Source: Alamy

Home secretary Suella Braverman told Tory conference attendees she was going to crack down on illegal Channel crossings

The freight industry has expressed its doubts over official government figures on stowaway migrants who were caught attempting to cross the UK and France land border.

According to official government figures obtained by The Grocer, the rate of so-called clandestine attempts detected at juxtaposed controls – the UK-operated border controls in place in France and Belgium where Border Force officers check passengers and freight destined for the UK – has slowed significantly compared with last year.

Border Force data showed that 18,420 clandestine attempts were detected in 2021. That number stood at 6,154 from the start of 2022 to 31 August 2022 – a decrease of nearly 50% in average monthly attempts.

But industry sources have claimed that the numbers “do not stack up” against a higher record of detections by those in the sector. Earlier this year, The Grocer reported food companies were having to dispose of thousands of tonnes of food because of a rise in lorry load contaminations linked to a growing number of so-called clandestine entrants.

Supply chain specialist Oakland International, which offers a distress load management (DLM) service that aims to reduce food waste linked to human tampering, said at the time it had seen a “significant increase” in the number of loads where there was evidence of people using trucks as a route into the UK.

“I am afraid that the information does not stack up in any sense of logic against a higher record of detections,” said Oakland CEO Dean Attwell on the government’s juxtaposed clandestine attempts figures.

“I guess the devil is in the detail but this data refers to ‘juxtaposed attempts’ and not to ‘incidents’. Based on the results, it looks like everyone went on holiday for six months.”

Read more: Lorry stowaways: what are the implications for food supply?

An extract from a British International Freight Association (BIFA) message sent to members on 25 July 2022 also painted a different picture on stowaways – figures cited by BIFA showed there were 3,838 “incidents where clandestine entrants were detected concealed in vehicles” during the financial year 2021-2022, up from 3,145 incidents during the financial year 2020-2021 “despite the Covid-19 pandemic causing a lower volume of traffic” that year. This represented a 22% increase in incidents.

BIFA told members in the letter that the government was “concerned” that current measures to stop illegal border crossings were “not having enough of an effect, as drivers are not taking the steps required to secure vehicles, and clandestine entrants are continuing to use these routes to enter the UK”.

As part of its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, the government was aiming to double down on civil penalties for private motorists and commercial drivers that failed to adequately secure their goods vehicles. A public consultation on new civil penalties to tackle illegal immigration closed on 12 September.

“There is no question that a lot of drivers could be directly involved, but very unlikely that this is a penalty that should be applied to the haulage companies generally,” Oakland’s Attwell said.

“Politically I am guessing that it doesn’t suit the government to admit to having worsening border controls,” he added.

Earlier this week, home secretary Suella Braverman revealed plans for new laws imposing a blanket ban on anyone deemed entering the UK illegally from seeking asylum.

She told Conservative Party Conference attendees that the new laws, which will build on the Nationality and Borders Act that came into force in June, will attempt to curb the growing numbers of Channel crossings.

She said that people “deliberately entering the UK illegally from a safe country should be swiftly returned to their home country or relocated to Rwanda”, in line with the government’s controversial flagship policy to send migrants to the east African country.

The policy, originally introduced by Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel, was designed to deter the large numbers of migrants arriving in the UK in small boats.

However, the number of people making the dangerous Channel crossing has hit record highs this year, with more than 33,500 reported so far in 2022.

Robert Hardy, CEO of customs & border experts EORI UK, said he was not aware of lorry infiltrations worsening lately as he believed people were increasingly opting for dinghies even in light of the Rwanda announcement.

But he added that it was “very easy to reduce the number of all [clandestine entrant] incidents by simply checking less trucks”.

“And the issue is not about finding the clandestine at the border. The bigger issue is when customs open the back of a lorry and there is a pile of human faeces on the back of the lorry, but there’s no clandestine.”

“Bottom line, what I believe is that the attempts and effect are both increasing and that we have thousands of pallets of food arriving on our supermarket shelves having been exposed to the risk of desperate people crawling all over it and potentially contaminating it,” Oakland’s Attwell said.