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Migrant crossings: UK government funding drones to spot boats leaving French coast

Sajid Javid to discuss new ‘joint action plan’ with French counterpart at London meeting 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 04 January 2019 20:58 GMT
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French government says increased security around ports and Channel Tunnel may have caused rise in boat crossings
French government says increased security around ports and Channel Tunnel may have caused rise in boat crossings (AP)

Britain is paying for drones to patrol the coast of France as part of efforts to prevent migrants attempting to cross the Channel, the French government has said.

Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, revealed that 71 attempted boat crossings were recorded in 2018 compared to just 12 the previous year.

More than 80 per cent of launches came in November and December alone, with the influx declared a “major incident” by the home secretary. French authorities intercepted 31 vessels and 40 reached the UK in 2018.

France’s interior ministry said that Sajid Javid, in a phone call with his French counterpart, reiterated the UK’s commitment to provide “financial support” for drones, radar and video surveillance to prevent “irregular sea departures”.

Mr Castaner said Sunday’s conversation was “very constructive”, adding: “The prospect of Brexit does not alter the need for our two countries to strengthen our bilateral cooperation to implement concrete and coordinated measures to combat irregular immigration.

“Britain’s commitments show the UK’s willingness to continue to share responsibility for securing our common border.”

Mr Castaner said that he and Mr Javid have agreed to strengthen cooperation between British and French authorities on migrant crossings, and will discuss the details of a “joint action plan” at an upcoming meeting in London.

Funding for the drones and other security measures was pledged in January 2018 as part of the Sandhurst Treaty, when the UK pledged a further £44.5m for fencing, CCTV and detection technology in Calais and other French ports.

The French interior ministry said the security improvements may have caused the dramatic increase in attempted boat crossings.

In total, of the 504 migrants seeking to cross the English Channel in 2018, 276 managed to reach British waters and coasts and 228 were intercepted and taken back to France.

Sajid Javid says UK will do 'everything we can' to thwart asylum claims from people crossing Channel

Authorities said the “overwhelming majority” of migrants attempting the journey were Iranian nationals.

The British government has deployed another Royal Navy ship to bolster patrols by the Border Force and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

HMS Mersey, which entered the Channel on Thursday evening, is an interim measure until two cutters arrive from abroad.

Two coastal patrol vessels and two cutters, HMC Vigilant and HMC Searcher, are currently deployed.

The joint action plan with France includes increased coordination between French police and the military, and enhanced patrols and surveillance at ports, beaches and potential launching sites.

The French interior ministry said it was increasing awareness among businesses such as boat rental firms and intensifying efforts to arrest people smugglers and dismantle their networks.

Mr Castaner said: “This plan should allow us to put an end to migrant crossings that are not only illegal but also extremely dangerous. It is in our interest, and that of the UK, to make every effort to stop new networks to develop that could attract irregular migrants to our coast again.”

Mr Javid said British and French authorities were also exchanging information 24/7 through a new coordination centre in Calais.

He added: “I wholeheartedly welcome this action from our French colleagues and it is vital we continue to work together to tackle the situation in the English Channel.

“France’s plan will operate in conjunction with the action that the UK is taking to protect our border and prevent the loss of life.”

Earlier this week the home secretary was condemned for appearing to suggest that officials would hamper asylum claims made by migrants who reach British shores.

Mr Javid suggested those attempting the journey may not be “genuine asylum seekers” and added: “If you do somehow make it to the UK, we will do everything we can to make sure that you are often not successful because we need to break that link, and to break that link means we can save more lives.“

Critics called the remarks “disgusting” and said any attempt to interfere with asylum applications or prejudge the outcome would be unlawful.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) also arrested a 33-year-old Iranian national and a 24-year-old British man in Manchester this week, on suspicion of arranging migrant crossings over the English Channel.

The NCA, which works to combat people smuggling, previously said that while some recent launches involved criminal groups, others were “opportunistic”.

Investigators believe that increased port security and unseasonably calm weather and sea conditions could also be a factor behind the influx – a pattern previously seen with migrant boat launches by people smugglers in Libya.

Despite the high-profile closure of the Jungle in Calais, migrants have remained at informal camps along the northern French coast and smugglers continue to open new routes across Europe from arrival points in Italy, Greece and Spain.

Chris Hogben, head of the NCA-led Invigor organised immigration crime taskforce, said: “Our assessment is that more of these types of attempts to reach the UK are likely.”

Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the Home Affairs Committee, is among MPs calling for the government to make safe and legal ways of seeking asylum available to reduce demand for crossings.

Ms Cooper said that refugees in mainland Europe should be given access to formal family reunion procedures “so refugees don’t end up risking their lives as the only way to rejoin relatives in the UK”.

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