A Brexit agreement based on ‘future technological arrangements’ will pose problems for Irish border officials and provide a potential haven for smugglers and traffickers.
Due to the island of Ireland’s unique political and geographical importance, it has always been a hotspot for both smugglers and traffickers. Along the roads connecting Northern Ireland with the Republic, smuggling and trafficking was common from the Irish War of Independence up until the start of the troubles in 1969. With the Good Friday Agreement and the official end of The Troubles, the European Union built numerous border crossings to promote trade cooperation between the nations and closed 40% of police stations near the border.
These changes have come back to the fore through Brexit negotiations, with the UK and EU determined to avoid a ‘hard’ border given the recent conflict. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to address this through technology with his new deal. So far the details are vague, with motion sensors, scanners, infra-red, and surveillance cameras all being talked about that as possible solutions. There already appears to be a number of problems with this proposal, however.
These problems not only speak to a border that may be ineffective but also one that could create opportunities for goods smugglers and human traffickers. The most recent Annual Trafficking in Persons report from the US State Department downgraded Ireland to a tier two country, meaning it is no longer deemed to be meeting the minimum standards required in the fight against human trafficking.
The Withdrawal Agreement looks set to exacerbate this in three ways: failing to account for the complexity of the ‘technology fix’, changes to taxing regulation, and failing to address problems with the UK’s sex industry.
First, maintaining an open international border with technology is a much more difficult feat than is often accounted for. Norway and Sweden – two of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe – have been attempting this very exercise for many years and have yet to reach an answer that does not require physical customs checks at the border itself. These solutions are a multi-decade project.
Given the physical geography and historical context of the Irish border, the interim period between an open border, manned by technology alone, represents a unique opportunity for both goods smugglers and human traffickers. In fact, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) predicts that border staff will be asked to process a further 220 million customs declarations and that authorities “are likely to become overwhelmed” at the border; which could lead to an easier path for both traffickers and smugglers to enter the EU.
Second, the fact that goods would be taxed upon reaching Northern Ireland from Great Britain may provide an enticing market for smugglers. Smugglers are able to undercut the market in two ways, namely on speed and price. Although the tax will be refunded for goods which leave Northern Ireland to enter into the Republic, the initial heightened fees for buyers within Northern Ireland will affect trade. This, combined with the likely logistical problems at the interim border, may lead traders to use to alternative avenues to move their goods in and out of the EU. Illegal markets thrive in times of economic uncertainty; the incentives will be there for business, especially those handling perishable goods, to bypass regulation to ensure their food gets in on time.
Third, the current situation has been exacerbated by the growth of the UK sex industry, which has benefitted in recent years as a result of both job insecurity and the failure of universal credit to provide families with safety and security. This growth has attracted sex traffickers from around the EU to move people into Britain as the UK industry becomes increasingly lucrative. This growth is in line with research conducted by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime published earlier this year which found that the number of reported sex trafficked victims in Northern Ireland had risen from 98 in 2014 to 179 in 2016. Johnson’s failure to address this in his deal his likely to make matters worse.
The logistical issues cannot be solved before the 31 October and the transition period is set to be equally turbulent on the border. The technological solutions are not in place, and there is no evidence from other parts of the world to suggest that it is even possible to implement such checks. If the Government cannot find these solutions soon, Johnson’s deal may have major economic and humanitarian knock-on effects for decades to come.
Tom Whitting works as a researcher for the PIOT Foundation for the Human Rights of Migrant Workers.