Watchful eyes in front line of global crime

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Weapons disguised as ornaments, drugs inside toolkits, cigarettes concealed in specially-adapted waistcoats and even fighting birds hidden inside a suitcase.

They are all items that were seized from passengers at Leeds Bradford Airport last year and it’s an eclectic list that lends weight to Kevin Parsons’ assertion that smugglers are going to ever-more imaginative lengths to sneak illicit goods into the UK.

Border forces seize cigarettes, fake firearms and compact discs at Leeds Bradford Airport

Border forces seize cigarettes, fake firearms and compact discs at Leeds Bradford Airport

Mr Parsons is the interim assistant director for Border Force in Yorkshire – the organisation responsible for securing the UK border by carrying out immigration and customs controls for people and goods entering the country.

“I’ve been in this work long enough that little surprises me,” he says. “The smuggler can be very ingenious in the way that they conceal different types of goods.” 

Our exclusive pictures – taken this week – show that imitation weapons, counterfeit DVDs and large quantities of non-duty paid tobacco are among the day-to-day goods seized and stored in the airport’s lock-ups.

Border Force does not release statistics on confiscations at the country’s ports – officials believe that could assist those seeking to circumvent the law. But as one the 20 busiest airports in the country and one of the fastest growing, Leeds Bradford faces inevitable challenges. In May last year it celebrated reaching the milestone of processing three million passengers in a year for the first time.

“Leeds Bradford is a growing regional airport with links to Asia and to a lot of the international airports on the continent, so the risks are quite high both in terms of importation of goods and people smuggling. We have to be vigilant,” says Mr Parsons

Formed in March 2012, Border Force carries out law enforcement for the Home Office. Its officers check the immigration status of people arriving in and departing the UK, search baggage, gather intelligence and alert the police and security services to people of interest.

The seasoned border officials aren’t easily shocked here but even they were left stunned when passengers on two separate flights from Islamabad in Pakistan attempted to bring fighting birds into the UK smuggled inside suitcases.

A total of nine grey francolin birds were seized in two separate incidents in May last year. Two people from Bradford were ultimately convicted of bringing birds into the country illegally, without an appropriate licence.

Sam Bullimore, who was Border Force assistant director at the airport, said at the time: “These were astonishing smuggling attempts, of a kind we have not seen before at Leeds Bradford. “Our officers are trained to expect the unexpected, but were surprised when they realised just what the passengers were smuggling.”

In another case in September more than 10,000 cigarettes were seized by Border Force officers from a passenger who had arrived at Leeds Bradford from China. The tobacco was destroyed.

A more worrying incident, in November, proved that even those employed in an official capacity are not immune from suspicion. Flight attendant Syed Shah, 31, was arrested with 2kgs of heroin hidden in his cabin bag and flight case when officers searched them shortly after he got off a Pakistan International Airlines flight.

Shah pleaded guilty to importing class A drugs and was jailed for five years last month.

That came four months after 37-year-old Paul Storey, from Stockton-on-Tees, was jailed for three-and-a-half years after he was arrested smuggling a stun gun disguised as a torch through the airport. He also admitted having two knuckledusters.

Not all seizures are welcomed, however. In August 2012, dad Richard Chew was left fuming when staff confiscated his stepson Will’s tennis rackets as they travelled to Majorca because of concerns they could be used as weapons.

A keen eye and a sense for the unusual are key attributes for those working on the frontline of our borders. “We’ve had some unusual seizures at Leeds Bradford,” Mr Parsons admits. 

“Drugs in screwdriver accessories, stun devices disguised as a torch and we frequently get cigarettes and tobacco concealed in clothing – inside specially adapted waistcoats, food bags, tea packaging; knives and knuckledusters disguised as ornaments. There really is a wide range of unusual concealments.

“Any products produced from endangered species are also liable for seizure and we’ve had medicines like bear bile and substances made from rare orchids that have been seized. We had abuse of a pet passport scheme with a cat quarantined at the owner’s expense.”

As the world shrinks and more people have access to international travel, the importance of collaboration with agencies from other countries grows.

Mr Parsons says much of the work carried out by Border Force was informed by intelligence. “We rely on what we know about the traffic coming to Leeds Bradford, where it’s from, how we see the risk from particular airports and the knowledge of the officers themselves and their dealings with people on the flights every day. 

“There’s a broad spectrum of reasons [why someone might fall under suspicion], from hard intelligence, from tip-offs, down to an officers understanding of what looks a bit different.”

Particular scrutiny may be given to passengers on flights from certain airports because of the known risks. So those arriving from eastern Europe may come under the spotlight because of the ready availability of controlled weapons in those countries. “There are certain places that are more of a risk,” he said. “In Eastern Europe, for example, there are certain places where you can buy offensive weapons on the street that aren’t acceptable in the UK. Those flights might present more of a threat.

“The number of offensive weapons being seized has grown in recent years and we have to be very careful about the importation of knives, but in general terms the smuggling of cigarettes, tobacco and drugs remains as high as it has in the past and we have to remain vigilant.”

Changes to the way Border Force operates means that most officials are now trained in both customs and immigration duties. Mr Parsons says their work has become more demanding – and called on the public for patience. “It’s very challenging for the officers at the frontline, who are expected to do a variety of work in a situation where passengers don’t want to be delayed at the border while we have to ensure the security.

“Our officers are expected to exercise an awful lot of care, for example in looking for imposters when they’re checking passports. There has been an enormous amount of changes and the staff have had to adapt to that and they are providing a real service.”