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The UK government is under fire for spending tens of millions of pounds on border surveillance technologies to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel, rather than using those resources to provide safe passage.
The surveillance capabilities available to UK authorities tasked with monitoring the Channel – a stretch of water only 21 miles long – are extensive.
It includes various means of aerial surveillance, such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) and manned aircraft such as planes or helicopters, as well as artificial intelligence (AI)-powered satellite surveillance.
This equipment is supplied to authorities within the UK’s border control ecosystem – including the Home Office, the Border Force, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Joint Maritime Command, among others – by a range of private technology companies.
In the case of using UAVs for maritime surveillance, for example, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has provided the Border Force with Watchkeeper drones from Thales, and records kept by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show that drones supplied by Portuguese firm Tekever have also been patrolling the skies above the Channel.
Many of these technologies are also explicitly advertised as a way of keeping people out of danger in the Channel.
During the 2021 Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) – a prominent arms fair held in London every two years – Tekever UK managing director Paul Webb said: “Every day, dozens of asylum seekers and refugees set off on the dangerous journey across the English Channel to reach British soil, but small boats and treacherous conditions mean many lives are in danger along the way.
“We are proud to be a partner of UK authorities in fighting this kind of illegal human traffic. Drones can identify humans in distress in a much faster way and help rescue teams.”
Martin Fausset, CEO of Israeli defence firm Elbit Systems – which has also supplied its drones to the MCA – said that the technology “enables persistent monitoring of vast swathes of sea and long coastlines with effective advanced search capabilities”.
While exact figures on how much the UK’s border control ecosystem is spending on surveillance tech for the Channel are hard to come by – largely because of the secrecy surrounding their procurement and deployment practices – the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) noted in a 2019 report that the Home Office’s entire Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) spends more than £2bn a year.
In July 2021, the UK signed a £55m deal with France to help it boost aerial surveillance and increase security infrastructure at ports. This builds on the £44.5m for border defences and technology already committed through the 2018 Sandhurst Treaty.
With the Home Office’s procurement pipeline data outlining the department’s commitment to spend a further £220m on border surveillance technologies to increase its monitoring of the Channel by the end of 2022, questions are being asked about whether enough is being done to ensure these technologies are being put to use in the right way.
This is because despite the significant investment put into border surveillance technologies in recent years – including drones, satellites, sensors and radar – the frequency of crossings has only increased, as have deaths.
More than 28,000 migrants crossed the English Channel from France to the UK on inflatable dinghies, kayaks or other small craft in 2021 – a near-threefold increase on the 8,500 who crossed in 2020.
On 24 November 2021, at least 27 people drowned when one of these vessels capsized, in what is believed to have been the deadliest incident since the International Organisation for Migration began collecting data in 2014.
Since data collection started, 166 migrants have been reported dead or missing after trying to reach England from France.
The UK’s international responsibilities
According to Article 98(1) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – which states that national authorities should “proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance” – nations have a duty to provide assistance to people in distress.
Article 98(2) of the convention also puts a specific obligation on coastal states to establish, operate, maintain and promote effective search-and-rescue services. A state is considered to be in violation of the convention if the inadequacy or inefficiency of its search-and-rescue services contribute to a loss of life at sea.
The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue also states that a rescue operation can only be effectively considered concluded when everyone is disembarked at a place of safety.
The duty under this convention is one without qualification. Any person in distress “regardless of their nationality or status, or the circumstances in which they are found” should be rescued.
Although home secretary Priti Patel has claimed that “economic migrants masquerading as asylum seekers are elbowing women and children who need help and support out of the way”, the most recent data available shows that 98% of those who travelled across the Channel in small boats claimed asylum.
In a statement on its humanitarian work, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – a 24/7 lifeboat service that operates as a declared asset of HM Coastguard – said: “When our lifeboats launch, we operate under International Maritime Law, which states we are permitted, and indeed obligated, to enter all waters regardless of territories for search-and-rescue purposes.
“And when it comes to rescuing those people attempting to cross the Channel, we do not question why they got into trouble, who they are or where they come from. All we need to know is that they need our help.”
Crossing borders, whether done “legally” or not, is also never a crime, according to Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention.
Following the incident last November, home secretary Priti Patel, addressing the House of Commons, blamed “vile people-smuggling gangs” for the loss of life, and reiterated her commitment to creating “safe and legal routes”.
Patel also agreed with North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker on the need for “the toughest possible measures and surveillance to crack down on the criminality of those gangs”.
The UK government has previously, and repeatedly, committed to making Channel crossings on small boats “unviable”, which it has done in part by making a range of surveillance capabilities available to border authorities.
Lawyers, human rights groups and migrant support organisations argue that while these technologies do have the capacity to protect people’s lives if used differently, they are currently deployed with the clear intention of deterring migrants from crossing – or helping to punish those that do.
“We know the state has the ability to prevent people drowning in the sea – tech is a lens through which to understand power in society, and nowhere is that more clear that in immigration and border enforcement,” says Petra Molnar, associate director of the Refugee Law Lab, a research and advocacy group that looks at the impact of new technologies on refugees.
“It’s not about not knowing what’s happening, it’s making deliberate choices to [use tech to] sharpen borders and make it more difficult for people to come.”
Molnar and others say the government should take the substantial resources it has poured into deploying various border technologies and instead use it to provide safe and legal routes into the UK.
As it stands, the current immigration rules provide no safe or legal routes for someone to come to the UK for the purpose of claiming asylum. While people are able to claim asylum from within the UK, the Home Office is explicit that it will not consider claims made from abroad.
Responding to questions from Computer Weekly, the Home Office says it does not comment on security arrangements for operational reasons.
“We are determined to break the business model of dangerous criminal people smugglers and prevent further loss of life in the Channel,” it adds. “It is right that we pursue all options to prevent illegal crossings and protect life at sea. The government’s New Plan for Immigration – the most comprehensive reform in decades – will fix the broken asylum system, making it firm but fair.”
In response to the UK government’s plans to overhaul the asylum system, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says the reforms “would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices”.
Apart from drones, which are often equipped with a wide range of other technologies, such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and automatic identification system (AIS) receivers, UK authorities also have access to an array of other capabilities.
This includes the use of various surveillance satellites, such as those supplied by Airbus or Horizon Technologies, which can be supplemented with AI-powered algorithms to further help detect and identify vessels.
Technologies in use to surveil the English Channel
According to a report in the UK Defence Journal, the specific payloads the Tekever drones used to surveil the Channel – which includes synthetic aperture radar (SAR), day and night cameras, and automatic identification system (AIS) receivers – allow the company to provide UK border authorities with “real-time and highly accurate intelligence”.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has separately given nearly £1m to Israeli defence company Elbit Systems under a “demonstration and development contract” to “augment current and future aerial surveillance capability” using its drones, including the Hermes 900, which, according to Elbit CEO Martin Fausset, “enables persistent monitoring of vast swathes of sea and long coastlines with effective advanced search capabilities”.
This particular drone model has been used by the European Union in the Mediterranean, and by the Israeli state for monitoring people in Gaza. Although the contract ended on 31 March 2021, it is unclear whether these drones are currently being deployed operationally over the Channel.
In terms of satellite surveillance, iNews has reported that the UK government signed a deal with Horizon Technologies to use data from the company’s IOD-3 Amber “cube sat” satellites, which are highly compact, intelligence-gathering tools designed to seek out faint signals emitted by the navigation radars and radio wave communications of ships operating clandestinely.
According to the report, the data gathered about the UK’s coastal waters from orbit will be beamed directly to the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC), a multi-agency body comprising organisations from the Royal Navy to the National Crime Agency and Scotland Yard’s SO15 counter-terrorism branch.
It said the data will be specifically used to monitor, and counter, migrant crossings in the Channel.
In June 2021, it was announced that Airbus had been granted a 12-month contract extension by the Royal Navy for the continuation of its satellite-based maritime surveillance services, which will be supplied directly to the government’s Joint Maritime Security Centre (JMSC), which incorporates the NMIC.
“Using optical and radar imaging as well as AIS data, Airbus will provide reports about vessels within the UK Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as information that will help in the prevention of potential illegal activities,” said an Airbus press release.
Airbus also provides a “defence site monitoring service” using AI-powered algorithms, which are applied to optical imagery, for detecting, recognising and identifying vessels. This service will detail port activity and raise alerts in the event of an abnormal activity.
Other surveillance efforts include use of the UK Border Agency’s boats, known as cutters, for patrols, and flyovers by helicopters or planes.
In August 2020, the MoD announced that it had deployed a Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime plane to spot migrant vessels. “The aircraft will track vessels and pass information to the Border Force, who will then take any appropriate further action,” it said.
In the same month, a Royal Air Force A400M Atlas surveillance aircraft was also deployed over the Channel.
In the wake of the 24 November 2021 incident, Frontex, the EU’s border and coastguard agency, also began deploying its own surveillance aircraft above the Channel, describing it in a press release as a “response to the increased migratory pressure in the area”.
The release added that the aircraft was “equipped with modern sensors and radars” and that “the aim of the operation on the coastline is to prevent the rising number of sea crossings”.
The data from these satellites is shared widely within the UK’s border control ecosystem, including with multi-agency bodies such as the JMSC and the NMIC, which also encompass organisations like the Royal Navy, National Crime Agency and Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism branch.
Again, these technologies and the data they produce are often advertised as a way of monitoring, and countering, migrant crossings in the Channel.
Other surveillance efforts include use of the UK Border Agency’s boats for patrols, and flyovers with helicopters or planes.
This is not to mention the various surveillance technologies deployed in ports on both sides of the Channel, as well as the technologies deployed separately by France and Frontex, the European Union’s border and coastguard agency.
While there are limits to the use of these technologies and techniques – for example, due to weather conditions, poor image resolution or the high cost of operation – the UK government is set to ramp up maritime surveillance of the Channel even further over the coming year.
Technologically enabled deterrence
Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, told the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on 2 February 2022: “The overarching intent of government strategy is deterrence – we want to deter people from making what is a dangerous journey, in order to save lives. That is a shared humanitarian responsibility [with France].”
Home secretary Patel, during the same session, confirmed that although 28,000 migrants had crossed the Channel in 2021, a further 23,000 were prevented. “In terms of prevention, there is a lot of activity taking place,” she said.
Asked what safe routes currently exist for people attempting to cross the Channel, Patel could not give a clear answer, but said: “We should be very clear about this, that the majority of people are not fleeing persecution. They are asylum shopping.”
However, a Court of Appeals judgment from December 2021 – which Patel and Rycroft confirmed they were aware of – specifically ruled that “an asylum seeker who merely attempts to arrive at the frontiers of the UK in order to make a claim is not entering or attempting to enter the country unlawfully”.
It should also be noted that, despite this judgment, the government is currently drawing up plans to detain every single male migrant who crosses the Channel in a small boat.
The focus on deterrence is not new. In a video posted by the Home Office Twitter account in September 2020, it was made clear that drones are being used to gather footage in support of prosecutions, with clandestine channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney saying that the surveillance footage “has been absolutely critical in securing convictions”.
O’Mahoney added: “The message I want to deliver today is that every single one of these small boats has to be driven by somebody, and if that person is you, you can expect to be arrested on your arrival in the UK and locked up in prison for a sizeable jail term.”
The video itself shows footage of drones taxiing the runway at Lydd airport, with accompanying text saying: “We have more surveillance of the Channel than ever before. It’s helping to protect lives and bring people smugglers to justice as we continue our work to make the small boats route unviable.”
Maddie Harris, founder of the Humans for Rights Network (HFRN), an organisation that helps migrants to document human rights violations committed against them – tells Computer Weekly that, in her experience, the use of technology in the Channel is about “trying to connect people to some form of criminal activity, when in fact these are just individuals who are making a dangerous journey”.
She adds the primary motivation for British authorities is deterrence, and that criminalisation attempts are part of a wider effort to extend the hostile environment.
“We’ve met people who they have attempted to criminalise [for smuggling on the basis that they were driving the boat],” says Harris. “One particular individual, for example, said ‘I was a fisherman in my country, I was the only person on the boat who had any experience being at sea, of course I was going to try and save my life and the lives of everybody else on that boat’. An image of somebody steering a boat does not confirm that person is aiding ‘illegal immigration’.”
She adds that although authorities may suggest they do not have the capacity to rescue and/or intercept every person or every vessel attempting to make the crossing, there is nothing happening to increase search-and-rescue capacity.
“They are allowing these situations to happen, they are allowing people to die because the focus is on a deterrent as opposed to it being on the appropriate use of resources and technology to save people’s lives,” says Harris.
“Not to mention the lack of legal routes, which is what is leading people to make these journeys in the first place. There’s as much money as they want to militarise and secure the border, but there’s no money to treat people with dignity and respect in terms of how they’re accommodated, or to facilitate safe and legal passage to the UK.”
The Home Office was unable to answer questions on search-and-rescue capacity in the Channel, instead directing Computer Weekly to the MCA.
Lack of awareness
Computer Weekly pressed the Home Office on its lack of awareness about measures being taken to increase search and rescue capacity, but received no further correspondence.
In response to Computer Weekly’s questions about what measures are being taken to increase search-and-rescue capacity in the Channel, the MCA said: “The MCA is always looking at ways to support and strengthen the search-and-rescue capability and capacity of its search and rescue arm, HM Coastguard, through ongoing investment into the provision of lifesaving resources and new technology.
“These resources include helicopters, state-of-the-art radio networks and advanced computer systems.”
Asked what barriers remain to staging successful search-and-rescue operations in the Channel, the MCA said it “has sufficient search-and-rescue assets to provide effective search-and-rescue operations in the UK search-and-rescue region”.
It added: “There are numerous factors which can affect the success of a search-and-rescue operation – many of which are outside the direct control of HM Coastguard – such as weather conditions, survivability time, the ability of those in distress to raise the alarm and effectively communicate and indicate their position, and the carriage of suitable lifesaving equipment and training.”
The increasing use of technology both in the Channel and at border entry points is also, according to those Computer Weekly spoke with, pushing people into more and more dangerous situations.
Minnie Rahman, campaigns director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), says that rather than introduce processes such as asylum visas that would allow people seeking refuge to travel safely like everyone else, the UK government has instead shut down the few safe routes that existed in favour of doubling down on border security.
“This security has done nothing to prevent risky crossings or save lives – sadly, we’ve only seen the routes people take to get here become more and more dangerous,” says Rahman. “Just two months ago, despite increased border surveillance, we saw the deadliest Channel tragedy on record, with at least 27 people losing their lives after trying, but failing, to get help from British or French authorities.
“Our government knows that its border technology does not protect people. Just two years ago, its own assessment [by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which Patel was part of at the time] concluded that policies ‘focused exclusively on closing borders, driving migrants to take more dangerous routes’.”
This assessment also says: “The UK should address the wider, interlinked factors driving irregular migration – including climate change, conflict, repressive governance and corruption – rather than focusing narrowly on reducing the numbers reaching Europe’s borders in the short term.”
Rahman says the current ramping-up of technology and security at the border is being used as an opportunity to deflect attention away from the government’s own failings and court headlines about being “tough on migration”. “If the government truly cared about people’s safety, they would start introducing safe routes for people forced to move, instead of wasting money on pointless and dangerous border technology,” she adds.
Pushing people into more dangerous routes using technology: the US and the EU
Giving the example of crossings at the US-Mexico border, Petra Molnar, associate director of the Refugee Law Lab, says that since the roll-out of surveillance towers equipped with infrared cameras, powerful radar and AI, migrant deaths have nearly tripled because of how it has pushed them into taking more dangerous routes.
In his book Violent borders: refugees and the right to move, Reece Jones, professor of geography at the University of Hawaii , argues that the EU similarly uses technology to support a “deterrence policy” against migrants.
“The European Union is investing in information-sharing systems that integrate the satellites, sensors and personnel of the member states,” he writes. “These include Eurosur, an information-sharing platform for border enforcement in the Mediterranean, and Sistema de Vigilancia Exterior, a Spanish programme to coordinate surveillance data.
“These operations and data-gathering practices suggest that the EU monitors the sea very carefully for vessels and is aware of most migrant boats travelling from the coast of Africa. However, because officials do not want to encourage additional migration by rescuing people outside of the territorial waters of EU states, they often do not intervene until the boats reach shore or are very clearly in distress.”
Jones also notes that globally, more than half of the deaths at borders in the past decade have occurred at the edges of the EU, making it “by far the most dangerous border crossing in the world”.
In the context of the English Channel, both UK and French authorities have deployed a wide range of technologies that make safer routes via ports much harder to complete. These include X-ray monitors, motion sensors, carbon dioxide detectors (to detect people’s breath), and heart-rate monitors.
“There is this misguided idea that if we make the border sharper and harder – put up more walls, put up more drones – then people are just going to stop coming, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Molnar. “People are in desperate situations and, if anything, they are going to take more dangerous routes.”
Given the extensive surveillance capabilities available to authorities monitoring the Channel, Molnar adds that while they may not be aware of every crossing, border authorities are absolutely aware of the wider situation in the Channel, and continue choosing to deploy technology in a certain way.
“The idea is to make it as difficult as possible for people to cross, and also then to act as a deterrent for others not to come,” she says, adding that many people still wrongly assume that tech is somehow neutral.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Tech is extremely political and it actually replicates the power differentials in our world. We know that the state has the ability to prevent people drowning in the sea, and yet they choose to not use this tech for these purposes.”
Asked whether it was prioritising deterrence over saving people’s lives, the Home Office said it does not comment on security arrangements for operational reasons.
Logics of exclusion
According to Molnar, the decision-making behind how technology is deployed in the English Channel is underpinned by “logics of exclusion”, which have historically derived from the global power differentials created by “capitalism, colonialism and imperialism”.
She adds: “None of this is new – we’re always talking about a power differential between a really powerful entity like a state using surveillance and technology on communities that have historically been made marginalised, and re-marginalised.
“It’s just now states have different tools to try and enforce a harder, sharper border regime against people who have an internationally protected right to seek asylum.”
Molnar says the proliferation of these migration management technologies has facilitated a turn towards “techno-solutionism”, which is the idea that technology can be deployed to solve a range of complex social and political issues, which from the perspective of the UK state includes controlling its borders.
Expanding on this point, Antonella Napolitano, senior policy officer and network coordinator at Privacy International, says: “The moment you start framing people as a problem, you’re dehumaninsing them.” She says this is exacerbated by the turn to techno-solutionism and the reduction of human beings to pixels on the screen of a drone or satellite operator.
“The problem is not the people, the problem is the causes of migration, so if you’re looking at the actual problems, technology is not the solution,” says Napolitano.
It should be noted that while politicians will often attempt to divide migrants into different, one-dimensional categories – such as “climate refugees”, “economic migrants” or asylum seekers – the reality is more complex.
For example, according to a House of Lords testimony from Caroline Zickgraf, deputy director of the Hugo Observatory, “migration is always multi-causal – it is always a combination of social, political, economic, environmental and demographic factors”.
The techno-solutionism of modern states, in combination with the logics of exclusion they adhere to, therefore means technology is ultimately being deployed as a deterrent against migrant crossings, rather than as a means of protecting them or of solving the complex range of problems that force people to migrate in the first place.
All the people Computer Weekly spoke to stressed the need for safe routes into the UK to be established as quickly as possible.
Secrecy in public-private partnerships
For Eliot Bendinelli, a technologist at Privacy International, while many of the technologies being used are advertised as being great for rescue missions and having real-time information-sharing capabilities, UK authorities are simply not using them for these purposes.
“In theory, that could be used to save people, but in practice that’s not what we’re seeing at all,” he says. “Is that because they haven’t equipped this drone with the necessary technology? Is it because actually the time and resources required to run this drone are much higher than expected and it’s not flying as often as it should? Or is it because that’s not how they want to use these drones?”
Bendinelli, who also describes the use of tech in the Channel as a “political choice”, says it can be difficult to hold UK authorities accountable because of the lack of transparency around exactly what technologies are being used and when.
He says the public information put out by the government often boasts about its tech investments and procurement, and how these capabilities will enable it to detect any potential Channel crossings, but upon closer inspection “there is a lack of information” about the extent and success of the surveillance.
He says this could mean two things: “Either they’re stamping secret national security labels on it so nobody knows how it works, claiming it is because otherwise, people are going to find ways to circumvent it, but it could also just be that it’s not as effective as they’re trying to make it and the secrecy around it is a useful blanket to avoid criticism.”
Bendinelli adds: “I think the lack of transparency prevents us from getting answers to these questions.”
A February 2021 report from Privacy International, The UK’s privatised migration surveillance regime, shows that private technology firms involved in developing and maintaining a range of digital surveillance tools for UK immigration authorities are rarely scrutinised or held accountable for their involvement in the border regime.
The report, which is based entirely on open source information, notes that “many of the key actors involved are resistant to transparency”, and that the general secrecy surrounding the Home Office’s technology ecosystem means that the companies involved “enjoy minimal scrutiny and are seldom held accountable”.
Speaking at a launch event for the report, Privacy International advocacy director Edin Omanovic said technology firms and contractors use this “guard of secrecy” to hide “what the actual problems are, how they sold their systems, what kind of meetings they had in the background, so we can’t, as a democratic populace, assess what went wrong”.
Read more about technology and immigration
- Priti Patel is challenged over the various issues relating to new border checks affecting UK residents travelling to the European Union, in aspects such as facial recognition and algorithmic profiling.
- Already-vulnerable migrants are being used as “testing grounds” for a host of migration “management” and surveillance technologies, but rather than promoting fairness and dignity, these tools are often used to trample on human rights, claims a research paper.
- The UK Court of Appeal has ruled that the government’s “immigration exemption” in the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 18) is unlawful, overturning a High Court decision from 2019.
According to Privacy International’s Antonella Napolitano, pushing for transparency becomes even harder from “the moment you involve private actors, even in terms of Freedom of Information and other things you can do for accountability, it’s much more difficult to get that information when a private actor is involved”.
She adds, in line with Bendinelli’s comments, that while the government will speak publicly about pouring money into new technologies or border monitoring partnerships with France, “we don’t know about the practicality of it and how they actually use it – all you hear is about the money and about the ‘fantastic’ new tech”.
She further adds: “Despite all these resources, we are seeing more emphasis on how they are used to surveil and potentially prosecute people crossing the Channel, rather than to save lives.”
For Molnar, the prominence of public-private partnerships in the UK’s border regime are significant because of the state’s reliance on “problematic actors” that are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. “The fact is, a state or public administration of any sort often requires a private partner to be able to roll out the drones, the AI, whatever technology you’re talking about,” she says.
“And yet there is a very different legal regime of responsibility that accrues when you’re talking about a public entity versus a private entity, and then it really creates this obfuscatory grey area of responsibility.”
Molnar adds that because of the impetus by the state to use technology to strengthen its borders, private actors are able to pitch problematic technologies as a solution, with very little public scrutiny.
“It creates this kind of feedback loop where, at the end of the day, it’s about the bottom line of private sector companies, and not about the human rights of people who are crossing borders in the first place.”