Money alone can’t solve the Channel migrants crisis – co-operation and technology might

·5-min read
The number of migrants reaching the UK this year has passed last year's record total of 8,417 -  Gareth Fuller/PA
The number of migrants reaching the UK this year has passed last year's record total of 8,417 - Gareth Fuller/PA

The zoom call that Priti Patel took on Tuesday evening added another £54 million to the £142 million that Britain has already handed to France to combat illegal migration across the Channel in the past six years.

The Home Secretary agreed with her French counterpart, Gerald Darmanin, to hand over the extra cash as the number of migrants reaching the UK this year passed last year's total of 8,417 to turn 2021 into another record year.

The cash will pay for a doubling in the number of French police officers on the beaches to 200 a day, increased surveillance by drones, CCTV and other technology across a wider area of French coast, as well as extra intelligence-gathering.

It comes on top of a similar cash injection of £28 million just nine months ago in October 2020 – again for a doubling in the number of gendarmes on the beaches and increased surveillance of the coast.

Yet even before that, between 2015 and June 2020, Britain handed the French a total of £114 million, the biggest tranche of which was agreed by Theresa May, then the Home Secretary, in 2018, with £44.5 million for an Anglo-French intelligence centre to target illegal migration and the traffickers.

Part of that money was also spent on fencing, CCTV and detection technology in Calais and other Channel ports as well as reception centres for migrants to try to persuade them to seek asylum in France or other EU countries.

There have been some successes. The number of migrants being caught by France before they enter the sea has trebled on last year's figures to more than 7,500 this year, with nearly 50 per cent of those trying to leave France now being stopped. Some 300 smugglers have been arrested as a result of better intelligence and police co-operation.

However, the number of migrants being halted at sea by France has actually fallen, according to MPs, while the number reaching the UK has more than doubled this year compared with the same period in 2020. Monday alone saw a record daily total of 430 migrants arriving in the UK.

Migrant men arrive at Dover Port after being picked up in the English Channel by Border Force this week -  Dan Kitwood/ Getty Images Europe
Migrant men arrive at Dover Port after being picked up in the English Channel by Border Force this week - Dan Kitwood/ Getty Images Europe

Since Mrs May signed the Sandhurst agreement for closer Anglo-French co-operation on intelligence and border operations, the small boat migrants have spiralled out of control, rising from just 299 in 2018 to 1,835 in 2019 and more than 8,500 so far this year.

There is also evidence of a new surge in migrants from Belgium into France, who appear to have been drawn to the French coast as an "easier" embarkation point from which to reach Britain and claim asylum.

Ms Patel told MPs on Thursday that 60 per cent of the illegal migrants entering France were now coming from Belgium. The migrant trafficking gangs are also expanding their departure points to a wider range of beaches across hundreds of miles of the north French coast.

So why is the policy ostensibly failing to stem the surge in migrants crossing the Channel?

Pierre-Henri Dumont, the Calais MP, claimed it was the geography, saying: "Having more money, having more police, having more controls will not prevent more crossing attempts. We have too many kilometers of shore to monitor. They can hide in a lot of places, there are a lot of roads, woods and trees.

"So even if you are monitoring 100 per cent of a small or large part of the French coast the smugglers will find somewhere to cross somewhere else. If it's not Calais they will go to Normandy, if not Normandy then Belgium or the Netherlands."

That is not, however, the entire story. The French have consistently spurned British drone surveillance technology that could have a dramatic impact on spotting migrants and smugglers. It has been used in the UK to successfully identify and prosecute traffickers.

One such piece of kit is the Tekever AR5 fixed wing drone which can cruise at 60 mph at heights of hundreds of metres with cameras and radar, and is understood to have played a key role in helping track and arrest a Channel migrant trafficking gang.

It has been deployed by the coastguard alongside the Ministry of Defence's Watchkeeper drone, which can reach 16,000ft, with a range of 100 miles, and was used by the Army in Afghanistan. But the French have been reluctant to deploy them in their airspace despite the size of the area they have to patrol.

"There has been a reluctance to accept technology from us. They didn’t want any of our surveillance capability. We have been trying to get them to accept a better surveillance capability," said Tony Smith, a former director general of Border Force.

Most significant, however, has been the French reluctance to stop migrants at sea in the Channel, apprehend them and return them to France, or to accept back migrants, whether picked up at sea by Border Force vessels in UK waters or those who have passed through France and should have claimed asylum before reaching the UK. France has yet to agree a returns deal seven months after Brexit.

These are strategies the UK Government believes are critical to halting the cross-Channel trafficking trade in its tracks as the migrants will know they will be returned to France and have no chance of reaching the UK.

"The French are more than happy to take money to invest in border security in their own territory but taking action in the actual Channel seems to be a step too far for them," said Mr Smith. "Politically, stopping people in the Channel and returning them to France might be a hard issue for them to sell to the French public."

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