Home Office signs tech and data sharing deal with Frontex

The Home Office has signed a data sharing and technology-collaboration agreement with European Union (EU) border agency Frontex to crack down on small boats crossing the English Channel.

Signed on 23 February, the Home Office said the working arrangement will enhance both sides’ operational response to illegal migration by allowing for improved intelligence and information sharing, as well as collaboration on research and development (R&D) into technologies such as drones and airborne surveillance.

The agreement will also allow for enhanced operational and technical cooperation, which will include the sharing of best practice and training. In the short term, the Home Office said this could include work to analyse migratory flows across Europe and combat document fraud.

The Telegraph reported the deal will also enable Border Force officers to access live intelligence mapping of migrants’ movements across Europe, giving UK authorities eyes over the entirety of the bloc’s external borders.

“This government has a plan to break the model of the smuggling gangs, end the abuse of our asylum system and stop the boats,” said home secretary James Cleverly. “The plan is working, with crossings down by a third – but we must go further.

“Organised immigration crime and people smuggling are global challenges that require shared solutions and ambitions. Our landmark working arrangement between the UK and Frontex is another crucial step in tackling illegal migration, securing our borders and stopping the boats.”

Cleverly clarified to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the deal does not include provisions around returning migrants to other countries, adding that the government will be looking to sign separate returns agreements with more countries following the deal signed with Albania in December 2022.

Channel crossings

In 2022, a total of 45,755 people crossed the channel in small boats (the highest number since figures began to be collected in 2018), but that dropped to 29,437 in 2023.

Parliamentary research shows that while small boat crossings accounted for around a third of total asylum claims between 2018 and 2022, asylum seekers and refugees – including those coming to the UK via the government’s Ukraine and Afghan settlement schemes – represented just 21% of all immigration to the UK through 2022.

Of those that cross in small boats, 90% apply for asylum shortly after they arrive in the UK, a number that goes up to 99% over a longer period.

Following the signature of the working arrangement, Frontex and the Home Office will hold further discussions to agree on detailed cooperation and operational plans for their joint activities in the coming months and beyond.

“Working arrangements are an extremely useful tool for cooperation between Frontex and authorities of partner countries in areas of key interest related to fighting irregular migration and cross-border crimes including migrant smuggling,” said Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs.

“I am pleased that a new arrangement is being concluded with the UK ensuring an integrated border management which is efficient, sustainable and in line with international standards and EU values. I am looking forward to witnessing the signing of the working arrangement.”

The Home Office’s agreement with Frontex builds on a separate deal signed with the French government in March 2023, which also sought to improve intelligence-sharing and deploy more surveillance technologies, such as drones, to monitor borders. As part of that deal, the French authorities set up a new permanent policing unit to manage the cooperation and coordinate responses with their British counterparts.

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.

The UK’s already-extensive surveillance capabilities in the English Channel – a stretch of water just 21 miles long – include the use unmanned aerial vehicles; manned aircraft such as planes or helicopters; artificial intelligence-powered satellites; and a variety of sensors and radars.

These technologies and the data they produce are often advertised as a way of monitoring, and countering, migrant crossings in the Channel.

Lawyers, human rights groups and migrant support organisations previously told Computer Weekly 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 than in immigration and border enforcement,” said 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.”

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.

By 111 Tech

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