France considers night drones to halt migrant boats

Talks between UK and French ministers follow sharp rise in small boat crossings

Britain's Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sajid Javid, makes a speech outlining an overhaul of UK counter-terror strategy in central London, Britain, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
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France is considering night-time drone flights on its northern coast to tackle organised crime networks running people-smuggling operations to the UK in small boats, Britain’s Home Secretary said on Sunday.

Sajid Javid spoke with French Minister of Interior Christophe Castaner on Friday after 74 migrants on eight boats were intercepted by authorities the previous weekend, sparking demands for action from within his party.

“The suggestion from Minister Castaner to mobilise additional coastal patrols and explore aerial surveillance options is exactly the type of action that will build on the progress we have already made,” Mr Javid said on Sunday.

The UK said 539 people in 2018 tried to cross the waterway between France and UK, which is more than 32 kilometres at its shortest distance.

The number rose sharply at the end of last year after security at other crossing points were strengthened and people smugglers urged migrants had to make their move before Brexit and anticipated tighter controls.

Most of those making the attempt by sea were Iranian. Police  believe it was linked to a visa-free travel offer by Serbia to Iranians which ended in October 2018, with about 12,000 people failing to return to Iran.

The numbers using small boats represent only about 1.5 per cent of clandestine crossings from France to the UK, senior police say, with most seeking to stow away on lorries crossing through the Channel tunnel.

But the topic has been seized on by critics of migration who are pushing for tighter controls at the UK’s borders. Immigration emerged as a key political battleground in the debate over Brexit.

Mr Javid, one of the contenders for the vacant leadership of the UK’s ruling Conservative party, ordered the return of two British naval cutters from overseas assignments in December last year and declared a major incident after a rise in illegal migration attempts by sea.

Britain in January agreed to pay France £6 million (Dh28m) for security cameras and night-vision goggles in January as part of a broader security package between the two countries.

The UK claims to have disrupted 57 organised crime groups involved in people smuggling.