Three Northern Ireland boats targeted in ‘zero tolerance’ clampdown on employment visas

A well-planned operation by a large team of Border Force officers descended on three vessels in Ardglass on 21 July. One eyewitness to the raid said it was clearly aimed at the three vessels, with international crew on other boats in the port bypassed whilst the target vessels were approached.

“They clearly had those three vessels as targets,” they told FN. “I was told afterwards the vessels had been watched on AIS and chosen for the raid as they’d been fishing inside 12, in breach of the migrant visas of the international crew aboard.

“It was all quite scary, even for bystanders, let alone for the international crew who were the targets of the officers. They were all tooled up – dressed in  black, with riot batons, CS spray, handcuffs, some of them in wraparound sunglasses – and they very quickly surrounded the crews and skippers.

“I saw one skipper physically detained in the wheelhouse, and learned that he’d subsequently been strip-searched as well, as part of the operation. It must have been terrifying for the crew involved.”

As FN went to press, we had heard of no charges being made. A number of foreign crew had been helped by the vessel owners to leave the UK and return home, all reportedly to Ghana.

One local vessel owner, who didn’t want to be named, told FN: “This was just madness. They’d clearly singled these boats out from VMS, and they knew exactly where to go in the port to make the boardings.

“We’ve all been involved in the timetable towards obtaining skilled visas for the crew, helping with written English lessons. Border Force have now just injected chaos and confusion into the whole process. It helps no one, serves no one.

“Boats will be back in Isle of Man waters next week, and scared to even be seen to slow down inside of 12 miles in case it’s taken as fishing activity. But the visa routes we have will take too long for the boats to stay in Manx waters indefinitely.

“This needs clearing up, and clearing up fast, if there aren’t to be serious issues, not just here, but in the prawn fleet in the west of Scotland too.”

A third eyewitness told FN: “These crew aren’t new. I’ve personally known some of them for several years. They were in tears after the raid, but they are already back home in Ghana. None of them wanted to risk any kind of court appearance. They are just fishermen, sending money home to their families, and don’t want any trouble at all.”

The full implications of the raid are yet to be fully understood. A series of moves are understood to be underway behind the scenes, but at the moment there is a reluctance by anyone involved to speak to the press. Local vessel owners were also meeting to work out the best way forward in terms of their own ongoing visa applications and fishing patterns.

There is also a very real fear within the scampi industry, in particular, about continuing supply and the viability of operations if a big reduction in landings of tails occurs as a result of vessels being tied up or seeing reduced landings.

NIFPO Reaction: ‘This isn’t a way forward’

Harry Wick, chief executive of the Northern Ireland FPO, which the three vessels concerned are part of, has been at the forefront of industry discussions with Border Force and other authories about the employment of international crew. He is also a member of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, which has been making major efforts to develop an externally audited and certified assurance scheme for the employment of foreign crew on member vessels.

Speaking about the raid, and the implications for others within the fleet – as well as for the international crew, many of whom have no alternative employment prospects in their home countries, and have extended families dependent on their UK earnings – he told FN: “What we seem to have seen here is enforcement policy by Border Force being changed without notice.

“I spoke with officials at Border Force just three days ahead of this raid. My understanding from that conversation was that we were working within an education period. This discussion wasn’t about simply trying to extend the status quo, but applied to vessels that were already demonstrating, through their actions, the conversion of crew status through the sponsorship route.

“The actions we saw in Ardglass suggest that three days later this education period was cancelled. This isn’t a way forward to achieve the common aim, that we all have, of ensuring that all the international crews we have fishing in our fleet are fully compliant with all relevant employment and safety legislation.

“It is also really important to note that the lengthy inspection process found zero evidence of any mistreatment of crews. The only issue was that some fishing activity took place within 12 miles, and that in two cases, crew were working on a vessel different from that named on their transit visas.

“In both cases, this was due to a vessel breakdown, and the quite reasonable wish from the crew to continue to be able to fish, and earn catch bonus on top of their salaries, instead of being stuck in port, drawing a salary but unable to do anything other than sit on the boat in harbour.

“We are aware that during Border Force checks elsewhere a strong message was provided that vessels clearly on the path to full compliance with the very recently amended employment rules could continue.

“The phrase we heard was ‘light-touch enforcement’ for those vessels that could clearly demonstrate that they had started the formal process for sponsorship, or other legitimate employment routes, for crews working inside the 12-mile limit.

“I don’t see how these raids can be seen as light touch. And my understanding is that the majority of the crew involved have already left the UK. They were reportedly traumatised not just by the raid itself, but by the threat of appearing in foreign courts, and by the immediate loss of their livelihoods, when many of them are depended upon by large extended families at home.

“In the meantime, we are seeing vessels amending their fishing patterns to follow the letter of the law with respect to transit visas, but there is only so long that the fishing grounds and season will support this type of fishing pattern for the vessels involved.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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