Inside the control room that sends drones to catch Channel people smugglers

A people smuggler has been jailed after being captured on camera by a drone – as Sky News was given exclusive access to the base where the aircraft is sent out to catch traffickers.

Rebwar Ahmed, a 36-year-old Iraqi national, was handed a 31-month prison sentence after admitting a charge of assisting unlawful immigration into the UK.

A drone captured him trafficking 20 migrants across the English Channel from France on a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB).

Pilots operate the drones from a control room at Lydd Airport in Kent
Image: Pilots operate the drones from a control room at Lydd Airport in Kent

The boat was subsequently intercepted by a Border Force cutter and those on board were brought to Dover in Kent.

Ahmed’s sentencing at Canterbury Crown Court marks the first time drone footage has helped convict a criminal moving people from France to the UK.

Sky News has witnessed first hand how the Home Office and Ministry of Defence is using the equipment to snare traffickers from a base at Lydd Airport in Kent.

From the control room pilots comb the Channel to try to capture video evidence of illegal crossings and specifically the criminals facilitating them.

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Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, told Sky News in his first broadcast interview the level of crossings is “completely unacceptable” and stressed the importance of these operations.

He 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.

Rebwar Ahmed was handed a 31-month prison sentence
Image: Rebwar Ahmed was handed a 31-month prison sentence
Ahmed used was captured smuggling migrants across the Channel on a small boat
Image: Ahmed was captured smuggling migrants across the Channel on a small boat

“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.”

Since operations began in June 2020, the Home Office has convicted 22 individuals for people trafficking by surveillance evidence from drones.

Overnight the Ministry of Defence fly their unmanned aircraft, whilst in the day a commercial company, Tekever, contracted by the Home Office, use the Tekever AR5 drone to scour the Channel.

Internal drone pilot Kane Morris says on more than 60% of missions that are flown migrants are found on small vessels.

He said: “We fly here five days a week, eight hours a day, searching for any crossings on the English Channel which is pretty much safety of life at sea, to make sure that anyone who is crossing the Channel is found, identified and to see if they’re in distress before getting them to the coastguard safely.”

Dan O'Mahoney is seen standing in front of two drones at the base in Kent
Image: Dan O’Mahoney is seen standing in front of two drones at the base in Kent

He added: “A lot of the time we do detect these vessels coming across that are unaccounted for and no one is aware of them, as soon as we do it’s out how to report it straight back to Dover. We don’t hesitate, we don’t stutter, it is what we’re tasked to do and we’re all very experienced people to do that.”

This is a sign the government are investing more resources in trying to disrupt traffickers but there is still concern that the French have still to play a full part in this endeavour.

Dan O’Mahoney, right, is the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander
Image: Dan O’Mahoney, right, is the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander

French authorities haven’t yet given permission for the drones to operate on their shores, which would be a major leap forward in the type of intelligence gathering which could stop people traffickers before they have a chance to put their small boats in the water.

Mr O’Mahoney said: “The work we need to do in northern France is absolutely critical, it’s why we’re working on a daily basis with our French partners to strengthen security. If the French give us permission to fly our drones on their side of the Channel, it will be a game-changer because you can see where the migrants are on the beach and you can deploy your resources there and stop them leaving all together.”

So far this year over 6,000 people have taken the dangerously desperate journey from France to the UK via small boats on the channel.

In September more than 400 people illegally crossed on one day alone.

The military were tasked to help with this operation as demand was increasing over the summer.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said after Ahmed’s sentencing: “These people are criminals and anyone people smuggling should be in no doubt that we will ensure they face the consequences of their actions.

“We are using law enforcement and investigative tools to crack down on the criminal gangs responsible – making 50 arrests so far this year, with more planned in the future.”


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