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Planes to be deployed to stop migrants heading to Britain across the North Sea under new EU plans

Jamie Johnson
Authorities are stepping up surveillance operations to identify migrants crossing the Channel - AFP

Britain, France and Belgium are planning to use surveillance airplanes to detect migrants crossing the Channel by boat.

Earlier this month, officials from each country met with Europol and the EU border security agency Frontex to draw up plans to stifle the flow of clandestine journeys across the world's busiest shipping lane.

Last year, despite a multimillion pound ‘enhanced action plan’ between Britain and France, some 3,339 people made the crossing, with 1,948 reaching the UK. This week alone, 54 people have made it to Britain, with 64 picked up by the French.

Now, officials fear the situation could get out of hand, and were left shocked when a boat carrying 14 people left from a Belgian beach for the first time, and capsized just offshore. 

“I was scared that a child would wash up on the beach. That would have been a tragedy,”  said Bram Degrieck, mayor of De Panne, where the boat was launched.

Bram Degrieck, Mayor of De Panne, stood on the beach on the Belgium coast where the first smugglers boat carrying immigrants was seized this week Credit: Jeff Gilbert

The new plan has a two pronged approach, with enhanced surveillance and more information sharing. For the first time in decades, airplanes could play a significant role in UK border security.

“We are looking at what is possible with manned and unmanned aircraft. That’s airplanes, super-drones, drones,” said Carl Decaluwé, governor of Western Flanders.

The measures have been supported by all three countries and would be paid for by the EU, through Frontex.

The advantages of planes is that they are faster and can cover more distance than drones and are often equipped with better technology.

“Sometimes with the small boats you don’t see them,” said the governor, referring to remote controlled drones. “Planes can have very good cameras.

“My target is really to hope that we have no more deaths. On Tuesday we were very lucky.”

Mr Degrieck was hopeful that the new approach could make a difference.

“It is impossible to guard our beaches 24/7. Planes make sense. Covering 70km with a plane might be good,” he said. 

“We know that this is possible and they are talking about it.”

Border Force patrols are already operating in the Channel Credit: Steve Finn

The Home Office confirmed that an official-level tripartite meeting took place on January 15 between UK, French and Belgian officials, “where improved intelligence exchange was discussed.”

A spokesperson said: “We are tackling illegal migrant crossings on all fronts with every agency including Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, NCA and policing teams working in tandem with the French and Belgian authorities.

“And it’s having an impact. The fact that the organised crime groups are changing the way they operate is evidence of this.

“That is why we have been engaging with the Belgian authorities, particularly in recent months, to support security enhancements, increase intelligence sharing and work together on criminal investigations.

“This is on top of the extra patrols on French beaches, drones, specialist vehicles and detection equipment which has already been deployed to stop small boats leaving European shores.”

But in a sprawling makeshift camp in a disused warehouse complex outside Dunkirk, the new measures are not deterring anyone.

When the Telegraph visited this week, a fight broke out and one youth used a kitchen knife to attack another boy, slashing him across his right hand. Twelve people had to separate them.

“This is no place for children,” said Omar, an Iraqi who has been in the camp with his wife and two young sons for eight months.

“We have to go by boat. We cannot stay here any longer.”

The call has already been made. A gang member in a balaclava visited the camp earlier in the week and arranged payment. €4,000 for adults. €2,000 for children.

“When I told my boys, they started crying. They are scared of the sea. We spent days in a boat crossing the Mediterranean. But to the UK, it is only four hours. We have to go.”