People smuggling in containers is symptomatic of failing national port security regimes

Purfleet Port on 28 October 2019 in Purfleet, England. The port was the arrival point for a lorry trailer with 39 smuggled migrants, all of whom were found dead early on 23 October in the nearby town of Grays. Credit: Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The tragic discovery of 39 bodies of smuggled men and women from Asia in an Essex port, and the subsequent discovery on 30 October of 12 migrants near the Flemish town of Oud-Turnhout, demonstrates again how organised crime is exploiting inadequate port security strategies, sometimes with devastating consequences.

In the past 50 years, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Review of Maritime Transport (UNCTAD RMT) has shown an increase of more than 400% in the volume of cargo passing through ports, and throughput has increased from next to nothing to more than 793 million container movements worldwide in 2018. The enormous savings on cargo rates and time for a container ship, compared with a conventional cargo ship, made the move to containerised cargo inevitable.

Containerised cargo into sealed and locked boxes has significantly reduced pilfering. While containerisation did not eradicate pilferage of manufactured items in ports, it did alter the paradigm of pilferage from ports along the supply chain.

The 9/11 attacks on the US brought a flurry of well-intentioned security measures introduced across the maritime sector, designed to reduce the possibility of a ship and/or its cargo being used as a weapon to attack a port or shoreside targets. The US Container Security Initiative (CSI) required a 100% scanning of US-bound containers by 2012. This ambitious target has never been achieved and is never likely to be so. Between the introduction of CSI in 2002 and the deadline requirement in 2012, UNCTAD data shows there was a 250% increase in US-bound throughput. In conversations with global container security specialists, they estimate less than 2% of throughput moving through ports globally are checked from a security perspective.

The International Ships and Port Facilities Security (ISPS) Code, also implemented in the aftermath of 9/11, was designed specifically to “prevent acts of terrorism”. However, the Code is restricted to just the ship or port interface, defined in SOLAS as “the provisions of port services to the ship”, which consequently leaves almost all the port real estate unaffected by the code.

The “spirit” of the Code, however, has undoubtedly made ports more secure and has successfully deterred crime. Indeed, the “Theft of Goods in Ports” report of 2018 by the Transported Asset Protection Association stated that “we find that maritime transport facilities constitute a rare target location for cargo thieves” with only 0.4% of thefts taking place in ports. Most of the criminal activity is therefore conducted outside ports. However, ports are the one geographical location that all the strands of the supply chain come together or radiate from, making them the most logical place for checks and screening to be conducted.

Ports are also the exit or entry point of the port state and hence viewed as the indicator of the priority placed, by respective governments, on what they allow to leave or enter their country; it is a tangible measure of not the port facility’s, but that nations’ moral and legal integrity.

From a commercial perspective, port reputations are built or lost on their efficiency and productivity. With the exponential increase in box traffic through ports – according to the UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport 2018 “Global containerised trade increased by 6.4%” – port real estate management along with the incorporation of increasingly effective and efficient port systems are paramount. Any form of delay or interruption to the carefully choreographed movement of boxes in almost perpetual motion from one intermodal carrier to another is clearly counter-productive to the process, especially when there is no tangible commercial benefit to the port facility when contraband is discovered.

The lack of pilfering and the extremely remote likelihood of any form of comprehensive inspection of a container as it travels swiftly through ports, or while at sea, makes ports “safe” links in the supply chain for nefarious actors and containers the perfect “mule” for organised crime to exploit and load with a diverse range of contraband from cars to weapons, narcotics, tobacco, alcohol, counterfeit items, and, of course, people.

Governments’ obliviousness and ignorance of the inexorable pace of cargo movements through their ports have resulted in them sleep walking into an invidious position where thousands of unchecked items are entering and leaving their respective countries.

In the UK for example, the law enforcement agencies place great emphasis on “intelligence-based” intercepts of containers. However, some simple analysis undermines the veracity of this strategy – UK government port freight statistics in 2018 show that 10.3 million TEU were processed at a rate of almost 28,000 boxes per day, 95% of which pass through 10 main ports around the country. It is inconceivable that budget-constrained law enforcement agencies (which suffered a 19% budget reduction since 2010) can track and conduct the effective intelligence assessment of all these containers originating in hundreds of countries and from thousands of ports to provide a comprehensive target list and conduct intercepts. Port security officers believe this policy of “intelligence-based” strategy is a “smoke screen”, obscuring the paucity of law enforcement officers dedicated to foiling the movement of contraband through ports.

Since the introduction of the CSI and ISPS Code, the physical security within ports has undeniably improved. However, ports have adapted to meet the global demand, but the regulatory structure for ports has failed to keep pace with organised crime exploiting respective governments’ ineptitude. It is the port state’s responsibility to design and implement effective legislation fulfilling their moral and national legislative requirements, not the port facility’s. The question is, does the political will exist to reduce the increasing volume of illegal items and people being smuggled and trafficked through ports?