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New Border Force unit to deploy more surveillance tech in Channel

Newly established Small Boats Operational Command (SBOC) will deploy a range of surveillance technologies in the English Channel in an attempt to deter crossings

A new Border Force unit set up to curb English Channel crossings will deploy a range of “new technologies” alongside 730 additional staff to bolster its existing surveillance capabilities, as the Home Office takes back Channel policing duties from the military.

The Home Office, which Border Force is a part of, said the introduction of the unit would consolidate the government’s Channel response under a single integrated structure, and that the additional staff and new technologies would help “deliver a more coordinated response in the Channel”.

The Home Office added this “bolstered response to curb migrant crossings” would begin immediately, building on the work of the UK armed forces, which took charge of Channel operations in early 2022 to counter small boat crossings.

Announced by prime minister Rishi Sunak in December 2022, the Small Boats Operational Command (SBOC) will introduce “air and maritime capabilities including new drones, boats, land-based radar and cameras”.

The Home Office added: “This will aid our ability to track vessels on the water, identify pilots and help to bring those responsible to justice.”

According to a contract published by the Home Office on 1 February 2023, flagged to Computer Weekly by procurement data firm Tussell, a £3.9m IT services contract has been also awarded to Deloitte for “Small Boats Operational Command continuous improvement”.

The order form notes the contract is for the provision of “transition and transformation leadership services” to SBOC, while the description mentions the work will include “continuous improvement solutions across three core workstreams”.

Computer Weekly contacted both Deloitte and the Home Office for information about what these three workstreams entail, and the kinds of technologies the partnership would be focusing on.

While Deloitte declined to comment, the Home Office did not respond by time of publication.

Petra Molnar, assistant director of the Refugee Law Lab and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, said the deployment of more border surveillance technologies would not stop people from crossing the Channel: “Instead, people will be forced to take increasingly dangerous routes, leading to loss of life. We have seen similar surveillance-induced violence in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, as well as the US-Mexico border.

“Instead of investing in costly technologies, governments could be using this money to strengthen access to justice, services and psycho-social support for people who are exercising their internationally protected right to migrate and claim asylum, as protected by UK and EU legislation and international law.”

Existing surveillance capabilities

The surveillance capabilities already available to the UK’s border control ecosystem – including the Home Office, Border Force, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Joint Maritime Command, among others – to monitor 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 radar, sensors and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered satellites.

Computer Weekly asked the Home Office about the impact the technologies being deployed by SBOC were expected to have on migrants’ human rights, including whether their use would force people into taking increasingly dangerous routes, but received no response by the time of publication.

In March 2022, the UK government came under fire from lawyers, human rights groups and migrant support organisations – including Molnar – for spending tens of millions of pounds on these border surveillance technologies, who told Computer Weekly they were being used to deter and help punish migrants crossing the English Channel.

Instead, they argued those same resources should be used to provide safe, legal routes into the UK, which currently do not exist despite government claims to the contrary.

Those Computer Weekly spoke with further noted that, despite the significant investment put into border surveillance technologies in recent years, the frequency of crossings has only increased, as have deaths.

In 2021, for example, more than 28,000 migrants crossed the English Channel from France to the UK on inflatable dinghies, kayaks or other small craft – a near-threefold increase on the 8,500 who crossed in 2020. In 2022, a total of 45,756 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK.

A government spokesperson said SBOC and the return of Channel primacy to the Home Office “is a significant landmark in our long-term plan to ensure the safety and sovereignty of our borders and our communities… our determination will not waiver until we stop the abuse of the asylum system and bring the smugglers responsible to justice”.

They added the number of people illegally entering the UK reached “an unsustainable and unacceptable” level in 2022.

A Court of Appeals judgment from December 2021, however, 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”.

The Nationality and Borders Act, which became law in April 2022, has since made it illegal for people to knowingly enter the UK without a visa or special permission, but asylum seekers are still unable to apply for protection outside of the UK, meaning that they can only lodge an asylum application after arriving.

The United Nations Refugee Agency said the act undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention and “will risk the lives and well-being of vulnerable people”.

In January 2023, the UK government proposed amending its upcoming Online Safety Bill to incorporate existing immigration offences into its list of priority offences – those which represent the most serious and prevalent illegal content or activity online, and which tech firms will be obliged to proactively prevent people from being exposed to – meaning technology companies could be forced to remove videos of people crossing the English Channel “which show that activity in a positive light”.

In proactively dealing with priority offences, firms must design features, functionalities and algorithms that prevent users from encountering them in the first place, and work to minimise the length of time the content is available on their services.

Then-digital minister Michelle Donelan – who is now in charge of the government’s newly established Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) – added “the result of this amendment would therefore be that platforms would have to proactively remove that content” related to English Channel crossings.

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