Perimeter fencing may have been breached in the case of the plane stowaways who must somehow have accessed the restricted airside
Stowaway incidents in the last two months in the United Kingdom have dramatised the desperate nature of individual attempts to cross borders. They have also exposed the callous methods of human traffickers.

Sixty-eight foreign nationals were discovered in four lorries at the port of Harwich on the south coast of England in June after the vehicles had disembarked from a Stena Line ferry entering English waters from Holland. None of the group, which included 15 children and two pregnant women, sustained significant injuries, but seven were taken to hospital. They had been allegedly hiding among washing machines, and four Polish truck drivers are under arrest on suspicion of facilitating an attempt at illegal immigration. The incident has parallels with the discovery of 35 Afghan Sikh migrants in a container at the nearby Tilbury Docks in August 2014 and the horrifying memory of 15 years ago when 58 Chinese people died in a lorry at the port of Dover in Kent.

Early detection

So what equipment is available from the physical security industry to deter stowaways and, at worst, to detect them at the earliest point of their attempted journey, be it in cargo vessel containers, in lorries within ferries, inside aircraft and even on the underside of aircraft?

I mention this final bizarre method since, literally as I type, authorities at London Heathrow Airport have found a stowaway within the undercarriage of a plane that has travelled the 8,000 miles from Johannesburg. He has survived the journey (which would have involved temperatures as low as –60 degrees C or –76 degrees F) but is in a critical condition. Another stowaway was found dead on the roof of a building below the Heathrow flight path. Police are refusing to link the incidents as yet but the weight of evidence suggests they are related.   
 
Perimeter fencing may have been breached in the case of the plane stowaways who must somehow have accessed the restricted “airside” area of O.R. Tambo International Airport near Johannesburg. But perimeter protection can be discounted as irrelevant to the Harwich seaport incidents since it appears likely that the drivers accused of abetting the sea-bound migrants allowed them to enter the vehicles, and did so prior to the ship leaving the port.

Low-energy x-ray scanning, typically using a 300kV source, is one of many practical techniques that even allow drivers and passengers to remain in a vehicle while it is inspected. One would hope incidents of the kind at Harwich might see more port operators willing to absorb the major initial capital investment and high running costs in order to demonstrate vigilance.

The International Maritime Organisation has quoted anecdotal evidence that South Africa is seen as an onward departure point for container ships travelling to Europe

Technological advances

As a veteran correspondent in this sector, one thing that encourages me is seeing product developers operating in disparate areas in order to achieve the same goal. I recently spoke to a consultant friend who had completed a job at a high-security jail in New South Wales. He reported how, soon after vacating their truck for an inspection as they left the jail, contractors made an off-colour joke to the effect that they might have an inmate hidden in the vehicle. The prison governor happened to be watching and snapped back that his technology could detect the heartbeat of a mouse inside the truck. This was no exaggeration, and he was describing a system whereby micro sensors and cables detect miniscule movement and vibrations transmitted to the vehicle’s suspension system in a process that is similar to the electrocardiograms that medics use to measure the intensity of cardiac electrical signals.  

A limiting factor to this approach is that it is suited to cars and trucks by virtue of the fact that they are cushioned from the ground by shock absorbers, springs and rubber tyres so preventing the earth (or the sea in the case of a ship) from acting as a vibrational damper. Scrutinising cargo from boats or freight trains is eminently achievable, but the containers must first be removed and placed on a gantry frame device that replicates the cushioning effect of a road vehicle.

Various technological approaches must be used in concert according to environment and the type of threat from stowaways and would-be illegal migrants. In the UK, the Home Office imposes mandatory fines of £2,000 on drivers for each stowaway and may also fine the vehicle’s owner. A plea of ignorance from the driver is not countenanced by authorities who expect general vigilance. A technology that can be used by both truck drivers and marine ports is measurement of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a suspect shipping container or lorry. Probes can be inserted into vehicles without alerting stowaways, and major manufacturers can measure CO2 at levels down to 10,000 parts per million.   

A distressing aspect to the plight of marine stowaways is that they frequently run out of water and food during their attempted journeys

Curbing illegal immigration

A distressing aspect to the plight of marine stowaways is that they frequently run out of water and food during their attempted journeys but must remain concealed in inaccessible hiding places. Currently, the port of Durban is a favourite destination for illegal migrants on journeys from South America, and while recent figures are not available, a staggering 32 stowaways were found in Durban in the months of March and April 2014 alone. The International Maritime Organisation has quoted anecdotal evidence that South Africa is seen as an onward departure point for container ships travelling to Europe.

The United Kingdom remains a favoured destination, with illegal immigrants making final “short haul” journeys from northern France often in cars and small vans as opposed to lorries. The BBC has just reported that in the 12 months up to June 2015, a staggering 100 Britons have been jailed in France for people-smuggling through a single port, Calais. The security sector’s varied technical resources discussed here should easily outstrip the determination and ingenuity of people traffickers.

However, in a time of budgetary austerity throughout the public sector, our industry must continually demonstrate to purchasing managers how evolving products can prevent major incidents such as the deaths at Tilbury, west London and Durban. The most disturbing thought is how many large-scale trafficking incidents (possibly involving risk to life) may be going undetected every day.