The United Kingdom Is Using Drones to Help Stop Human Trafficking from Entering Their Country

© Kim Traynor

Due to its secretive nature, there is no way to compile precise numbers on human trafficking around the world. But what we do know, at least in the United States and Europe, the smuggling of people across borders is on the rise. In the United Kingdom, people are illegally brought into the country by boats, automobiles, trains, small airplanes, and even on foot. Immigration responsibility falls to England’s ministerial department the Home Office. Over the last few years, the Home Office has seen an increase in immigrants being brought into England from France by crossing the English Channel. In order to curb this dangerous and illegal transportation of human beings, the Home Office has begun patrolling the Channel with drones.

While it is possible that some of the people being smuggled into the UK are looking for a better life, chances are these people are victims of serious crimes. The majority of trafficked peoples are sold into domestic work positions, hard labor, gangs, or prostitution. The traffickers skillfully manipulate their victims into subservience and a belief that they are indebted to whoever brought them across the border. On top of the dangers these victims face once they are in a new country, the journey they take can be equally unsafe.

Stretching 350 miles long and connecting Southern England with Northern France, the English Channel is the busiest shipping zone in the world. As a relatively calm and narrow water passage, many have used the Channel as a means of testing innovative ways to travel through and across water. But for traffickers, they are using vessels that simply are not safe to make the journey. Using over packed inflatable boats intended for small lakes and rivers, traffickers cross the Channel navigating through waters too rough, and around massive shipping vessels and the wakes they make. So far in 2020, the UK Home office has seen 7,532 migrants make the dangerous journey across the English Channel. Earlier this October, the body of a man trying to cross the Channel washed up on Sangatte beach in France. In response to the discovery of this poor man, the Home Office’s Immigration Minister Chris Philip said, “Yesterday’s tragic loss of life in France is a stark reminder of the perilous journey migrants face in the Channel.”

The Home Office, with help from the Ministry of Defense, has been successful in preventing further loss of life and the continuation of the enslavement of these migrants by patrolling the English Channel daily with drones. Many of the crossings happen under the cover of night with the assumption that drones will not be used to spot the traffickers. In the UK, nighttime drone flights aren’t permitted, unless you fly for the Ministry of Defense. Operating from a base office out of Lydd Airport in Kent, the Ministry of Defense’s drones have assisted in the capture of 22 traffickers crossing the Channel. For daytime operations, the Home Office has contracted drone services from Tekever.

With two main offices, one in Lisboa, Portugal and the other in Southampton, UK, Tekever specializes in military grade intelligence drones. For the Home Office, a licensed drone operator flies the Tekever AR5 over the Channel. The AR5 is a medium long range tactical drone that can fly for up to 20 hours at a time. This extended flight time positions it as a perfect maritime drone, enabling it to cross large expanses of water. As it looks like a small airplane, the AR5 is easily missed by traffickers below on the water. In combination with the Ministry of Defense, the AR5 has been vital in stopping the illegal transportation of people across the Channel.

The task force established for this mission is called the Clandestine Channel Threat Commande and it is commanded by Dan O’Mahoney. Along with Immigration Minister Philip, O’Mahoney is currently working with French authorities to expand the drone program onto the French coast. The goal is to stop the traffickers from ever entering the Channel and risking lives. For now, the drones can see into the French territory, but they have no jurisdiction there. As O’Mahoney said, “We’re using these incredible, cutting edge aircraft that are gathering images from the moment the boats are in French waters, right up to the coast of the UK. We’re gathering evidence for prosecution and intelligence as well as preserving lives. What we’re finding is that every single one of these boats has to be piloted by somebody and if you’re that person you can expect when you arrive in the UK to be arrested, prosecuted and you could to jail.” Unfortunately, the trafficking of humans is not going to simply stop. But with tools like drones, officials have a better chance of protecting the victims of human trafficking.

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