#Surveillance drones’ sole purpose appears to be to help the state prosecute those seen driving the boats
THE UK government paid up to £1 billion (€1.1bn) to a drone manufacturing company last year to monitor migrant crossings of the English Channel despite the fact that no-one made it past the coastguards, The Civil Fleet can reveal.
HM Coastguard told The Civil Fleet in response to a freedom of information (FOI) request that a total of 8,319 people attempted to cross the Channel in 2020.
With the Channel being one of the busiest and most closely watched shipping lanes in the world, nobody evaded the coastguards, went missing or drowned in English waters last year, service figures show — though four people did die and a 15-month-old boy went missing in French jurisdiction last October.
Despite the increase from 1,844 people in 2019 to over 8,000 in 2020, the number of irregular arrivals into Britain is less than a tenth of the 99,583 people that the International Organisation for Migration estimates made it into Fortress Europe.
July, August and September saw the most crossings last year — with 1,128; 1,473, and 1,892 respectfully.
In response to the right-wing media backlash to the crossings last summer, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the number of “illegal” crossings was “appalling and unacceptably high” and vowed to make this route into Britain “unviable.”
In August the RAF launched several surveillance flights across the Channel and, according to an FT report that month, the Home Office toyed with the idea of naval blockades and the use of wave machines to push the boats back to France.
On several occasions that month, The Civil Fleet spotted a drone (with tail number G-TEKV) patrolling the waters in the Straight of Dover on the free flight scanning website Flight Radar.
The Civil Fleet sent an FOI request to the Home Office in August asking the following:
• how many drones has the UK Border Force been using or chartering in the English Channel since December 2019 to August 2020,
• which companies have supplied the drones,
• when did contracts with these companies begin, and
• how much has been paid to these companies for these contracts since January 2019?
It took until November for the Home Office to reply.
“We neither confirm nor deny whether we hold the information that you have requested about numbers of drones,” the Home Office said in its response.
Its justification for withholding the information was due to the supposed potential for the disclosure to result in crime. The Home Office did not specify what these crimes could — nor who the victims would — be.
Asylum seekers crossing borders, “illegally” or not, is not a crime, as Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention makes clear.
The government’s contract finder service shows that drones were supplied by Portuguese firm Tekever Ltd from November 21, 2019 to March 31, 2020 – the contract valued from “£0 to 1bn.”
The Home Office told The Civil Fleet it could not reveal exactly how much public money was spent on the contract because “release of the withheld information would provide [Tekever’s] competitors with information, not available to them by any other means, about current service providers.
“This would create an unfair advantage resulting in a prejudice to the commercial interests of the company concerned.”
It claimed disclosure would also prejudice the Home Office’s commercial interests by “damaging commercial relationships with contractors and service providers” and concluded “that the balance of the public interest lies in maintaining the exemption and withholding the contract value information.”
The Home Office doubled down on March 5, 2021 after The Civil Fleet put in a request for an independent review into its decision not to provide the value of the contract.
However, the reviewer did accept that the “disclosure of this information would help the public to assess whether or not the Home Office is getting best value for money in terms of its contracts with private providers and partner agencies.”
In July 2020 the government announced that it had awarded a £990,000 contract in February 2020 to Israeli defence company Elbit Systems UK to develop drones for coastal surveillance operations.
The EU has been more forthcoming about its work with Tekever in the past, costing a two-year AR5 drone maritime surveillance contract with the European Maritime Safety Agency at €77 million (£66m) in 2018.
A video posted to the Home Office’s twitter feed last September suggests the true purpose of Tekever’s drones is to gather footage of those driving the boats in order to prosecute them.
Over footage of what appears to be one of the company’s AR5 drones — which also bears tail number G-TEKV, registered to Tekever — the government’s newly created Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney says: “The aerial surveillance that we can see here today at Lydd [airport] reflects the whole government response that we’re delivering.
“So 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.”
On March 1, the Home Office boasted that “this year nine people have now been jailed for steering small boats across the Channel.”
Drone Wars’ Peter Burt, author of Crossing A Line: The Use of Drones to Control Borders, warned of the negative human rights implications that come from using military technology at the border and of viewing the people crossing them as a threat.
“What is increasingly clear is that such technology is no longer just being used for surveillance and control overseas,” Mr Burt told The Civil Fleet.
“Britain’s military drones are now being deployed on the home front where they are first being deployed against minorities such as refugees fleeing conflict and oppression. But unless we act now, they will eventually be used to spy on us all.”
Jacob Berkson, an activist from the refugee distress hotline network Alarm Phone, told The Civil Fleet: “It’s difficult to know where to start with such disgusting behaviour.
“It’s an expenditure of more than £100,000 per person being handed to the same ‘private’ enterprises who profit from the manufacture of the weapons that cause people to flee.
“It neatly illustrates how the trade in border securitisation goes hand in glove with the trade in weapons and is no more than a trade in death.
“It’s naked corruption, distorting UK society for the profit of the very few, but more importantly generating those profits at the expense of people’s lives.
“These unimaginable sums of money should be spent on facilitating people’s right to move and right to stay by repairing the damage caused by centuries of slavery and decades of wars.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “The people we work with in Calais are not a military enemy. They are farmers, families and students who are simply asking for our help.
“They are running from the most dangerous regimes in the world.
“Flying expensive drones over the Channel will not stop them coming because they feel they have no choice. There is no way for them to claim UK asylum other than risking their lives in a flimsy boat.
“The government is wasting taxpayers money while failing to protect some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.”