The Royal Navy has become embroiled in a row after backing down on its role as a ‘taxi service’ for migrants in the Channel – as the number of crossings has reached more than 20,000 so far this year.
The Ministry of Defence has told ministers that Navy ships will return operational control of rescuing migrants and bringing them ashore to Border Force on January 31 ‘unless there are ministerial actions’.
It comes despite a group of migrants arriving ashore today having taken the provisional total to have crossed the Channel by boat to 20,042 so far this year – a milestone not reached until November in 2021.
The first Royal Navy ships were deployed to co-ordinate Border Force and Coastguard boats to rescue migrants in May earlier this year.
It subsequently deployed a 260ft offshore vessel and a Wildcat helicopter, along with fast training boats and inflatables, following a request from the Home Office.
However, the Royal Navy now plans to end its involvement amid accusations it failed to stop the influx of migrants and fears that its withdrawal could send a message that the issue is no longer being taken seriously.
It comes despite current armed forces minister James Heappey telling MPs in January that the Navy’s role in the Channel would continue ‘until the deterrent effect is achieved and the cross-Channel route for small boats collapses’, The Telegraph reports.
A Home Office source added: ‘The Navy would need to continue to be involved. We need to show illegal immigration is being taken seriously. What message would an ending of their involvement send to traffickers?’
But Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, slammed the Navy’s involvement as a ‘folly project’, telling The Daily Telegraph: ‘The Navy is being sucked into an operation they should never have been involved in.
Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Tyne with her support vessel on patrol in the Channel off the coast of Dover, Kent
The Border Force boat Typhoon pictured escorting 50 migrants back to Dover to be processed on June 24
Home Secretary Priti Patel (pictured) has been accused of carrying out an ‘ill thought out publicity stunt’ to tackle the migrant crisis
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee, slammed the Navy’s involvement as a ‘folly project’
‘This is not their terrain – this is Home Office, Coastguard, Border Force terrain.’
Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry, former chair of the Government’s Marine Management Organisation, told LBC that the Home Office lacked ‘a real strategy’ when requesting assistance from the Navy.
He said: ‘The Border Force has always had charge of this, the Navy has never had charge. The real problem we have got in the Channel is there has never been a real strategy.
‘What we are doing is tinkering around the edges and reinforce failure. Until we have a comprehensive review of the strategy that involves every Government department, deals with the European Convention on Human Rights and all the other legal aspects, you are never going to solve this problem.’
Former Labour armed forces minister John Spellar also said the Navy have been ‘providing a super-taxi service’ to those making the crossing.
He said: ‘I can’t see how the Navy was going to do much more than Border Force except that they have bigger vessels and more assets.
‘I would say Border Force should retain control, with the Navy giving them assistance.’
And speaking to BBC Radio 4 today, he added: ‘We are at record numbers already and it was always going to be that. They [the Home Office] were never clear what the Navy was supposed to do.
Pictured: A Royal Navy vessel tows boats thought to be used by migrants as they are brought in to Dover in May
At least 20,000 Channel migrants have arrived in the UK this year – a milestone not reached until November in 2021
An inflatable craft carrying migrants crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel earlier this month
‘The image that they tried to project that they would push back boats. That was clearly against long-standing international law of the sea, as was made clear to us in evidence even from the defence ministers at the select committee.
‘This never made any sense, but what it did do is divert Navy personnel at a time when we’re undermanned in the Navy. Also, with the international situation, there’s increased activity in the North Atlantic from the Russians. That’s what the Navy should be focused on, not this ill thought out publicity stunt.’
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership hopeful Liz Truss has vowed to continue deploying the Royal Navy to tackle people making crossings of the English Channel in small boats if she becomes the next prime minister.
Ms Truss said the Navy would ‘absolutely’ continue to play a role when asked by reporters in Scotland ahead of the latest hustings in the Tory leadership race.
She added: ‘It is an absolute priority to make sure we deal with the issue of small boats and the appalling trade by people traffickers.
‘And I will use every tool at my disposal, if I am selected as prime minister, to make that happen.’
Liz Truss during a campaign visit to the BenRiach Distillery in Speyside today, where she said the Navy would continue deployment in the Channel if she become prime minister
An MoD spokesperson said: ‘As planned, defence support to the Home Office will continue until January 2023, at which point the operational and wider arrangements will be reviewed.
‘We are working across Government to ensure the conditions are set for defence to hand the task back to the Home Office following the review, this includes supporting training and capability development.’
Yesterday, the Daily Mail revealed that more than 4,000 Albanians had successfully made the trip due to new tactics by people-trafficking gangs in the Balkans and weaknesses in Britain’s ‘modern slavery’ laws.
Ministers fear the surge will push this year’s number of small boat arrivals far beyond the record 28,500 seen in 2021.
Once they arrive in the UK, Albanians are claiming to have been trafficked or exploited, making it harder to remove them.
The Navy coordinates Border Force and Coastguard boats to rescue migrants and bring them ashore as part of its ‘command and control’ role.