CRIMINAL fugitives from other European countries may be able to hide in Scotland after Brexit, officials have warned.

A Scottish Government paper insists police and prosecutors face “complex and far-reaching” challenges in tackling cross-border crime after the UK leaves the EU.

It calls for existing links to be maintained in order to combat criminals – including protecting access to Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.

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Justice Secretary Michael Matheson insisted “international crime has never respected borders”.

He said: “Over the years Scotland’s police and prosecution services have built strong links with their EU counterparts to help keep people safe.

“Withdrawal from the current regime of co-operation, including for example the European Arrest Warrant system, could mean returning to a more fragmented system of seeking assistance across borders.

“We risk being left behind as our European counterparts develop more effective tools to deal with present and future threats.”

The new report warns that losing membership of Europol without another agreement in place would see information provided by Police Scotland wiped from its databases – potentially prejudicing ongoing investigations.

It adds: “Also, Police Scotland will no longer have access to data held by Europol.

“In practice this could mean that fugitives from other European countries may not be identified as such and steps taken to remove them from Scotland.

“Similarly, it would make it more difficult and time consuming to apprehend Scottish criminals who flee overseas.”

Europol is involved in more than 18,000 investigations every year, while Police Scotland has submitted 30 requests through the agency for cross-border surveillance.

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The Scottish Government paper, the latest in a series outlining ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, also warns the impact of Brexit may mean “the loss of access to EU-wide criminal records of UK citizens and the inability to implement public protection provisions”.

It emphasises the need for Scotland’s separate legal and judicial system to be taken into account during the negotiation process, to ensure cross-border crime can continue to be tackled.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, Scotland’s top prosecutor, said: “It will be important, in the negotiations between the UK and the EU, that effective arrangements are agreed which maintain our collective capability for tackling crime and keeping our citizens safe.”