the English Channel originate in Turkey

Suspected illegal migrants arrive in Dungeness, Kent, after being rescued from a small-boat incident in the English Channel. PA
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The UK and Turkey have signed a new deal to tackle illegal migration.

Law enforcement agencies in both countries will work together to disrupt the supply chain of boat parts used by people smugglers.

An estimated 80 per cent to 90 per cent of rubber dinghies used to transport illegal migrants across the English Channel originate in Turkey.

The agreement is Rishi Sunak's government's latest effort to address the migrant crisis and make progress on the Prime Minister's pledge to “stop the boats”.

The scale of the migration crisis in Europe was highlighted by the drownings of more than 40 people off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Four people survived the shipwreck, which occurred after the vessel had departed from Sfax in Tunisia, a spot frequently used by smugglers.

The metal boat overturned during bad weather last Thursday, according to a joint statement released by the UN agencies for refugees, children and migration on Wednesday.

The seven-metre vessel was carrying 45 people when it began to take in water after reaching the open sea. Forty-one migrants including three children are feared dead following the incident.

The export of dinghies and their parts across the continent to facilitate illegal crossings to the UK is a central element of smugglers' tactics.

The Home Office in London said hundreds of small boats and boat parts are transported through Europe each year for illegal migration.

Many of those that originate in Turkey are sent to Bulgaria and onwards to Germany.

The agreement includes British support for a new centre in Turkey to be established by the Turkish National Police to address organised immigration crime.

Suella Braverman, Britain's Home Secretary, praised the agreement with Turkey as an important step in stamping out illegal migration.

But it stopped short of including a returns agreement for Turkish citizens who enter the UK illegally.

“As I’ve made clear, we must do everything we can to smash the people smuggling gangs and stop the boats,” Ms Braverman said.

“Our partnership with Turkey, a close friend and ally, will enable our law enforcement agencies to work together on this international problem and tackle the small boat supply chain.”

The new centre in Turkey will build on existing collaboration between London and Ankara and “increase alignment of UK and Turkish intelligence, allowing operational staff to act more quickly on information”, the Home Office said.

The new venue will strengthen the working relationship between members of the UK's National Crime Agency and the Home Office intelligence staff already based in Turkey and their Turkish counterparts.

The UK has also agreed to send more officers to Turkey to bolster joint work on stopping illegal migration.

Robert Jenrick, the UK's immigration minister, said the deal will involve Britain and Ankara “intensively sharing” resources.

He visited Turkey in July and spent time at Kapikule, a checkpoint on the country's border with Bulgaria and the largest and busiest crossing point in Europe.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Jenrick disputed the suggestion that the UK is “playing catch-up” after losing arrangements with other European countries to return failed asylum seekers after Brexit.

Bridget Chapman, an advocate for migrants and a Labour councillor in the Folkestone area of Kent, dismissed the deal with Turkey as “performative toughness” by the Conservative government.

The ward she represents is seven miles from the port of Dover, where rescuers bring migrants for processing after plucking them from boats in the Channel.

Speaking to The National, she said the new agreement would do little to deter people from making the dangerous voyage across the Channel.

“If people cannot get boats [from Turkey] they will get boats another way,” she said. “They will turn to China or elsewhere.

“If [the government] wants to break the business model of smugglers they have to give people a better option with safe routes.”

Alp Mehmet, chairman of Migration Watch, a UK-based think tank and campaign group which argues for lower immigration, backed the deal with Turkey.

“This will help and is to be welcomed,” Mr Mehmet told The National.

“It’s good that Turkey, both a source and a hub for illegal immigration, is prepared to work with us to help stem the flow.”

However, he said the only way to deter people from illegally travelling across the Channel in small boats is to detain them upon arrival and deport them to their country of origin “or a safe third country, like Rwanda”.

The UK's plan to fly illegal migrants to the African nation was deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal in June. The following month the government was given permission to appeal the decision to the UK Supreme Court.

Rob Lawrie, a podcaster who researches the work of people smugglers in Europe, said the UK government is in a “complete mess over every aspect of organised immigration crime”.

He said the latest deal will have a minuscule effect on networks of gangs moving boats from warehouses in Turkey to northern Europe.

“The only effect it will have is on the British taxpayer,” he told The National.

“These smuggling networks are highly organised, professional and sophisticated outlets.

“Governments have underestimated them.

“The money involved is just too much for gangs to be deterred and they can change direction within a day [to avoid detection].

“They import boat parts from China and assemble them in underground garages and backstreet shops in Turkey.”

He estimated the overall people-smuggling system across Europe since 2015 has been worth billions of euros.

It costs around €2,000 (£1,723) for a smuggler to buy an inflatable 11-metre boat from Turkey and have it delivered to northern France, Mr Lawrie said.

Each boat usually carries around 50 migrants who have paid an average of €3,500 (£3,016) each for passage, he said.

When the cost of life jackets, boat motors and flat boards fitted to stabilise the boats are taken into account, the ringleader of a smuggling gang could be left with a profit of over 8000 per cent, he said.

Migrant arrivals in UK – in pictures

The reinforced collaboration between London and Ankara will take centre stage at the upcoming UK-Turkey Migration Dialogue meeting, scheduled for the autumn in London.

The deal is just one of a series of announcements Mr Sunak's government will be making as part of its “stop the boats” week.

On Monday, after weeks of delays, the first 15 asylum seekers boarded the Bibby Stockholm barge.

About 50 people were expected to move on board the vessel, docked in Portland Port in Dorset, but about 20 were granted a last-minute reprieve after a series of legal challenges.

The UK government also announced the launch of a new interdepartmental team, the Professional Enablers Task Force, which will work with industry bodies and law enforcement to “increase enforcement action against lawyers who help migrants exploit the immigration system”.

The task force drew criticism, though, with the Law Society accusing the government of “lawyer-bashing”.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk defended the Whitehall unit, for which there is no new funding, insisting it will ensure advocates who are found to be responsible for submitting fraudulent claims are “convicted, punished and disgraced”.

Updated: August 09, 2023, 2:52 PM