Sir David Davis writes on how to tackle channel crossings


As published in the Sunday Telegraph

This week’s report on the tragedy in the Channel that led to the death of 31 people and an unborn baby laid the blame on the people traffickers, of course, but also pointed an accusing finger at both the French and British coastguard services. It paints a picture of chaos in the Channel and dysfunctional behaviour by both coastguards. It is time this is put right before more lives are unnecessarily lost.

The British Government’s stance to date has been to place a large amount of weight on trying to mimic the Australian government’s undoubted success in bringing runaway illegal immigration under control. There were two halves to that policy, one very successful, the other debatable in its effectiveness. Unfortunately we copied the wrong one.

That policy was the practice of deporting illegal immigrants to Nauru as a deterrent, just as we intend to deport ours to Rwanda. It turned out to be formidably expensive, led to 2,000 cases of assault, often against children, and it is questionable whether it had any deterrent effect. The principal effect was in damaging the international reputation of the Australian government.

What did have an effect was the so-called “pushback” policy. The Australians started intercepting the people traffickers’ boats in mid-ocean, and turning them back. The ruthless people traffickers then took to scuttling the boats in front of the Australian sailors, who had no moral choice but to pick them up to prevent them drowning, thereby taking responsibility for them. So, the Australian government started bringing their own inflatables along, with just enough fuel to safely get back to Indonesia, putting the migrants in them, and pointing the way home. That worked. After a short period of enforcing this policy, the people trafficking industry started to wither, as their “clients” – more accurately victims – discovered that their journey was bound to fail.

It is this policy that we should have sought to emulate, but it would require a degree of sophistication that the Home Office has been unable to demonstrate for decades. It would require a level of surveillance over the Channel that does not currently exist.

There is a paradox here. Currently Frontex, the European border agency, has incredibly sophisticated surveillance aircraft flying over the Mediterranean, maintaining surveillance on people traffickers attempting to cross from North Africa into Europe. These aircraft carry synthetic aperture radar, long-range optical and infrared cameras, and equipment that detects mobile phones. All of this kit can look beyond the coast into the North African country involved. This data is streamed back to the headquarters in Warsaw in real time, where it is integrated and used to direct ships to intercept the traffic.

The ironic paradox is that a number of these aircraft, the majority, are provided by a British contractor, and a similar service could easily be put in place over the Channel.

The French will not do it, as it is said that they claim that their privacy laws prevent it. That might bring a wry smile to the face of any French privacy campaigners, given the history of the French state in such matters. It sounds like an excuse to do nothing, but never mind. We could do it for them. A surveillance aircraft flying in British or international airspace would be able to look into France and detect any groups of people making their way to the coast, and certainly detect them leaving on the routes that the traffickers use. We could easily notify the French police in plenty of time for them to intercept them.

Since the primary driver for any government agency should be safety, no matter the nationality, the French coastguard should intercept these fragile inflatables crowded with people before they enter the major sea lanes that run down the middle of the English Channel. They are about five miles off the French coast and are among the busier sea lanes in the world.

If they do not fulfil their responsibility to prevent this dangerous traffic, we should intervene ourselves. We should meet these boats at the halfway point and turn them back. This is exactly what Frontex has been doing in the Mediterranean for some time. It has been criticised by some NGOs who have claimed that some of the vessels have sunk after being turned back, and this has made it hesitate in pursuit of that policy. We can preempt that problem by taking a leaf out of the Australian book, replacing any vessels that are unseaworthy with inflatables of our own, with just enough fuel to get to the French coast. We could install transponders on the vessels, so that we could track them and recover or destroy them if need be.

The French government might kick up a fuss, but if we give it the data on the traffickers early it is of course open to it to perform its own intervention. If it fails to act, some might infer that such inaction is deliberate. So long as we ensure the seaworthiness of the boats we will be improving the safety of the migrants, without conceding the right to enter our waters. We could also point out that this is the same strategy that the European agency Frontex itself has pursued, presumably with implicit or explicit approval from the French government, since some of its work protects the French Mediterranean coast from people trafficking.

Such a policy of pushback in the Channel, effectively implemented, would destroy the traffickers’ business model, just as the Australian policy did. It might not be as high profile as the Rwanda “strategy”, but it is many times more likely to succeed. When we have a new prime minister in September, I hope that it will be among the first things to enter their in-tray. They will then be able to deliver on one of the most fundamental promises made in the last election: control of our borders.